Miss Liza goes to Washington

14-year-old biking to D.C. in support of electric vehicles

In many respects the 2008 Stoner family summer vacation might sound like any other Southwest Minneapolis family trip. They’ll be heading out East for a few weeks, visiting grandparents and a few friends along the way, doing a little camping, staying in a few hotels. They’ll end up in Washington, D.C., check out our nation’s capital, do some sight-seeing. (Yawn.)

Pretty typical. Except that Liza, their 14-year-old, won’t be riding in the family vehicle. She’ll make the nearly 1,600 mile trip on her bike.

Across Wisconsin, over Lake Michigan (by ferry), south through Indiana, east across Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland and on into Washington, D.C. There, in our nation’s capital, the soft-spoken but impassioned teen plans to deliver a message. A message to Congress about electric vehicles.

The Project

A year ago this March, Liza Stoner saw the 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” and became motivated to do something. Actually, first she said she got mad..

“I remember freaking out in my basement,” Liza said, recalling a scene showing the destruction of General Motors’ fleet of EV1 battery-powered cars. “A few weeks later, I just shouted out, ‘I’m going to ride my bike all the way to Washington, D.C. for electric vehicles!’”

It might sound like the wild and reactionary response of a teenager. But Liza set to work developing a plan. A very detailed plan.

She decided to make her bike trip the centerpiece of her 8th-grade project at City of Lakes Waldorf School. Beginning last fall, she developed a presentation, picture board and slide show. Then, with a little help from her mother and a family friend skilled in graphic design, she launched Ride for Renewal (www.rideforrenewal.org) and began her petition drive in support of electric vehicle legislation. The petition calls for tax credits and incentives for companies that produce or purchase electric cars.

Heady stuff for a teenager but not terribly surprising to the woman who has been her teacher for 8 years.

“Liza has always had something of a political streak,” observed Jeannine Ouellette, who, under the Waldorf program, has followed Liza and her classmates since first grade. “And it’s totally genuine.”

The Training

But as impressive as her project was, it didn’t prepare her legs for a month of 50-mile days on her bike. How could a teenager with no significant cycling experience and just three months to train be prepared for such an effort?

Enter Gene Lew, Liza’s coach, mentor and — according to the family — “all-around cycling guru.” Lew, who was introduced to the Stoners by a mutual friend, performs custom bike fittings at Flanders Bros. Cycles and has worked in the bike industry since the mid-1980s.

He admitted to being a little skeptical at first.

“I was worried when she came to me in March that she’d be ready and fully committed.” said Lew. “Ninety-nine percent of 14-year-olds would have given up once they realized how hard it was going to be.”

But Lew soon recognized something different in Liza. It took him a moment to recall where he’d seen her when they met. Then he realized the quietly self-confident teenager had played the lead role in the Waldorf School’s performance of “Peter Pan” at the Southern Theater.

“She was fabulous. I knew then she had the kind of dedication required to do this ride,” said Lew.

Working with the family, Lew set up a weekly training regimen. Ten to 15 hours per week on the bike, longer rides on the weekend, tips regarding nutrition and bike maintenance. It was a lot to cover very quickly.

The Bike

Then there was the issue of the bike itself. Liza began training on her mom’s 1980s-era Fuji, a bike they eventually came to call the “boat anchor.”

Amy Stoner recalls seeing her daughter test riding her new Specialized Tarmac road bike on the Midtown Greenway.

“She just flew!” Amy said. “She was so excited. She yelled back to us, ‘This is awesome!’ There was no way I was keeping up with her.”

But keeping up is something Amy will need to be able to do, since she’ll be biking much of the trip, too.

“I wasn’t comfortable with her being alone out there,” said Amy. “So I plan to ride most of the way with her. My husband Jeff will ride some, too.”

The Petition

Fast forward to July. The Stoner family isn’t exactly sure when they’ll arrive in D.C. (they’re aiming for five weeks) but Liza envisions delivering a nicely bound printed copy of the names on her petition to one or both Minnesota senators. She’s hoping to collect a few thousand names by the time she arrives. Nearly 500 have already signed.

Will Steger has also signed. They received a letter of support from Mayor Rybak. And the name “Michael Moore” appears on the petition, though the Stoners can’t vouch for its authenticity (they do have a great idea for a documentary if he’s looking for one).

The Future

So, what does this ambitious 14-year-old plan to do after her eventful summer vacation?

“I think I’ll continue to be interested in electric vehicles for a while,” Liza said. “Then I’ll probably look at some other environmental issues.”

Glancing over at her mom she added, “But I think I’m really just going to try to get through 9th grade first.”

If all goes well the Stoner family will be leaving from the Minnesota Capital’s south steps today — June 16. To learn more about Liza’s trip, follow her progress and view her petition, visit www.rideforrenewal.org.