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Small People on Bikes

Cy Whitling

Show me your mountain biker faces!

Show me your mountain biker faces!

She’d had never gone mountain biking on a real mountain before. Both she and her older sister were very adamant about it. The tires of her tiny-yet-somehow-still-too-big bike had never touched real mountain dirt before. But she’d helped split wood the day before, so her arms were feeling super strong. A nearly month-long drought had finally broken the night before and the trails were in perfect condition, you could smell the moist earth from the parking lot. And now, eight weeks into Sprockids, she was about to go real mountain biking. On a real mountain, with cool views of other real mountains to look at. She was a little excited, I was a lot more excited.

Eight weeks ago we’d had our first meeting. Fortyish kids, and not enough adults running wild at the Victor Bike Park. We’d started off with maybe too much energy. Nobody wanted to listen to anyone, the older boys just wanted to go hit dirt jumps, and the younger kids just wanted to avoid making eye contact or having to talk to anyone. That first week is a blur, I remember making a lot of animal noises, making some kids do a lot of pushups, trying to figure out who the troublemakers were, who I could trust, who actually had to go to the bathroom and who just wanted to slow the group down.

I left that first practice excited, exhausted, and hoarse. I wasn’t sure I was actually a mountain bike coach, or a program leader, or whatever I was pretending to be. I was just a hairy guy with no kids, and little experience with kids, yelling at a pack of yahoos in the park. The summer before I’d helped coach two weeks of mountain bike camp, and I’d fallen in love with it. It was the highlight of my summer, and I’d resolved to coach more the next year, even though I wasn’t quite sure how to do it yet. Then, in one of the most serendipitous weeks of my life, I walked home from my last day at my real, fancy, adult job, and the next day, walked into the MBT office to ask if they wanted any help from a lanky guy who liked riding bikes with kids.

From there, everything moved quickly. We met with parents, came up with a rough gameplan, and then I flew to California to learn how to coach kids with a bunch of other people. I came home excited and frustrated. I felt like a lot of people I took the training with were in it for weird reasons, trying to foster future olympians with regimented ride schedules and fixed diets from a young age, or trying to further their streetcred as a real housewife / philanthropist. I wondered how you’re supposed to deal with kids when you can’t deal with the fact that the only non-dairy milk substitute at the gas station is almond-based?

But back home in Teton Valley things started snapping into place. We had enthusiastic parents who wanted to make this happen. We had a board who wanted to push a youth program, and we had a community that was just excited to get more kids on bikes. We hashed out the details, the age groups, the schedule, the practice facilities, and then we finally opened registration. I’d designed fancy posters to hang all around town, I was worried we wouldn’t have enough kids interested to be worth running the program, so I was ready to drum up support. We sold out the 30 person program in four hours. Then we sold out the 10 person waiting list. I never even got to hang my posters.

That first practice was a little rough. We were loud, too excited, so many of us, and I hadn’t worked into my schedule how long it takes for forty kids to all get ready to do anything. But the next week ran smoother, and soon we hit our rhythm.

Get loooooowwwwww

Get loooooowwwwww

More parents volunteered to coach, and we assembled an all-star cast of parents, local riders, and even a few high-school kids with siblings in the program. Our coaches found their stride, figured out which kids needed to do pushups, and which kids needed a little extra push on their seat to get up the hills. We had a remarkably strong girl squad, a bunch of young ladies who weren’t as loud as the boys, didn’t greet me every week with tall tales about how big of jumps they could hit. Instead they just rode their bikes really fast, encouraged each other, helped each other, and left slow boys in the dust. Loo kout gentlemen, the future of women’s mountain biking is faster than you.

Again and again, the community here proved to be the lifeblood of the program. We had parents barbequing together as we practiced, and kids would show up talking about the rides they’d done with their friends, or how they’d been using their hand signals over the last week. We got faster, we got stronger, and we even got a little bit better at not having to go to the bathroom 15 times an evening. I coached two and a half of the weeklong day camps again, and got to ride with some of Sprockids for eight hours a day, diving deeper into skills we’d barely touched on in the evening practices.

On my 25th birthday I was a broken man before I got to practice. I’d been stung by several bees right before I left home, and as I drove on the highway I started to break out in hives, my face and neck started to swell, and I started to have trouble breathing. I got to the bike park and called Poison Control. They told me to go to hospital and I told them not to be silly. One of our Sprockids moms was dropping her kids off at practice, realized I was feeling like I was about to die, and brought me drugs and water. I made it through the evening, and she emailed me later that night, just making sure I was still alive. The next week she brought cookies, and I realized how blessed by these kids’ parents I was.

That feeling of community only grew throughout the summer. I got to know some of the parents as I got to know their kids. The little girls group liked to play “Who’s dad is the oldest” every time we stopped for water, and then I got to ride with those dads at Family Friday at Targhee. Midway through the season we had a cleanup day at the bike park. We had a huge turnout, with several families showing up with all the siblings and adults, ready to rake trails, cut weeds, and fill trash bags. I couldn’t believe how invested these families were, and how they were so ready to step up and help, carting cooler after cooler of food to the tables, making sure we all had enough to eat and drink, helping me get the grill home afterward. They added so much to the program just through their willingness to show up and be engaged.

Raking berms!

Raking berms!

On AJ Day I drank my pre-race beer to earn my time deduction from my race lap as some of my Sprockids dads encouraged their kids to cheer me on, chanting “chug, chug, chug!” like some sort of root beer-fueled frat party entirely populated by people under four feet tall.

For the last official week of the program we headed up to Grand Targhee to take the kids “real mountain biking.” We’d been riding at the bike parks in town all summer, and while some of the kids came up and rode lifts at Targhee a few times a week, many had never really put tire to dirt before. Which is why Presley and her sister were telling me about how they’d been chopping wood to get ready for this.

Before we dropped into Greenhorn I promised my group that I’d warn them about anything on the trail. “Rock! Root! Downhill! Sidehill! More Rocks! Mountain Sharks!” I hollered. I could hear my directions being passed back for a while, before gravity got the best of my group, and they broke out into high-pitched squealing. The dirt was perfect. The trail was perfect, and they’d grown so much as mountain bikers that they were ready to handle anything Targhee had to throw at them. They pushed me to go faster, they wanted to ride further, they didn’t want to be done ever. We rode The Core, hollering its name in our deepest voices, making mountain biker faces, and yelling at each other to make sure our butts weren’t on our seats on the downhills. At the bottom I was worried that we’d lost someone, but as I got ready to ride back up and find her, I heard a high-pitched “weeeeeeeeeee!” as she surfed out of the last corner.

The Coooooooooooore!

The Coooooooooooore!

After that Targhee day the kids weren’t over it, and I wasn’t either, so we had a bonus week. We rode again, much further this time, and faster. We had a few more crashes, but the stoke remained just as high. As I gave out my last high-fives and admonitions of the summer, I realized I didn’t really have anything to say to the kids. I was used to ending with an update on what we were doing next week, where we were going to be, what we were going to do, and what kind of attitude we were going to have about doing it. But that last week all I had to say was Thank You. Thank you Sprockchildren. You guys are awesome, you made me fall for mountain biking all over again, you make it clear that the future of riding here is strong. Thank you parents, for making sure that the future of riding here isn’t highly skilled kids who also happen to be jerks. Thanks for having the coaches’ backs, along with your kids. And thank you coaches, for showing up, for dealing with pouty kids and disorganized moments, hot days and skinned knees and full bladders. Thank you for investing in other people’s kids, thank you for making this valley even cooler than it already is. Look out 6-12 year olds of the valley, we’ll be back!