This weekend, 20 teens will ride the 200 miles of the 2011 Group Health Seattle to Portland (STP) Bicycle Classic as part of the Major Taylor Project, a growing program to bring cycling to young people in diverse communities.

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When Francisco Juarez hopped on a borrowed bike last fall, little did he realize that nine months later, his world would expand well beyond the familiar turf surrounding his White Center home.

This weekend, the 14-year-old will be among 20 teens to ride the 200 miles of the 2011 Group Health Seattle to Portland (STP) ride as part of the Major Taylor Project.

The project’s goal is to get kids — especially minority teens who haven’t had a chance to experience cycling — involved with the sport.

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The project, named for turn-of-the-century African-American bike racer Marshall “Major” Taylor, has clubs all over the country. The program came to Seattle some years ago when Ron Sims, then King County executive, met with Cascade Bicycle Club Executive Director Chuck Ayers and encouraged him to start a Major Taylor program in King County.

With $25,000 seed money from the county, three years ago Major Taylor clubs in White Center, Columbia City and Burien started recruiting young riders. Today there are eight clubs with 180 members in King County. Former sales and marketing executive and bicycle racer Ed Ewing is the full-time project director.

It was an especially meaningful job for Ewing, 46, an African American who points out that black cyclists are a rarity. Having grown up cycling and later racing, he knows how it can build confidence.

“This project means more to me than just getting kids up on bikes,” Ewing said.

Riding with the STP’s annual 10,000 riders was never the primary goal of the clubs, he said. That idea just evolved naturally three years ago when some of those first recruits were so enthusiastic they wanted to take on the challenge of riding to Portland.

Ani Anu, 19, who came from Nigeria two years ago, was on that first STP. It was an adventure he’ll never forget.

There was the early-morning start at Husky Stadium, when bleary-eyed riders in a wild splash of colorful jerseys burst from the starting line and headed south, Anu remembers. There was the band at the REI headquarters in Kent with blaring rock music as riders stretched and ate bagels and peanut butter before riding on. And there was the dreaded steep hill in Puyallup. That was where a rider with only one leg easily pedaled past Anu.

Anu loved camping with the other Major Taylor riders at a site in Chehalis, going for a dip in the camp pool, eating fried rice from a nearby Chinese restaurant.

Linda Ba, 18, of White Center, was initially intimidated about doing her first STP three years ago. She had put in less than 100 training miles — far fewer than the recommended 1,000. She finished nonetheless.

When she graduated from Evergreen High School last month, she was touched when another student said she was inspired by Ba’s cycling diligence.

This year, her sister Zaza Ba, 16, will be doing the STP for the first time. She, too, is inspired by her sister’s perseverance.

“If you can ride 200 miles, you can do anything,” Zaza Ba said.

As for Juarez, who grew up in Mexico and later California: “I just like getting to know the neighborhood. In a car, you don’t really notice things, but when I’m on a bike, I notice different roads, a park.”

Pat Thompson, director of the Yes Foundation, a White Center nonprofit devoted to bringing positive experiences to youth, always wanted to start a bike club. So when she heard about the Major Taylor program, she began recruiting kids. The foundation started Earn-a-Bike. Teens are taught bike maintenance and work on bikes in exchange for getting one of their own. Bikes are donated by businesses.

Along the way are life lessons for those who ride, she said.

As members of the different clubs in the county for weekly rides led by adult volunteers, they come to know other neighborhoods in many ways: There are houses spilling music; the fragrances of curry or fried chicken or pancakes wafting from kitchens; vacant lots tangled with thorny canes and sweet with the smell of berries in the sun.

But most of all, say those who ride, you learn that your own determination can take you just about anywhere.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com