On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 10/1/2007
If you're a regular visitor to this On The Road site, you will have read an essay or two on the subject of aging boomers on bikes...the greying of the recreational peloton. A couple of years ago, I did a column called The Old Farts, celebrating the gnarly old geezers still plugging away out there. More recently I touched on essentially the same topic while reflecting on turning 60, which I did this year.
Behind the positives about how cool it is that older riders are still out there, on their bikes, having fun and staying fit, was a subtext not addressed: as we are getting older, and eventually dying off or at least fading away, are the ranks of recreational riders being replenished with new, younger participants? There have been many occasions when I have looked around at the peer group on my club rides, and what I have seen is an average age for the group of somewhere between 40 and 50, with many on the high side of that, and not very many any younger. It has worried me a little, now and then, when I have bothered to think about it, and it's an issue that comes up at our club meetings every so often, causing a moderate amount of hand-wringing and head-scratching, but not a lot of useful insight.
The question of why and when folks get into cycling is more than we can answer in this little space today. I have my half-baked theories, but they're no more than that...just random observations pinballing back and forth between speculation and conjecture. No hard facts and no slick science. So we'll dodge the question in its broadest scope for now and instead zero in on a few anecdotes that I hope will serve to enliven the topic by putting some human faces on it...some individuals with their own little stories to tell. And the story they're telling is that, yes, in at least a few places and a few cases, young people are getting on their bikes and having a good time doing it.
I have four examples here. Each is representative of a different slice of the cycling scene: racing, touring, doubles, and commuting.
First off, racing. We are fortunate in Sonoma County to have in our midst a woman who is, in my opinion, very nearly a saint, or perhaps an angel. This is Laura Charameda. That name may ring a bell for you, as Laura was--not too many years ago--one of the best pro racers in the world. She was US Criterium Champion in '92 and '95, and she was third in the World Road Race Championship in '93 and fourth in '96. Over the course of a productive career, she won over 250 races. (I first met Laura when I had the pleasure of presenting the winner's check to her at a Wine Country Classic race meet sometime in the mid-90's. She had won the road race on Saturday and the crit on Sunday.)
A bad back cut her career short, but she channeled all that energy--and all her experience--into helping others to race. She founded Team Swift, a junior development program to assist young riders--beginning as early as age 8--to become skilled racers. Laura is the director, head coach, chief fund raiser, and de facto den mother for a roster that currently runs to 60 boys and girls drawn from around the Bay Area. (Photo shows some of the kids posing with Andy Hampsten. Laura is on the far right in the photo.)
Laura and her team pursue a year-'round schedule of training and racing, constantly learning from the head coach and from a staff of assistant coaches with a great deal of racing experience in amateur, pro, and masters events. Laura doesn't just assist the kids in becoming better racers; she also helps them to become better people. Knowing her as I have come to over the years, I would have to say she's just about the best thing that could happen to most of these kids as they mature, whether they end up with great success in racing or not.
But success in racing they do have, some of them at least. This year, for one example, Ashlyn Gerber won both the National Criterium and Road Race Championships and was second in the Time Trial (in her age group: 13-14). That's an amazing run...nearly a hat trick of all the available disciplines. The Team Swift program cranks out quality riders when it's time for them to move on to bigger things too. Several of their alumni are currently under pro contract, including bright young prospect Steven Cozza (left), now riding in the argyle livery of Team Slipstream. Cozza just won the Best Young Rider competition at the Tour of Missouri.
Laura requires her young team members to write reports on their races, some of which are published at the Team Swift website. For awhile, a few years back, she had me proofing these write-ups, checking the spelling and grammar and general composition. It was a fun assignment. I have to say Steven Cozza was about the worst of the bunch for writing skills, but perhaps his riding skills are making up for that. Some of the other kids write extremely well and give evidence of clever and complex minds at work.
Overall, when one gets to know the Team Swift kids, one comes away with an impression of really wholesome and healthy and smart youngsters whose lives are being enriched and expanded by their exposure to cycling (and especially by their exposure to the guidance and example of their head coach, Laura Charameda).
Now, on to cycle-touring, where for my example I present Venture Crew 27. Venture Crews are a spin-off from the Boy Scouts, a modern reinvention of the old Explorers program. It's a group for both boys and girls between the ages of 14 and 21, focused on outdoor adventures. Crew 27 has as its leader a guy named Pat Munsch, who is a regular on our Santa Rosa Cycling Club rides.
Pat sent me a brief report on a bike trip his crew did this summer: "At a meeting the week after the Tour of California came through Sonoma County, the youth members of Venture Crew 27 were trying to decide what to do for our Main Event for the coming summer. The previous summer we had hiked a section of the John Muir Trail into Yosemite and the summer before had a week-long rafting trip on the Rouge River in Oregon. The youth members voted for a week-long bike trip sometime in August. I, as the adult leader with the most bike experience, volunteered to lead the trip."
Pat goes on to explain how they pored over maps and routes from previous SRCC tours and finally settled on a loop up in the region of the Klamath and Salmon Rivers (where some of us in the club toured in the summer of 2006 and also in 2000). I don't know if you're familiar with the area, but there is some wonderful riding up there. Most of it is not too challenging, although there are a few climbs that will test even the hardiest veterans.
Few of the kids in the group had ever done anything like this before and had fairly minimal bike experience. Some didn't even have bikes. Pat put out a last-minute plea to the club for old bikes that still had some life in them, and he got some results, enough so that all the kids had bikes to ride of at least decent quality. Eventually, after a couple of test rides and some sessions on bike maintenance, they hit the road...
"We lunched in Yreka and then unloaded all the bikes in Fort Jones and rode 15 miles downhill to the tranquil Indian Scotty Campground on the Scott River. It was much further the second day, but still mostly downhill along the Scott and Klamath Rivers to Happy Camp and Curly Jack Campground. Several of the Crew rode back to town so they could get over 50 miles for the day! Our third day was a break day, rafting down the Klamath for 15 miles or so. The highlight was a 25' diameter whirlpool near the takeout. You could spin round and round and enjoy it till you were dizzy and numb. It was definitely the best swimming hole of the trip!
"The forth day was about 40 miles, mostly downhill along the Klamath, but with some headwind, to Oak Bottom Campground, two miles upstream on the Salmon River. The fifth day found us cranking up rollers for 35 miles along the Salmon Gorge to remote Idlewild Campground. The sixth and final riding day was the toughest for most participants. There was a 3300' climb in nine miles to Etna summit that took between 1.2 and 3.5 hours for the different riders. Each day the faster riders would all stop and wait for everyone else so we could all have lunch together. This day we waited at the summit for everyone to arrive. The sag made an extra trip down the grade, but everyone waved him off, even if they were walking their bikes! Everyone lined up along the road for the last few riders to cheer them on as they reached the summit! (Photo at left.) We all had snacks, then blasted the descent into Etna for lunch at the old-fashioned soda bar in the drugstore. Most delicious! We then ambled along for another 15 miles of easy flats into Fort Jones, loaded up, and all met in Shasta City for a celebratory dinner together."
I've done all the roads those kids were doing, and I can tell you two things for sure: the Salmon River Gorge is one of the most spectacular cycling routes you could ever dream up, and the Scott River and Klamath River sections are almost as good.. And that big climb to Etna summit...I would rate that an authentic Hors Categorie ascent in any Tour de France. We did it last summer, and it is a huge, epic climb. That all these novice riders completed it just blows me away.
The trip was a great success, but what follows might be even better, and it shows how infectious the cycling bug can be. "Gareth, the young man who rode the Clark Kent (donated by Bob Stolzman, an SRCC member), still rides often, even though he was struggling before the trip. Kristin, who rented the touring bike, has purchased a bike from Gary Grayson (another SRCC member) and rides to Analy High School every day. One of her best friends now has one of our extra road bikes and is also riding most days to school and they ride together to Santa Rosa for dance on Saturdays! Another crew member is still looking for an affordable, decent, used road bike to ride. Shelby rides a couple times a week and has done a time trial with me."
So here you have a group of kids with no prior cycling experience who decide, on their own, to organize a cycle-tour. They put the whole thing together, then do the stages and have a ball. And then at least some of them keep up with the cycling after they finish. This experience is very similar to one I reported on in a column several years ago call Experiential Education. That was about kids from Aspen High School who participate in a cycle-tour as part of their required curricula for high school. Imagine a school that offers credits toward graduation for going on a bike tour! Follow the link here and check out that article. It's very inspiring.
Pat mentions Analy High School in his report. That's the main high school in my home town of Sebastopol. Both of my other examples have an Analy connection. First up is Matthew Wilson, 18, a student at Analy, who this past June completed the Terrible Two double century. He finished in a time of 15:47, and rode in with Robert Redmond, another SRCC member (and a Furnace Creek 508 finisher last year). That Matt could complete the TT and finished in the company of someone like Robert Redmond speaks volumes about this kid. I had not met him before the TT, but chatted with him after the ride, where he was wandering around the finish area--at Analy HS--with his mom, basking in that euphoric glow that comes over so many first-time TT finishers. I've ridden with him since on some club centuries, where we have had many miles for getting acquainted. He's a smart young man with his head screwed on straight.
Double centuries are not generally considered the normal habitat of young riders. (Matt is not the youngest to have completed the TT, but we think he's the second youngest.) As I noted in The Old Farts, it takes time to learn how to ride long distances, and most kids can't figure it out. Besides, they have other interests, and even if those interests include bikes, their focus is likely to be racing or trick bikes or mountain biking...not spending nearly 16 hours grinding away on remote, hilly back roads. That is what makes his participation in the Terrible Two somewhat noteworthy.
Matt became aware of the TT through the club and by reading my quasi-histories of the event published in this space last year. He decided it was the one thing he really wanted to do in cycling, at least for starters. He trained all spring, taking time to seek the advice of the many old TT vets in the club. He did a good, intelligent job of prepping himself for the event, and it showed in his results.
You might argue that one single high school kid doing this double doesn't constitute a youth movement, and I wouldn't disagree with you. The world of doubles and ultramarathon events is never going to attract hordes of young riders. I just wanted to salute one kid who did decide to tilt at that particular windmill. He wasn't the first of his age to do it, and I'm sure he won't be the last.
My last little item--under the heading of commuting--also concerns Analy HS. Where do kids commute? To and from school...maybe. Most take the bus or drive cars or ride with friends who drive. But a growing number are riding bikes to school.
I was meeting some of my pals for an afternoon ride, and we had agreed to meet near Analy just at the time that school let out. While waiting for my friends outside the school, I was intrigued to notice quite a few boys and girls pedaling away from campus on classic old cruiser bikes, books in the baskets on the bars. Later I learned that someone has put together a program to encourage kids to ride to the high school, and the school has bought into the program by offering credits or some other form of brownie points for the kids who do so. It appears to be working. The kids are out there, tooling around town on two wheels. It wasn't all that long ago that high school students would not have been caught dead riding a bike to school or anywhere else. It was hopelessly dweeby. Now, apparently, that is changing, and these kids look like they see themselves as cutting-edge cool to be doing what they're doing.
So...what can we conclude from these stories? Is there really a youth movement out there? Are kids rediscovering bikes just when they might otherwise be getting their driver's licenses? I don't really know, and I don't have one scrap of hard data to support the notion that such a paradigm shift is in progress.
But I can take heart from these isolated anecdotes...from a few kids riding to high school (and the school promoting it); from a lone wolf of a kid who tackles the harderst double century out there; from Venture Crew 27 and its novice riders; from Team Swift and its junior racers. I can hope that they represent some sort of trend...many different approaches to the world of cycling, but all heading in the right direction. I see these young riders, in all their varied venues, and I can feel reassured that, after I've gone on my last cycle-tour in Valhalla, these kids or others like them will be working the pace lines on club rides. The kids are alright, and the subculture of cycling is going to be alright with these kids continuing to do what we have done.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org