From the battlefields of Israel to the bike paths of Minneapolis, a team of self-defense instructors are teaching cyclists to protect themselves
Gail Boxrud began thinking about the need for self defense while working as a journalist in Alaska. “I covered the police and crime beat, and found myself in some scary situations,” she says. “I didn’t grow up in a martial arts family or anything like that, so I had never really knew anything about it. Then I took a Krav Maga class, realized just how intuitive and realistic it was, and I was hooked.”
Now the co-owner of Krav Maga Minneapolis and the Minnesota director of the International Krav Maga Federation, Boxrud has been training in the art for more than 14 years, and teaching for 10. In her South Minneapolis studio, she and co-owner Dante Pastrano are molding the technique to help keep Minneapolis bikers safe.
Krav Maga was developed during the 1930s to the 1950s by Imi Lichtenfeld, who moved to modern-day Israel during WWII and became the chief instructor of Krav Maga for the Israeli Defense Force in 1948. The self-defense system is designed to incorporate a person’s natural reaction to an attack, and bolsters those reactions with counterattacks. It teaches split-second response to real-world scenarios. And since it’s a modern system, it is constantly being updated and improved to address the most common attacks the public might face in their daily lives.
“We focus on where the attacks are likely to happen,” Boxrud says. “In and around your car, in your home, in public transportation, and in nightclubs, for example.” Another one of those places increasingly relevant in the Twin Cities: bike paths.
Back in 2009, a couple was out on a ride on their tandem bicycle in Minneapolis when they were accosted and chased by assailants. Though they escaped unharmed, the couple sought out self-defense training from Boxrud and Pastrano, who recognized the need for bikers to know how to protect themselves while riding. Boxrud and Pastrano met with a police officer who teaches for the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA), and eventually became certified as Security Cyclists. After, they began working on a solution to put their Krav Maga expertise on two wheels. They also got special permission from their instructors in Israel to do it.
“We didn’t create the program, but I’ve been to Israel a number of times for training and have been allowed to pass these teachings along at home,” Boxrud says. “It was important that we explained what we wanted to do and why it was important, and our instructors gave us their blessing.”
In 2012, they taught their first seminars for police and EMS at IPMBA’s annual conference in St. Paul. They have continued to teach at their annual conference most years, and have opened the training up to cyclists of all backgrounds and skill levels.
According to Boxrud, the appeal for students has been very similar, in that the martial art is effective, realistic, and intuitive for even the most novice participant.
“People really enjoy it because you don’t need a martial arts background to pick it up very quickly,” she says.
For their bicycle defense program, Boxrud and Pastrano conduct three- and four-hour seminars, applying the principles of Krav Maga to the street-smarts of being a cyclist.
Photos by Ryan Siverson
“Learning how to properly fall is part of it,” Boxrud says. “But one of the first things we teach is how to hop off your bike quickly if you are attacked. If someone wants your bike, and you are able to get off safely, you need to decide if it’s worth fighting for. We always say that nothing that can be replaced is worth risking your safety. However, if someone is interested in attacking you, that’s when the training comes in.”
Aside from learning how to fall, the seminars teach self-defense skills on foot, riding skills, mounting and dismounting the bike, how to reduce the chances of injury from falling or being pushed off the bike, along with self-defense skills in all those situations. They also teach how to use the bike to your advantage, as a shield and to escape.
So the question is—does it actually work?
Marc Cohen, a student-turned instructor at Krav Maga Minneapolis, is a long-time martial artist and avid cyclist. He says that the skills he learned in the bike-specific seminar have benefited him on multiple occasions.
“I’ve been riding my bike on the Greenway and had people throw bottles at me; I’ve been pushed on my bike. But in both of those situations I was able to get away,” he says, crediting his training. And it’s not just self-defense scenarios when his skills have kept him safe. “The biggest benefit for me has been learning how to properly fall. For example, one time I was riding and had to swerve to avoid running into a woman with a baby. Fortunately, I knew how to do a front roll off of my bike and pop back up like ‘Huzzah!’ instead of breaking my collarbone.”
Cohen says that while he feels more confident knowing he has the skills to defend himself, there is still no substitute for basic biker safety.
“I tell people to ride in groups, because it makes you less of a target,” he says. “It’s important not to put yourself in a bad situation if you can avoid it.”
Boxrud herself says she only knows of a few students who have needed to use the skills they learned at Krav Maga Minneapolis to fend off carjackers, kidnappers, and other sorts of assailants—and that makes her very happy.
“With all of our classes, no news is good news,” she says. “If someone doesn’t come back and tell us they got attacked, we take that as a sign they have been able to keep themselves safe. We’ve had a handful of people who have said they almost had to use it, but once they find themselves in that situation and assume their fighting position, the attacker can sense the confidence and typically backs down. That’s one of the greatest benefits of Krav Maga: the confidence it allows you to have in knowing you have the ability to protect yourself.”
Boxrud says they are continuing to find new scenarios and practical applications of the martial arts, in order to help people feel confident and safe. For now, they continue to offer the bicycle-specific seminars approximately six times a year, with the next session scheduled for early August.
“The motto of the founder of Krav Maga is, ‘So that one may walk in peace,’” says Boxrud. “The motto for Krav Maga on Bicycles is, ‘So that one may ride in peace.’”