WHITEFISH – One day in the summer of 2003, during the Mountain Bike Academy at what was then the Big Mountain Resort, the coaches came up with a particularly sadistic activity for the campers: Everyone coasted to the bottom of Big Mountain Road, and the coaches tied the front of their bicycles to the rear of the campers’. Then, those lucky campers spent the remainder of the day slowly towing their coaches all the way back up the road to the resort village.
But that was then, when the Mountain Bike Academy was much more oriented toward training racers, said Jim Langley, head bike coach and trail crew supervisor for Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Today, the academy leans more toward getting younger, beginning mountain bikers psyched about the sport. Grueling training exercises have been dropped in favor of activities like kickball, huckleberry picking and mid-summer snowball fights at the summit, along with biking. The kids build ramps and teeter-totters, and learn how to fix a flat tire. And as the fun increased, so did the number of kids signing up for the academy.
On a recent Wednesday, 24 boys and girls turned out for the academy, ranging in ages from 7 to 14. The academy runs on Wednesdays and Fridays from July 9 through Aug. 22, and kids can sign up for the day, or for the better part of the summer.
Sharon Kahle drops off her two sons, Scott, 12, and Jack, 10, who are “loving it,” she said.
“Our kids aren’t interested in baseball or soccer in the summertime,” Kahle said, adding that mountain biking “is something they can do their whole lives, and go anywhere.”
After stretches and introductions, coach Walter Clapp takes most of the teenagers and more advanced riders up to the summit for a few laps. Langley and coach Malcolm Edwards play some games with the larger group of younger kids, before leading a ride along some of the mountain’s lower terrain.
“There’s a point at which becoming a better biker is just doing it more,” Langley said. “You either want to play video games or you want to ride your bike – these kids here, want to ride their bikes.”
The challenge for the instructors is to make sure both beginners and experienced riders are learning something, even when riding in the same group, and encouraging the kids to challenge their abilities, without scaring themselves silly.
“When their confidence is shaken, it’s hard for an 8-year-old to get it back sometimes,” Langley said. “The key is to get them to see the trail, and to get them to see where the bike is going to go, not where it shouldn’t go.”
Langley has learned the trick is often to ride along with a kid, and distract them from the trail’s exposure or difficult-looking features: “If I know they can do it, I’m going to find a way to trick them into knowing that they can do it as well,” he added. “They focus on you and forget that there is a 40-degree pitch off to the left.”
Edwards leads the group along the Wolverine trail, which has a short, but steep section to negotiate. At a junction, Langley goes through technique with the kids, quizzing them on whether to shift gears before or during a climb (before), which brakes, front or rear, to use on a descent (both), and where the riders’ feet should be at all times (on the pedals). When some of the campers complain about having to ride uphill, Langley silences them with a single question; “What’s better? Going to school or riding bikes uphill?”
As the group rides on, a new camper, Ellie Schley, 10, begins to fall behind. She is visiting from Westport, Conn., and doesn’t have much cycling experience. At the top of a small hill, she stops. She’s not going down. Langley stays behind and tries to distract her, asking her about school. He demonstrates how to raise off the saddle slightly, squeeze the brakes and descend slowly down the trail, but Schley isn’t budging. Eventually, she agrees to try and coasts smoothly down the trail. After the ride, Schley concedes that conquering the downhill “makes me feel good about myself,” but she’s not entirely sold on biking uphill: “Sometimes I don’t like biking, but if it’s like flat ground and downhill, I like biking.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Oliver Van Everen, 10, has been mountain biking for five years, and going uphill is his favorite part of riding for reasons he can’t explain. “Some camps I’ve done, you don’t do enough actual riding,” Van Everen said. “You do a lot of riding in this camp.”
But the instructors at the work with all the kids, and derive satisfaction from seeing all mountain bikers, from beginners to advanced, improve.
“When you have a kid who is finally a better biker than you, it’s like, oh, sweet,” Langley said.
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