Written by Lucy Soto Tuesday, May 22 2012
Nicole Freedman likes being on the edge of something new. There’s something about the grit and perseverance it takes to reach a tough goal that keeps drawing her to new challenges.
That’s how she got into cycling, becoming a world champion and competing in the Olympics. That’s how she became Boston’s Bike Czar, creating a national model for community bike programs. And that’s how she now plans to transform Maine’s skiing wilderness into a mecca for outdoor recreation.
“It’s about building something,” says the Wellesley, Mass., native, who turns 40 in late May.
Freedman’s life path has been step after step of doing just that.
Her original trek took her to MIT, but she switched gears and moved across the country to Stanford when it seemed a better fit. She began running track competitively in Division 1 but says she “failed” and got left behind. Her junior year, she tried cycling.
“I did love running, and I’d loved it for 10 years or so, but cycling was it for me,” she says.
Her parents were thrilled when she graduated with a degree in urban planning, she says, and told her “get a real job.” But she was hooked to cycling. So hooked, that before her career began to take off, she spent a few years sleeping out of a 1977 Econoline van she parked in front of a friend’s house in Palo Alto, Calif. It was only just after she qualified for the Olympic team that she decided to rent a room inside the house.
Freedman collected her pro license in 1994, the same year she rode as a member of the first all-women's team to compete in the Race Across America. In the years that followed, she earned a spot on the 2000 Sydney Olympic team, became a two-time U.S. National Champion and won more than 40 professional races. In and amongst all of that, she created her own coaching service and helped manage teams.
Fast forward to 2006. That year, Bicycling magazine named Boston one of the worst cities for bikers. It was the city’s eighth consecutive year on that list. It was a turning point for Boston - and for Freedman. It was the same year she was dealing with what to do with the rest of her life.
Reaching the end of her bicycling career was a “depressing period,” she recalls.
“The only job I qualified for is one that said ‘costume provided,'” she jokes. “It was definitely a bleak period. I moved back to Boston” and a friend connected her with a job working for a city-wide bike race called Hub on Wheels, which showcases Boston’s diverse neighborhoods and greenways.
She was doing research and consulting in that job, when Mayor Thomas Merino, who had recently jumped on his new Trek bike and gotten into the sport himself, decided it was time to change Boston’s awful biking reputation. He offered Freedman the job as director of Boston Bikes. Racing, marketing, promotion, planning: She knew the stuff cold. She quickly became known as the Boston Bike Czar.
In five years, Freedman helped shift Boston’s bicycle culture. She led the way to adding 50 miles of bike lanes, installing 850 bicycle racks, creating a bike-sharing community program allowing riders to rent bikes all over the city and more.
“Nicole has worked on a number of projects that helped make Boston a more livable and inviting city,” Jonathan Simmons, an avid cyclist and the Boston Globe’s “On Biking” guest columnist wrote recently. “She helped organize the best ride in town (Hub On Wheels), made sure that Hubway (Boston’s bike-sharing program) flourished, advocated for improved access to bicycles for underserved communities, coached the MIT women’s cycling team, made sure that over 1,500 bicycle parking spaces were added in just the past three years and helped organize an integrated network of bike lanes – 50 miles and counting.”
It’s all paid off. Last year, Bostonians took 142,000 rides through Hubway. That averaged out to 1,150 per day. That year, Bicycling magazine again included Boston on an annual list – of one of the country’s best bicycling cities. Cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco are following Boston’s model.
This “bicycle friendly” designation is one that more and more cities across the country are coveting. Urban regions from Denver to Washington, D.C., have created bike-share programs. The League of American Bicyclists has named more than 150 cities Bicycle Friendly Communities.
Earlier this year, the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation gave a $20,000 grant to the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition to go after one of the League’s designations. It’s using the money to create a bike share program in the city of Atlanta and its neighbor Decatur. Two area universities already have recognition: The League recognized Georgia Institute of Technology as a silver-level bike friendly university in March. Emory University has a bronze ranking.
Freedman says the first thing she did when she became Bike Czar was reach out to other leading bike cities. The first key to success is having a willing and enthusiastic mayor, she said. “Number two: There is no magic bullet. You need to do it all, and do it well - education, policy and enforcement. It has to be an effort on every level.”
The benefits go beyond health. It also hits the core of cities trying to enliven their economy, keep and attract young professionals and re-invent themselves.
“Cities are competing for the creative class economy,” Freedman says. “ Sustainability and being outdoors and fit is important, and that’s part of the package that’s going to attract and retain the new creative class.”
In Maine, Freedman is already energized about her new challenge. She waxes poetic about the gorgeous wilderness in the western mountains and the “off the charts” skiing. “When you look at this area of Maine, it’s an untapped natural resource on par with Tahoe and southern Utah. It has a potential to have this world-class eco destination.”
Bob Peixotto, chief operating officer of L.L. Bean, has that same idea. As chairman of Maine Huts & Trails for the past six years, he says the nonprofit statewide group has an “audacious vision” for connecting the state with a series of cozy outdoor lodges and huts to create a four-season outdoor adventure destination. Today, there are 50 miles of trails and three huts, and he wants Freedman to help eventually create a total of 12 huts connected by a network of 200 miles of trails.
At first look, it might seem the urban challenge of bikes in Boston is a world away from ski trails in the wilds of rural Maine. But Peixotto says it’s the same thing. It’s “helping people enjoy healthy, recreational activities and trying to make a difference in a broad regional sense, and helping with economic vitality.”
He says after hearing Freedman through three interviews, he knew she was the right person to take over the executive director job. “I immediately saw somebody who excelled at almost everything she’s done in life and has a track record of success and adjusting when she knew she wasn’t on the right track.”
Freedman says she is excited about being on the cusp of something new, something she’s done often in her life. Her passion, it seems, is “building something and trying to achieve greatness… Trying to succeed on a really, really challenging goal.”
So, her advice for women who, like her, hit lulls, dips or bleak periods in their career?
Don’t go for the costume, she laughs. She worked with a career counselor and looked to older, more experienced mentors. “Lean on people who have gone before,” she says. “If you want to do something, get involved and do all that you can, even if it’s not for pay.”
And there’s always living in an old van. Or not.
More women-led initiatives to better their communities:
Anne Mahlum's nonprofit Back on My Feet is helping homeless individuals regain confidence and self-sufficiency through running.
Danielle Gletow founded One Simple Wish, a service that gives interested donors the chance to fulfill a foster child's dream of a small luxury - like getting their hair done for prom.
EARN is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that teaches financial literacy to low-income families and matches their savings to invest in assets like education and home ownership.
Lucy Soto worked as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution for nearly a decade. Before that she worked for the Associated Press. Born in Medellin, Colombia, she grew up in Greenville, S.C., and now chases after her four children in Atlanta.