This kid’s sweatpants are tucked into ratty wool ski socks to keep them out of his chain ring, and he’s wearing a windbreaker that looks like it was designed to fit a chunky long-haul trucker, not a skinny high school mountain biker, but he’s charging the rock garden with a precision I can’t help envying, and the lady across the trail from me is screaming at him to “punch it, Jeb! Punch it!”
I’m jealous of all of it, the muddy sweatpants, the too-big bike, the too-loud mom, and the too-early start time of this high school mountain bike race. I’d almost take the pimples and puberty again to get a chance to be part of this.
When I was roughly the age and build of the sweatpant- and windbreaker-clad racer all I wanted to be was a mountain biker. I had a mantra — “I like to mountain bike” — that I’d repeat to myself and scribble under my name in every new notebook. I’m pretty sure it’s carved into a few desks, too. And it wasn’t just the cadence or the rhyme of that phrase that welded it into my brain; it was the fact that every day I woke up wanting to ride my bike. My first priority was trying to find someone who’d drive me to the local trails, and if that failed I’d cruise vacant lots wearing my gloves and hydration pack, looking for piles of dirt that might make good jumps. At night I’d pore over mountain bike magazines, and I distinctly remember the envy I felt seeing articles about the birth of a high school mountain bike league, and the trials and successes it faced.
I’d fantasize about being on a mountain bike team, about riding my bike for practice, instead of to it, of having a team riding kit, having coaches to teach me how to ride. Instead I went to cross-country practice, and imagined riding the courses on my bike as I wallowed to middle-of-the-pack finishes. By my junior year I’d discovered downhill racing, and once I got my driver’s license I spent my weekends shuttling laps with my one other friend who had a bike that he didn’t just use to get around town. But I still wanted to be on a team, still longed for that collective atmosphere of group rides, coaching and progression.
In the Tetons I was shocked to find not just the high school league I’d read and fantasized about but the sort of healthy bike culture I hadn’t even glimpsed in the land of grain and lentils I grew up in. I also started to see how that benefits the larger community.
Giving kids an organized outlet for mountain biking does more than just add another sport to the roster. It gives them an opportunity to grow into a world of responsible outdoor recreation. I spent thousands of hours playing basketball, gaining a bunch of ball-handling and jump-shooting skills that I barely ever delve into any more. That’s true for a lot of kids: They learn to dribble a basketball, kick a soccer ball, hit a baseball in an organized environment. And that’s all great, but how many people do you know over the age of 18 who play soccer or basketball a few times a week all summer? How many people do you know who mountain bike a few times a week all summer?
Plus, how are those kids getting to traditional sports practices? Many are riding their bikes. While I’m a huge fan of taking kids to the top of a big hill and pulling the training wheels off, that’s about the extent of bike instruction most of us get.
So when I see a bunch of kids racing too-big bikes early in the morning I’m not just excited about the fact that they get to do something I find inherently awesome. I’m happy because all of them are learning to be better bike handlers, learning to take care of their bikes, learning trail etiquette, learning to interact with varied user groups, learning to be good trail stewards.
When I was in high school I longed to be on a bike team, to ride with kids my age. Now that I’m far out of high school I’m an even bigger proponent of high school mountain biking because I want to live in a place where that’s an option, where kids are learning to be better riders and better mountain people. High school mountain biking does that, and I’ll be thankful for it the next time a pubescent child blows past me on a tricky descent.