Get the whole family on the trail to fitness and fun.
If you had told Kim Linton a few years ago that he’d be racing mountain bikes for both fun and exercise, he probably wouldn’t have believed you. He was more of a hockey-playing type, really. If you had told him that it would become a passion-fueled family activity that included himself, his two teenage boys, and his supporting spectator wife, he probably would have said that you had the wrong guy. And yet Kim and company have joined the ever-increasing number of families getting involved in mountain biking, both in Canada and in Central Ontario.
The only thing he finds more surprising than his family’s embrace of the sport is the fact that it is such a family-oriented activity. “I have to say that mountain biking parents are the friendliest group of people that I have ever met,” he tells me. “We show up at events and races and meet these other families with four or five kids in tow, and they all bike. The cool thing is that they are always so supportive of each other and the other riders.”
And it was family that first got the Lintons into the sport. “My brother-in-law is an extreme sport addict,” says Kim. “Cross-country races, mountain climbing, 24-hour races. … He invited me out to watch him in a mountain bike race. It was a great time.”
The race was held at “The Farm” – a family-owned and operated 10 km course in Bethany that used to host weekly rides. “Even though I grew up a jock,” says Kim, “this was a really different experience. It was pretty exciting and it was family oriented. So when my brother-in-law suggested that I get the kids involved, I thought, ‘Why not?’”
“I went out and bought a second-hand bike for Carson, then 11, to see if he would like it. He really took to riding.”
When Carson decided to try his first race, the situation couldn’t have been worse. “There was six inches of snow,” recalls Kim, “And it was cold. We didn’t know how to dress him, and he had to ride 10 km for the first time ever.”
The result? Cold, numb hands. Shivering. A near-tearful experience. It was pretty awful. “And then he thawed out,” laughs Kim. “And told us that he wanted to do it again.”
It didn’t take long before they had decked out younger brother Clayton, then 9, who took to mountain biking as quickly as his brother. Soon Kim joined the boys and it became a true family affair. They haven’t looked back since.
The Lintons aren’t alone in making mountain biking their family sport of choice. Far from it. In fact, with kids and youth flocking to forest trails and bike meets, more and more opportunities and programs are opening up for them.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association, for instance, recognizes the value of the sport to families and created a program to get 1,000 new youth on bikes in 2009 alone. In order to help facilitate this, they worked in partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Health to create the Take a Kid Mountain Biking Guide and distributed it to bike stores and cycling clubs across the province. The guide, available online at www.imba.com/canada, helps introduce both kids and their families to the sport.
Meanwhile, all Ontario Cup Series Mountain Bike Races have kids and youth races as well, meaning that once youth are capable of riding safely, they’ll have events to strut their stuff.
Clayton, now a Grade 12 student with seven years of racing experience behind him, finds the family-oriented side of mountain biking very exciting. “You go to races and whole families are there,” he exclaims. “Even members of the family who aren’t there to race are caught up in it – you can see whole families either racing or cheering on the racers. It’s pretty cool.”
But you have to walk before you run. Or, in this case, ride before you race. And there are a number of things that parents can do to get their kids interested and ready for mountain biking.
Whether you are a seasoned mountain biker, excited to get your kid to join you, or new to the sport and want to introduce it to your kid, patience is key. In short: a child must be ready to bike before they begin. This is true when it comes to both physical maturation and psychological readiness. A young child who is fearful of biking isn’t likely to pick it up very easily. Similarly, a kid who isn’t physically ready to control a bicycle will be prone to crashes – which, in turn, will often lead to fear and apprehension.
Once both you and your child feel ready to begin, you may want to look into getting a balance bike – otherwise known as push bikes or run bikes. These small bicycles have no pedals and move either by the child pushing with feet (similar to the action of the riding toys that toddlers and young children use), by the assistance of adults pushing the bike, or by gravity. These inexpensive bikes allow the child an opportunity to learn about balance through short stretches of coasting. Make sure your child wears a helmet while biking.
Introduce your children to trail riding only when they are comfortable handling their bikes on sidewalks and roadways. And, even then, it is wise to start gently. Try grassy slopes or wide-tracked trails. Single-track trails often have ruts and bumps that are difficult for youngsters to navigate.
For the first number of passes, you should keep a grip on your child. Only once you begin feeling that he or she is controlling the balance should you let go. Even then, you’ll want to give plenty of notice. Advise your child in advance that you will be letting go, and do listen if they say they are not ready. Announce again several seconds before letting go. And again as you let go.
This is where being a brave parent comes in. When your child crashes – and it is “when” not “if,” be sure to screw that smile on tight. Laughter will also help. You may even try a “Woo-hoo!!! Great wipeout!!!” Really, you want your child to know that bailing is part of the fun. Eventually, it will be.
When the wipeouts become less frequent, it is time to graduate to single-track trails and more difficult terrain. Ontario offers terrain and trails to suit all levels of riders. Visit www.ontariotrails.on.ca to find trails near you.
Youth who are interested in mountain biking for the first time should jump right in. At least according to Clayton’s high school cycling teammate, Eric Reinhert. “If you have a bike,” he advises (as sagely as a teenager can), “just do it. Anyone who has a bike can join in. Even if you don’t have a bike, you can probably either borrow one or buy an old hand-me-down.
“And if you like it,” he adds with a tone that says he knows most kids will, “you can progress from there.”
If that were not enough, he also has this to say: “It’s better than sitting on the couch and watching TV or playing video games, isn’t it?” It’s a question that any parents would love to hear their child ask.
Not all kids who mountain bike feel the urge to race. In fact, many choose to ride hard and never compete. I include myself in this category. Growing up, I moved from BMX riding to mountain biking, never knowing that people considered it a sport. After university, I eventually moved to the Rocky Mountains and had the joy of battling some of the nastiest single-track downhill you can find. Not once did I ever contemplate racing others.
In fact, most of the local youth I talked to counted just being on a trail as being a favourite part of mountain biking. Eric says that when he started riding with his friends, he just loved being outside and having fun with them. Clayton, meanwhile, describes being on the trails as “exhilarating.” And says that he “gets into a groove, a zone where there is a sense of flow.” Each new ride is different, he says. Each one has a new challenge.
For those who want to get involved with racing, it isn’t hard to find a way. It’s as simple as visiting your local bike store. They’ll have contact info for any local clubs and advice on how to get involved.
Of course there is always one concern that jumps to mind for parents, and that is the danger of crashes.
Once again, I turned to the experts. “Yes, it is dangerous,” says Clayton. “And there is risk involved. You probably could get seriously hurt. But this is why we practise. This is why we learn to pace ourselves and get a handle on trails before we ever try to race them.”
You can’t beat that for logic!