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His fight: Bike paths a right

Colombian charms as he proselytizes

Dark suit and bright tie.

Check.

Wide grin, contagious enthusiasm.

Check.

Smooching, bear hugging, and holding up kids for camera flashes.

Check.

The tall man with the mane of gray hair didn't arrive in a motorcade or walk among large men in dark glasses, but the much-anticipated visitor who stopped in last week at Roxbury's Orchard Gardens School wasn't just any VIP. He was a presidential candidate.

For Thaisha Roldan, 10, and more than a few of the 100 or so students gathered in the school auditorium, the fast-talking adult holding court before them was also an emissary from home, or at least a place their parents once called home.

''It's very nice that he came," Roldan said.

The visitor, Enrique Penalosa, a former mayor of Bogota now running for president of Colombia, came to discuss what he called a ''human rights abuse." That is, the relative lack of bike routes in cities such as Boston.

''Biking -- mobility -- is a fundamental human right," he said after spending an hour extolling the virtues of biking to a group of mainly Dominican and Puerto Rican students. ''Bike paths bring equality not only for the poor and the rich, but between children and adults."

Penalosa remained in good spirits, even though he learned the day before that his chances of winning a national election in Colombia had suddenly plummeted. (A ruling from the nation's top court meant the popular president, Alvaro Uribe, probably would be able to run for an unprecedented second term.)

Penalosa didn't dwell on politics. He offered the pupils a version of a PowerPoint presentation he delivered earlier in the day at an MIT forum on sustainable development. He skipped the slides with statistics and too much text. ''What's going to happen now that all the Indians and Chinese want cars?" he asked the students, some of whom started losing interest.

Then he showed hundreds of bikes hanging in a special garage and bridges he had built in Bogota exclusively for bicycles. The reception to his message improved.

''Whoa!" a few crowed.

They seemed especially impressed by pictures of people riding through the rain, and those with parents ferrying their children in inventive ways. When Penalosa explained how drivers are banned from using their cars in Bogota twice a week, students made strange faces and responded with a chorus of ''ew."

One boy asked how the riders avoided having their bikes stolen. ''You have to be careful," the politician responded.

Asked later how the school landed Penalosa -- he made an international name for himself after laying more than 100 miles of bike paths through Bogota -- the teacher who arranged his visit, Lisa Evans, said it took just a few e-mails.

''When I heard he was going to be at MIT, I asked if we could come," said Evans, an avid biker whose mother is Colombian. ''The contact there said no. But she said, 'How about if he comes to your school to speak?' "

Evans wanted her students to hear Penalosa, because she figured he would help motivate them to bike to school -- which she has encouraged -- and pressure Mayor Thomas M. Menino to build more bike paths around Boston.

A few days after Penalosa's visit, Evans said he helped accomplish one of her goals.

Last Monday, despite rain, several of her students arrived at school on two wheels. ''I was so proud," she said. ''This was the ultimate goal -- I didn't realize it would happen so quickly."

Now, she said, comes the harder part. Over the coming weeks, Evans plans to start a letter-writing campaign to press Menino into action.

The effort seemed to interest Emmanuel Trrero, 13, one of the sixth-graders who quietly listened to Penalosa. ''It's definitely better to bike than use a car," he said, ticking off the physical, financial, and environmental benefits he had just learned about.

But he has one problem. He doesn't have a bike; it was stolen. ''It was a good brand," he said. ''I'm afraid they'll steal it if I get a new one."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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