Elizabeth “Liz” Hernandez is one of the most passionate and inspiring cyclists and bike advocates I know. I first met Liz around 2012, when she was a student at Pajaro Valley High School. At that point, I was running youth programs for Bike Santa Cruz County, and I gave a presentation to her Bike Tech class about our advocacy work, for climate change and sustainable transportation, and Bike the Bay, our annual Memorial Day Weekend ride from Santa Cruz to Monterey. After some deliberation, Liz joined us on that 100+ mile journey, and returned to participate in many other group rides including a bikepacking trip to Butano State Park and a visit to the San Francisco Bike Music Festival. Liz went on to attend UC Davis, where she studied sustainable agriculture and education, cycled Davis’s world-class bike paths, and volunteered with the Davis Bike Barn. After graduation, Liz has gone on to work with several local nonprofits, including Regeneración Pajaro Valley, and is currently an AmeriCorps Climate Corps fellow teaching garden education at Amesti and Radcliffe elementary schools in Watsonville. Bikes and sustainable transportation advocacy continue to motivate Liz; she recently joined the Santa Cruz County Bicycle Advisory Committee as an alternate representative for District 4. She also serves on the Watsonville Climate Action committee and is a stakeholder for the city’s Vision Zero and Active Transportation plans. I recently sat down to catch up with Liz, and hear more about how she got her start, how biking connects to her amazing work with food systems and climate justice, and her plans for Bike Month in May.
What do you enjoy most about biking?
That’s a great question! Biking always brings me back to when I first started. I was 16, and it gave me this amazing sense of freedom; a feeling that, if I have my bike, I can do anything, I can go anywhere! And the best part was that, because of Bike Tech, I knew how to fix it in case there were any problems or issues.
Since I’ve been driving a car to take me longer distances, I’ve noticed that when I hop onto the bike, I take in more of my surroundings. I notice things that I might not have seen in a car: cool insects, roadside flowers, or just paying attention to people more. Hills and terrain, too! In a car, it’s doing the work for you, but on a bike, once you start breathing a little harder, it’s like “OK, yep, this is going uphill!”
Biking gives me mental clarity as well. I could be having such a stressful day, and I can go biking and I start feeling the fresh air on my face; I’m exercising, my heart is pumping, and everything is great!
Tell me more about how you got into biking.
A lot of it is because I had influencers, one of them being Kirk Bernhardt (Mr. B), the Bike Tech teacher at PV High, and—there was this other guy, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him? His name’s Tawn … (Laughter)
I joined the Bike Tech class because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could work with tools and fix bikes, and that I can do anything a young man can do. Once I started learning about using tools and the mechanics of the bicycle, I was amazed, it was fascinating. I thought “I can see myself working in a bike shop someday.” I even built up a bike in class that I still ride to this day, and I encouraged other young women to join the class and ride their bikes to school. Sometimes, I’d ride to school in a dress or in heels to prove that you can do it. Young women would ask me about it, and I would say, “Yes, you can actually ride in a dress, there are bikes that are designed for that.” I also taught bike repair and the love of bikes to my younger siblings—my little sister recently took Bike Tech at PV High with Lorenzo Holquin, and gained many of the same benefits I did.
When you came in to talk to the class, you mentioned Bike the Bay. I was like, “OK, that sounds cool, but I have a big track meet that weekend where I’m almost guaranteed to win a medal with my relay team.” I was one of the top students in the class, and Mr. B talked with me about the ride after class was over, and said, “So, you’d rather get a medal, this thing to hang on your wall, than go on this life-changing experience?” After deliberating, I made the wise choice of going on Bike the Bay, and fell even more in love with bikes, and with someone who had also joined the ride—Chris, and we’re now celebrating seven years together as of March 25th!
Liz and Chris (far left) and the 2015 Bike the Bay riders
Wow, that’s right! Congratulations!
Thank you! It was that great experience of riding as a group, and being challenged to ride for so far and for so many hours. It was so incredible, because it just grew a stronger passion for biking and that feeling that, “You know what, a bike can take me anywhere, I can do anything!” It was all of those Bike Santa Cruz County trips—going bike camping at Pescadero, going to the San Francisco Bike Music Festival, returning for more Bike the Bay rides—all of those adventures inspired me to be even more into nature and sustainable transportation. Now, I’m a strong advocate for the community, wanting to represent Watsonville and South County.
Chris, Liz and some of the 2013 Butano bikepackers
Yes, you are doing a lot for the Watsonville community. How do bikes connect to your work right now?
With Regeneración, I’ve been helping to outreach to farm workers and the general community about extreme weather and heat stress, including some radio interviews and other means. Regeneración is all about environmental justice and climate education, and I always bring up sustainable transportation. Same when I’m teaching in the Life Lab—it can be hard to address climate change when you are talking to a kindergartener, but the kids see me riding my bike to work. They say, “Whoa, that’s you biking? You biked all the way here?! I want to do that too!” I try to bring in that inspiration, with them getting to see me in action, and I tell them that they can too, and that biking is great for them, for their bodies, and for the world.
Climate change is the huge issue of our time. Through sustainable transportation, there can be more bikes and less cars, and less pollution that ends up in our food system. Climate change makes it warmer, and leads to extreme weather and heat stress for our farm workers, so crop yields will also be impacted. It’s affecting everyone, and all of these factors are interconnected—if you damage one thing, it all gets worse. Bikes are one of the solutions, and they can also help address the high rates of obesity and the other chronic health issues that plague low-income communities.
What other connections have you found between sustainable agriculture and sustainable transportation?
The trips we took where we carried our own food and stopped to refuel with healthy snacks were an eye-opener for me. I loved stopping at Swanton Berry Farm on our bike camping trip to Butano. We need healthy food in order to bike and have the energy to do so. If I’m just eating burgers and pizza and stuff, that’s not going to motivate me to ride my bike; I’d probably say, “You know what, I think I’m going to take the car instead.” Watsonville is such an agricultural town. I want healthy food to be more equitable and accessible in our community. We grow so much amazing food, but that food doesn’t come locally to us. It’s unaffordable even though we help grow it.
What are other visions that you have for Watsonville?
Living in Davis, bike lanes were everywhere, cyclists had enough space to navigate roads, and drivers were very respectful of the 3-foot rule. I wish there were more awareness of what bicycles can do for us; riding a bicycle is so beneficial not only to ourselves, but also to our community and the world. I wish there were more accessibility and equity—bicycles can be very unaffordable.
In Santa Cruz, JUMP bikes were a hit, and then the pandemic happened. I always wonder, why don’t we have those JUMP bikes here? I’ve seen so many farm workers trying to ride a bike to work. How great would it be if they had access to electric bicycles, and they didn’t have to put that much effort into getting home by bike after working 10+ hours in the fields?
I definitely want to see more bike lanes—I’ve seen a few here and there, but I live on the outskirts of Watsonville and I hardly see any bike lanes here, and the roads can be super treacherous. Sometimes I don’t even want to ride my bike because the road surface is so bad and the roads are so narrow. The potholes! It’s even bad in a car with really good suspension. Sometimes, even on the roads where we do have bike lanes, the bike lane just suddenly ends.
Where are your favorite places to ride?
I love riding out on Pioneer Road, or in Nisene Marks under the redwoods, and there is, of course, the coastal trail in Monterey. I haven’t been to the new Rail Trail in town, but I went by the new pump track at Ramsay Park—that is sick! I’d also love to do Bike the Bay again soon, that ride is so inspiring; but life happens, you’re not a kid anymore. It takes time to train for riding that far. One day, maybe I can lead a group of youth on that ride!
That would be amazing! What would you say to someone who hasn’t been on a bike in a while or is thinking about trying it out?
If you have the bike, or can borrow a bike, use it, and see how many benefits it is going to give you. It just gives you so much joy. You can have the worst day, and you get on your bike, and you start breathing better. You start releasing stress. You start appreciating nature more. It’s proven that exercise helps with depression, it changes your mood and makes you feel better.
I know right now that we’re all going through a lot with the pandemic, and there is still a lot of possibility of biking around this community. Even not trying to ride for long distances, even if it’s just for a little bit of time—a 20-minute bike ride can change your mood and give you a more positive outcome for your day.
Thank you, Liz! What are your plans for Bike Month in May?
Bike Month has so many great incentives and prizes. I miss tabling for Bike Santa Cruz County on Bike to Work Day—it was such a great way to build community, meet other cyclists, and even network a little.
Don’t worry, Bike to Work will be back in the Fall! Perhaps you can be one of our Bike Ambassadors?
That’s pretty much what I already do, but let’s make it official, then I can put it on my resume! I am excited to log my rides for the Bike Challenge in May—I wasn’t able to do it last year, but I still rode a lot. I’m going to work on signing up our AmeriCorps Life Lab educators, there are eight of us that I want to get riding.
Any final thoughts?
Yes, I want to dedicate this interview to those who have given me life-changing experiences in sustainable transportation, environmental education, and climate action! Shout out to Pajaro Valley Bike Tech, Bike Santa Cruz County, Bike Church, Regeneración, Life Lab, Ecology Action, family, and friends.
You can join Liz and hundreds of other community members for the Bike Month Challenge this May. To sign up, and find out about all of our Bike Month events and offerings, head to ecoact.org/bikemonth