How to Start a Junior Cycling Program
By Chad Cheeney
More than ever, junior development programs are popping up all over the country. Road, mountain, track, cyclocross and gravity offerings are all available to kids these days. A decade or so ago, there were very few dedicated junior programs — what existed were adult bike shop teams that claimed to cater to juniors, but even that was really inconsistent from year to year. There was no real development structure, meaning no feeder programs and no consistent skills or a physical training regimen — basically there was no long-term planning. It was a wave to catch here and there when a town had a fast kid, but no surf coming to shore after the speedy kid had left the program.
My passion for junior cycling goes deep. I have chosen to lead the kids living around me in the communities of Durango, Colo., and Bend, Ore., since 1999. I am no national leader, but an observant, passionate coach who has taken the time to follow and be engaged in youth cycling development. I might credit the NorCal NICA league (National Interscholastic Cycling Association) for heading the charge in 2001. Founded by Berkley High School teacher, Matt Fritzinger, the NorCal league grew bigger each year, leading to the creation in 2009 of the NICA governing body, which had (and still has) the vision and goal to bring high school mountain biking to every state in the USA. Since then, 19 states have bought into NICA’s business model and they are growing like wildfire. States like Texas, Alabama and New York, where you would never envision such an undertaking, are blossoming and getting more kids on bikes, which is NICA’s main social media hashtag, #morekidsonbikes.
I would also add that the popular USA Cycling / Norba weeklong development camps created in the early to mid-2000s provided more focused attention toward juniors and gave participants opportunities to ride and train like professionals. It led young racers down a development path, providing opportunities to take advantage of their skill set. The camps not only benefitted the racers, but coaches were also recruited from the various cycling communities to assist and instruct, which led to the creation of a network of passionate coaches. The camps focused on hands-on skill training, group work and team dynamics with Pro riders and inspirational guests giving talks. Those led to several competitions, and from there the top-ranked athletes got the opportunity to be tested and to train at the Olympic Training Center in either Los Angles, Calif., or Colorado Springs, Colo. This created a development path for kids belonging to USA Cycling so they could follow their dreams of turning professional.
We all know that developmental cycling is much more than mountain bike and road racing, it’s commuting and creating safe routes to school, it’s bike touring, downhill racing, maintenance programs, bike recycling, bike polo and more. How in the world is a coach or passionate cyclist, then, supposed to start up a community bike program with so many cycling disciplines and so many different interests within each separate community? Cycling is not exactly flush with cash at the bottom levels of the sport, so yeah, starting a junior cycling program is no easy task.
Bottom line; it takes passion. That’s what I have seen from successful programs around the country, lead by the likes of Vanessa Hauswald, the NorCal Executive Director; Ed Fisher from the Camas/NICA Independent League; Sarah Tescher of Durango Devo; Kate Rau of Singletrack Mountain Bike Adventures (SMBA) out of Boulder and now with NICA Colorado league; Jim Brown of Washington’s Rad Racing; Stephan Beardsley of PDX Devo in Portland; Peter Webber with Boulder Junior Cycling; Dave Hagen of Fort Lewis College Cycling; Julia Violich and Stu Bone of Bear Development out of California; Douglas Tobin of Idaho’s Byrds road team; Jon Bailey and Doom (Steve Fassbinder) of the Devo Explorers Club; Bill Warburton of Bend Endurance Academy, and so many more. These people all have the passion and that is what it takes.
So how do you start a junior program again, you ask? Start by taking an inventory of your community. What are the families doing on bikes in your town? What races are big local events that a club could rally around? Is there a Parks and Recreation program for youth cycling already offered? Do you have trailheads close to town that can accommodate after school activities? How about safe roads to train on? What is your town’s primary cycling discipline? Once you find some answers, brainstorm to find some goal events or trips that your program could lead up to. These are the first steps toward establishing your future program.
Just like ball sports, your program will need to have clear-cut seasons: spring, summer, fall, and cyclocross into winter to commit to and train up to. Old days’ cycling programs were year-round and drop-ins mainly focused around adult training — come ride with the 40-year old club riders — well, not anymore! Kids are active these days and most likely signed up for soccer, lacrosse, basketball, baseball, track and field and Nordic skiing to mention a few, all scheduled around the same time as bike season. If you put too much on their plate upfront, it might not be as attractive to the masses. Keep it tight and consistent. An example would be an 8-10 week curriculum where kids meet 1-3 times a week after school, leading up to the big local mountain bike or road race. Then maybe a trip to Nationals or a campout to cap off the season. Just like ball sports.
Most developers of junior programs get the bug because they are noticing a growing number of competitive juniors in their town who are looking and yearning for more. And while this is pretty important to include, the reality is that the new wave of balance-biking kids is really upping the cycling frequency of children in the 3-10-year-old age group. This is the fastest growing programming segment you could include. These are the years youngsters are sampling sports, so while you may rather be coaching or focusing on the upper end, it’s the pee wee juniors that will really start signing up for anything cycling. Be sure to include a plan to offer these feeder programs along with the middle and high school age racers. Once you have a ladder system with elementary to middle school, then high school programming, you’ll really see the effects of modeling, where the kids begin to learn and teach each other. You’ll also be growing a future coaching class.
Business 101 says start with a mission and vision and treat this like a business. As with most small start-ups, this is crucial to the strength of your program down the road. When I created the Durango Devo, not a month went by where our board reflected on the mission to come up with an answer to one growing pain after another. Your mission is something of a rock to the program and will help you out immensely. To develop this, create an oversight committee or a legal board. Use a local bike shop owner, parent of a junior cyclist, lawyer, tax accountant, local business owner, and a cycling coach and meet a few times each month and brainstorm the crap out from that local coffee shop.
Should it be a non-profit or for-profit organization? That’s a tough question to answer when the writing is on the wall for cycling coaches — you will not be a millionaire! Ask yourself, is this a program you want to pass on to be a community asset? Do you want to run it through the city under the parks and rec department, or is there an umbrella or similar non-profit that would be willing to help run it?
The majority of youth cycling programs falls under local parks and recreation departments and seem to be basic and not super dialed, so maybe there is room for you to improve their offering. Going for-profit could be good, but will end up being competitive rather than open to all after you realize your pricing needs will be sky-high to keep up with insurance, coaching and permitting fees. My recommendation: go non-profit in order to create something your community could continue after your eventual passing of the torch/burnout/career move.
Change is inevitable so you must be able to go with the flow of cycling. Is Enduro big in your community? Did a pro roadie move to town and might possibly be a rallying point? You have to find what’s hot and program accordingly. As of now, it seems like juniors are aware of cross-country, road racing and enduro, so maybe start there. Along with change you must accommodate some outlying cycling interests to keep the balance in your program. Offer a maintenance clinic once a month, take a trip to the local frame builder, work a scholastic bike rodeo or teach young cyclists how to take an action photo. Again, the sport is diverse; you must be on the edge of what’s hot.
And just because it’s hot does not mean your town can accommodate. You must work with city officials, landowners and managers, securing permits and proper procedure to ensure you are running a safe program. Cycling sits outside the spectrum of most junior sports, as it is practiced in outlying areas that usually are unknown to legalities. This is a slippery slope. You must be upfront and try your best to work with those that control the flow outside of the bicycling world. Cycling, as a youth sport, is years behind ball sports as far as public awareness and compatibility is concerned, but you can be the one making the difference.
Creating a junior cycling program is not going to be easy, however, if you can dedicate the work and rally the right crew, you just may find it satisfying. I write this article not as an expert on the subject, but as a passionate pioneer, hoping to inspire more coaches and community leaders to pick up the ball and show the kids the game of cycling. This is a unique life-long sport that if installed correctly into a community, will lead to a future of healthy, happy world leaders. Not to mention some impressive junior shredders that will have you saying, “I wish I had this when I was a kid.”