by Nick Praznowski
CHICAGO—At Montrose Harbor, the "Koksijde of the Midwest," the Chicago Cyclocross Cup (CCC) concluded its 14th year with the Illinois State Cyclocross Championships on December 3. The course, well known for its signature Cricket Hill and lots of sand, challenged 676 racers competing in 16 fields, including more than 100 Junior racers.
The CCC dubs itself the "Best Amateur Series in the Country," as it challenges racers at all levels — men, women and Juniors. The Juniors fields have witnessed explosive growth in numbers, especially among the younger riders racing age 9-14. An average of 63 racers has competed in each event of the 11-race series this season, a three-fold increase from 2011. The 15-18 age bracket has held steady over these years, with many racers moving up to Cat 3 races and beyond.
Giddy-Hup with the Pony Shop Juniors
Much of the recent growth and success in the Juniors fields of the CCC can be attributed to the Pony Shop Juniors Cyclocross team. These little ’crossers have become a dominant fixture in the Chicago Junior scene, clad in royal blue kits and neon yellow helmets. About 40% of the juniors who competed on Sunday in Chicago were Pony Juniors.
But this percentage may be diminishing as the success is contagious. In the past few seasons, several other teams have cropped up and participated in the Chicago series. Other clubs and shops are recognizing that putting time and energy into Juniors programs does nothing but positive things for the kids and the sport.
Kids perceive cyclocross as fun, driving the growth. "Cyclocross is the easiest and most fun way for Juniors to start in the sport of cycling," said head coach Paul Swinand. "The kids gravitate towards the fun. And when they see their friends doing it, they want in."
Swinand, along with Pony Shop owner and team manager Lou Kuhn, started the Juniors team officially in 2013 with about ten kids. "Paul and I talked over the summer and just came up with some basics that would be needed for the team to be 'legit,' stuff like tents and jerseys. After that, the team grew through word of mouth," reflected Kuhn.
Growth has continued over the past five seasons "because of hard work and dedication of the parents, coaches and kids," said Kuhn. "Keeping it fun and challenging is important for the kids, but so is rewarding hard effort and sportsmanship."
The team’s roster has grown to 60 active racers this season, ages 8 to 17.
The Payoff from Value-Based Coaching
Coach Swinand, who is also a seasoned cyclist, focuses heavily on developing core values of attitude, effort and empathy rather than winning races. Team members are rewarded during team practices for these three values.
Fun is celebrated above all else. The team runs a few practices per week during the season, but the sessions mostly focus on skills, rather than pushing kids on intervals and other taxing drills. Most of the bonding for the team happens during practices and in the unstructured time after races.
"Our main goal is to get the kids to come back next year, and to develop their interest in the sport. The biggest victory is small improvements year after year. And it’s rewarding to see lifelong friendships forming all the time," Swinand added.
But make no mistake, this value-based coaching effort has paid off. Not only are Pony Shop Juniors growing as individuals, but they are excelling in the sport. They have diverse cycling interests and many have developed impressive racing resumes in local and national events. You can find at least a handful of Pony Junior boys and girls near the top of every age group of USAC national cyclocross rankings.
The weekend at Montrose Beach was no exception, with many Pony Juniors on the CCC podium. The team is planning on a big presence at the 2018 Cyclocross National Championships in Louisville. "I hope to continue to introduce kids to the sport and maybe one day see a former Junior racing at the pro level," said Kuhn, looking toward the future.
No Secret Recipe for Success
By trial and error, and by sticking with what works, the Pony Juniors team has developed a program that appeals to kids, parents and coaches. "When I tell people we wake up at 5 a.m. on Sundays to race bikes in the cold, my friends think I’m nuts, but my boys are eager to get out of bed," said Kim Stover who, along with her husband and four sons, race every Sunday for the Pony Shop.
According to Pony Shop Juniors coaches, the components of a successful Juniors program include kids willing to try something new and challenging, and parents who are supportive of an equipment-intensive, messy sport. Kuhn advises to start small and be patient to let it grow on its own. According to Swinand, "Most of the sport has struggled to be creative about how to attract more Juniors. They have tried, but we need to keep testing new ideas to foster fun."
Simple tweaks like having water balloon fights and playing bike tag at practice, giving out candy prizes to race winners, charging $5.00 race fees and adjusting race time so kids from far away can get to races all help. Coach Paul, as he’s known to the team, summed it up best, "You need to keep asking how can we make this more fun for kids, and they’ll keep showing up."