Teachers followed the Tour; now students reap benefits

Doug Belden
Pioneer Press

If you watched CBS coverage of the Tour de France this summer, you might have seen a short interview with two St. Paul teachers stopped on their bikes as they made their way up a road in the French Alps.

The clip shows DeWayne and Renee Combs, tired but smiling in sunglasses and biking clothes, telling the camera crew they’re following the Tour to learn all they can and bring it back to their students.

The couple, with help from a $6,000 grant, spent 2Ĩ weeks in France and went to five stages of the Tour.

This fall, they’re drawing on that experience to enhance the physical education and health curriculum at Battle Creek Middle School.

The school received 35 mountain bikes and helmets this fall from Medtronic, and DeWayne Combs has made cycling the centerpiece of a new class he’s offering called “Fit for Life.”

The elective also will expose students to golf, bowling, lacrosse and exercise machines. “That’s our goal. Lifelong sports,” DeWayne Combs said.

Renee Combs has put up newspaper clippings, posters, hats and other Tour mementos on the wall of her health class.

She draws on the race to help her teach \ talking about seven-time winner Lance Armstrong in a lesson about cancer, for example. The kids now come in on Mondays and tell her about their biking adventures during the weekend, she said. “They’re into it.”

The couple are both mountain bike racers, and they commute to school by bike, 14 miles each way from their home in Stillwater. One day last week, DeWayne Combs used his mud-splattered bike to teach students about riding in ugly conditions.

“Mountain biking can be done in bad weather,” he told them. To prove it, he took them outside to ride on a 45-degree, drizzly morning. “It’s a little cold now. But you will get warm,” he said.

The kids were supposed to practice keeping their butts off the seat on the downhill portions of a three-quarter-mile course DeWayne Combs set up on the huge fields at the school, next to Battle Creek Regional Park on the city’s eastern edge.

Seventh-grader Nick Bethel took a spill on one of the descents. “I was riding a little too fast,” he said.

Before taking the class, Nick had only been on a bike with a foot brake. Combs said about eight of the 70 kids in his classes had never been on any kind of bicycle before signing up.

Seventh-grader Samantha Olson has her own mountain bike at home, but she said she’s picking up tips from the class that even her older sister, who usually doesn’t listen to her, is paying attention to.

The Combses received a grant for the trip through the Fund for Teachers, which distributes about $50,000 annually in private and foundation money to help St. Paul teachers enhance their skills during the summer.

The experience is supposed to be used to benefit students, and one tangible benefit from the Combs’ trip is a duffel bag full of T-shirts, hats, pins and other Tour trinkets they lugged home for the kids.

DeWayne Combs said the prizes will be given out the same way colored jerseys are awarded at the Tour de France: “We’re going to start some racing.”

Doug Belden can be reached at dbelden@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5136.

The Combses

Teachers: DeWayne Combs, 42, and Renee Combs, 44

Occupations: DeWayne teaches physical education, and Renee teaches health at Battle Creek Middle School in St. Paul

Family: Five children ranging in age from 13 to 26

Home: Stillwater

Accomplishments: Traveled to the Tour de France this summer and are incorporating lessons from the bike race into fitness instruction for students