The Sea Otter e-bikes program for veterans

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E-bikes and the Sea Otter Classic have had a long relationship dating back to the first e-MTB race held here in 2016. Five years later, while e-bike racing continues to grow, the event is also featuring e-bikes for a greater good.

Looking to further engage in the community during the pandemic, the Sea Otter Classic Foundation donated two Pegasus Premio city e-bikes to the Veterans Transition Center of Monterey County in April. The center, which helps veterans dealing with anything from homelessness to substance abuse, then presented the e-bikes to two individuals based on need and progress in its program to use as transportation.

The initial success of the program has the foundation expanding fundraising plans to donate more e-bikes next year.

“When we were there providing the two bikes, one of the veterans that was a recipient said, ‘This is a game-changer for me,'” said Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), a VTC Advisory Board member.

“He said from Marina to Monterey is a significant clip for him. And after he took a ride on the bike, he said, ‘This is now not a problem. It takes away a hurdle in my life, and I have so many hurdles that I have to deal with regarding transportation.'”

Panetta was back in town last month as the official starter of the Sea Otter Classic E-MTB race Oct. 8. He became active in the VTC after returning from active duty in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom with the Naval Reserve.

He’s a firm believer in the VTC’s mission.

“What you have to realize is some of these veterans, for unfortunate circumstances, may not have a license,” Panetta said. “They may not have access to a car. They might have to rely on a bus to get them from A to B. (E- bikes) give them that sense of independence in which they can go beyond the corner store and use it for transportation. It provides them that sense of freedom that they’re yearning to get back.”

County program matches donations

The foundation’s e-bike plan began in earnest when it reached out to the nonprofit Community Foundation of Monterey County and its annual Monterey County Gives program. The annual program solicits proposals from nonprofits for annual campaigns. It matches 30% of the money raised.

“The mission of the foundation has always been focused on veterans and kids,” said the Foundation’s executive director, Jeff Lindenthal. “The emphasis on both grew out of Sea Otter. The military community is a huge contributor to this event in terms of providing volunteers.”

In fact, Sea Otter Classic’s director, Frank Yohannan, who served 22 years in the Marines and as a lieutenant colonel before teaching at the Naval postgraduate school in Monterey, noted the event’s registration program is largely operated by the local Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center.

That so many veterans volunteer at Sea Otter is not a surprise when considering it’s held in an area steeped in military history. Nearby Fort Ord, now the Fort Ord Monument, in its heyday was home to upward of 50,000 troops and served as a staging area for Korean and Vietnam war soldiers during its nearly 80 years as an active base.

“In some cases, they are fulfilling community service requirements,” Lindenthal said of the volunteers. “In all cases, their hours contribute to a financial grant that the foundation makes to charitable organizations on base. The Naval postgraduate school has a cycling club, so they’re here raising money for their cycling club by providing volunteers. … With nothing happening during the pandemic, we looked at the veterans’ aspect of our mission.”

Bikes for veterans a long-standing goal

Yohannan said one of the classic’s aims from the beginning in 1991 was to encourage the active duty, retirees, and other veterans to get on bikes to experience the picturesque Monterey County area. Now, the foundation’s mission takes that further in conjunction with the center’s aim to end homelessness among veterans in the county. The center aids that quest with housing, job-skill training, and medical services. With transportation also being a need, Lindenthal said providing e-bikes fit the cause.

“I knew transportation was an issue,” he said. “A lot of these guys and gals don’t have vehicles. And it’s relatively flat in Marina, but it’s windy, and I thought an e-bike would be a really accessible form of transportation that also would overcome the challenges associated with weather, wind, fog and what have you.”

The foundation submitted its application to Monterey County Gives and it was accepted, and $5,638 in donations and matched donations later, Bulls Bikes, Pegasus’ U.S. distributor, provided the bikes at a discount.

“As the e-bike community started growing and continues to grow, it made sense to do this,” Yohannan said. “And to Jeff’s credit, he’s the one who said ‘Frank we really should get some e-bikes out there to the Veterans Transition Center.'”

Lindenthal said the foundation has been selected for a second year, and the fundraising received a boost at the classic with the selling of 1,000 $15 steel pint cups, including the first Sierra Nevada beer. The cups sold out early Sunday, and the project raised $10,000.Lindenthal said the 2022 goal is $20,000 raised and the donation of at least eight more e-bikes.

“There’s definitely a need for them,” Lindenthal said of e-bikes. “They had last year more than 100 people in their housing program, which includes veterans and their families. And this year they were awarded a federal grant to allow them to buy more housing at the Fort Ord National Monument.”

Part of Yohannan’s quest while making his rounds to Sea Otter booths was to get the word out to brands about the program, its benefits, and to secure more e-bikes.

Networking “is one of Frank’s strong suits,” Lindenthal said. “Along with our director of sponsorship, Kathy Giger, both of them are going to approach some of the companies.”

While involved with the VTC from the start, Panetta also also has become a champion in Washington, D.C., for e-bikes for transportation, co-sponsoring the Electric Bicycle Incentive Kickstart Act (E-BIKE ACT). Among other benefits, it would create a tax credit for the purchase of an e-bike.

“Growing up around here, and being close to Fort Ord, you realize we have a large veteran community,” Panetta said. “We have a number of military installations that are still active here. It was important to serve our veteran community but also to see the veterans that needed that extra help.”

Bulls Bikes, a Sea Otter Classic sponsor, said it is open to participating in the program next year and values the impact it has had on the VTC.

“As much as e-bikes are fun, e-bikes are far more important to many people,” a Bulls Bikes spokesperson said. “In the e-bikes for vets program, we see the vital nature of providing e-bikes to our unhoused neighbors, particularly those who have served our country so selflessly. We feel e-bikes represent a huge step toward self-sufficiency and independence, and we are proud to partner to make this happen.”