words | Jody Wilson photos | Clay Dolan
In today’s world of tablets and smartphones, children are increasingly becoming more sedentary, spending more time alone, and feeling more stressed with the pressures of social media. During my youth, the only screen time I received, was the half hour of cartoons I watched while scarfing down a bowl of mac n’ cheese during my lunch hour. In the evenings, I found myself cruising around small town Ontario with whatever impromptu bike gang was allowed outside after dinner hour. I have to admit, many of us were still riding off the high of the mid 1980’s BMX movie Rad. In those days, the hours on the bike provided us with freedom, friendly competition and comradery that I still cherish today.
In recent years, youth mountain biking has taken off in the Southern Georgian Bay area. With plenty of high quality trails just minutes from Collingwood, many local parents who grew up riding some of the first mountain bike trails in the area are now motivated to give their kids that same experience.
In 2010-2011 a group of local parents organized one of the first MTB youth programs. At that time, Jen Scholte, a mother of two energetic pre-teen boys, began a weekly mountain biking program to teach essential cycling skills to a group of ten kids. The rides were based out of Highlands Nordic and the other parents joined in to help. Over the course of the program, the kids gained all of the necessary skills needed to adventure through the trails which had been designed and built by local trail building legend Scott Holmes.
Fast forward a few years to 2014. As the cycling community in the Southern Georgian Bay area was beginning to explode, so was the movement in youth mountain biking. In 2014, Noelle Wansbrough, owner/operator of Pedal Pushers Cycling took over where Scholte had left off. Partnering with the Collingwood Cycling Club, Wansbrough focused on attracting more youth to the program. Since that time, the program has grown to a sold-out number of 80 riders this year, ranging in age from 10 to 18. The six-week program runs throughout May and June each year. Noelle’s team of 45 volunteers is made up of certified coaches, parents and local mountain biking gurus who love to share their knowledge and passion for the sport. Part of the program involves a trail cleanup day, where the youth learn to properly maintain the trails. The participants also hold a bake sale as an opportunity to raise money to help support their teams for the 6 Hours of Gibraltar event which supports My Friend’s House, a local charity.
Noelle speaks passionately about youth cycling, “Kids love riding bikes. Everyone remembers riding their first bike!” Everyone breaks into their age/ability group and a typical evening in the program includes some free time riding on the new obstacles course, learning a new skill (corning, gearing, balance, braking and obstacles), followed by a trail ride with group leaders to practise their newly acquired skill set.
The Collingwood Cycling Club (CCC) has been a large proponent in the youth program over the last number of years. Steve Varga, Vice President of the CCC expresses that, “it’s simply our opportunity as cycling enthusiasts and as the only cycling club in the area, to give back to our community what cycling gave us through the years. When you love a sport and its people, you naturally want to share that with others in the community and the youth are a logical group to offer this sport to”. The CCC helps with the program in several ways, including providing infrastructure for the program via the Ontario Cycling Association (OCA) for insurance purposes, jerseys for all the kids, as well as coaches and volunteers for the program.
Believe it or not, this is not the only successful mountain bike program available in the Collingwood area. High school sports and athletics have always been highly regarded as the place to introduce youth to new experiences and ideas. Erik Lehmann, a math teacher at Collingwood Collegiate Institute (CCI), is doing just that. Erik has been the key voice behind building and developing the CCI mountain bike team for the past six years. Together with help from Todd Funston and Marcel Krueger, participation within the school has grown from 12 to 60 students since the program’s inception. “I’m always recruiting students; it has become a joke around the school amongst the students.” Erik is passionate about mountain biking and the value it can add to each student’s life. Like many, Erik views the program as a great way to introduce students to a lifelong sport.
The current team is made up of sixty students. Erik has worked to legitimize the team and make it an officially sanctioned high school sport. He believes the students love having an organized and structured training schedule. “Part of the school team experience is getting the kids to try something new, sixty percent of the students have never even been in the woods before, so that’s an experience of its own.” Lehmann keeps the team fun and inclusive, so with no cuts, the team continues to grow each year.
The high school MTB season runs from mid-March to the beginning of June. With kids demanding more time on the bikes, Lehmann finds himself needing help to find bikes for students who don’t have one, locating extra parts for repairs, transporting bikes to races and finding volunteers. The students travel to several races, and have just finished five Simcoe County races at Hardwood Hills, followed by OFSAA, where 30 members of the team competed.
Youth mountain biking is growing, there’s no arguing that. Both Wansbrough and Lehmann talk about the “you build it, they will come” philosophy, and they both provide the means and the opportunity for it to develop. Mountain biking enriches our lives, it teaches focus, control and determination. It instills lessons in success and failure, and it allows older youth the chance to mentor younger kids. These young people are the future leaders of our community. Personally, I can’t think of any better way to learn these lessons than from the saddle of a mountain bike.|E|