by Matt Fox
The snow spits out of the menacing blue grey sky. It doesn’t fall slowly and gently – it’s harsh, and it stings. The wind comes in bursts and penetrates all attempts at warmth. I am standing at the start of the time trail course for the upcoming Nationals with a line of high school and Junior cyclocross racers. They stand expectantly, shivering, some with bare knees, thin gloves, but ultimately smiling and excited.
This year I volunteered to coach high school students in Oregon where we recently created a high school cyclocross league. I teach at one of the local high schools in Bend and as the season approached I excitedly hung flyers around the school, put announcements on the intercom, and I spoke to students in P.E. classes. Once the season started I began working with the Bend Endurance Academy, an amazing local non-profit organization that is coordinating the effort of the high schools and is organizing Junior cyclocross practice. Each week I rush from school to the practice course and meet up with a group of some of the most enthusiastic cyclocross racers I have ever met.
These young racers are amazing! Riding around behind 15 year-old Dawson on a loose and technical corner, I am struck by how easy he makes it look, then he stands up and sprints out of the corner. He rides a hand-me-down bike that he describes as “sick,” he wears a cycling cap under his helmet and some stylish glasses. “A mini-pro,” I call him. And he’s fast. His enthusiasm for racing is contagious, and he motivates those around him, including me.
I watch as 12 year old Massimo goes full speed through barriers and executes a perfect re-mount, no stutter, no hesitation, all speed. Cameron, also 12, is barely tall enough to clear the planks, but does that slow him down? No. There’s Jett, a 10 year-old, who rides his mom’s ’cross bike which is slightly too big. He can barely find spandex that fits his skinny legs. He shivers as he finishes a lap. I ride beside him up the hill as he rocks the bike back and forth beneath him, going upwards as hard as he can, not holding back.
Frankie, who always seems to be smiling, gets through the barriers so fast it’s hard to even comment on his technique … this kid can run! There is Colin, who has been winning races, but that’s not the most important thing that has come out of his participation. When I first met Colin, he was a cocky 14 year-old without at ton of talent, but with a ton of desire. Colin dedicated himself to the sport of cycling; he threw himself at it fully. Now 15, he is winning races, but more than that, he is becoming the kind of racer that you want to see win.
Many of these young riders are winning races, and when they are racing, the cheers are louder than for any other field. It’s exciting to watch. I am struck by how little fear these young racers have. These “mini-pros” charge into barriers and loose corners without thoughts of crashing. They bomb down bumpy descents in the drops, they egg each other on, and challenge each other as they sprint up hills. I want to ride more like them. I want to be 14 again. I am supposed to be here to give them tips on technique, but they are giving me a lesson too.
Sure, these young riders are learning about cyclocross, but they are learning more. They have learned what it is to cheer on their teammates who struggle, to encourage each other, to be humble, to dedicate themselves and to commit. As an educator who knows the value of experiential learning, it’s just as rewarding to see this as it is to watch them run barriers cleanly. You can’t teach this sort of thing in a classroom.
Motivation; for some people an upcoming race will suffice, for others maybe they have a nemesis with whom they are looking forward to battling, or perhaps a particular song does it for you. On some days and in some seasons that motivation can be really elusive. We find motivation in all sorts of places, and we all have our sources – sometimes they even surprise us. This season I have found a lot of motivation in these young cyclocross racers.