“THE OTHER KIDS at my high school don’t even think mountain biking is a sport,” 15 year old Caden Holm (below, on the right) says. He’s a sophomore at Negaunee High School. “They’re all about football and basketball. That’s it. They think I’m crazy.”
So what does he say to them? “I tell them they ought to get on a bike and try to do what I’m doing!”
Caden’s on the 906 Adventure Team, the Marquette-based mountain biking club that started back in 2014. They had just a few kids that first year, 13 last year, 32 this year, and growing fast.
Sixth graders through twelfth graders, almost a third of them girls. Two practices a week. Average practice covers five miles over rugged terrain.
Some of the 906 riders compete for Marquette Senior High School in races organized by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. And they’ve done well–in their last race in Wisconsin, they finished fifth out of 46 teams.
But Adventure Team founder Todd Poquette says although he fully supports those competitions, they aren’t really the point of youth mountain biking.
“I don’t want them to compete against each other,” he tells you. “I don’t want that to be the driving motivator. It doesn’t have to be this win-lose paradigm that we’ve been taught all our lives. They should be competing against themselves.”
Charlie Ruuska (above), who’s 17, understands. “In football, it’s always someone wins and someone loses,” he says. “But in biking, if you get tenth place, you can count that as a win because there’s lots of guys racing. For me, beating my last time is the most important part.”
But mountain biking is more than even competition against yourself. There’s a Zen quality to it: total focus, and a togetherness of body, mind and spirit. In the mountains, no less, along streams, lakes, and waterfalls.
“You’re on your own out there,” 17 year old Jacey Johnson explains. “Sometimes you don’t see anybody at all for miles. There’s nobody cheering. You feel like you’re flowing. You just talk to yourself. There’s nobody else.”
That’s not to say there isn’t adversity in biking. Anguish even.
Some of the 906 Adventure Team members, including two 11-year-olds, recently raced in the infamous, masochistic Marji Gesick 50 (Poquette says, with a twinkle in his eye, it’s actually 57 miles long).
That’s eleven hours or more of riding and falling and carrying your bike and wondering why the hell you decided to ride the stupid race.
“You just have to keep going,” Charlie says. “I had ten miles to go and I was out of energy and I had no idea how I was gonna make it. But then you realize it’s all in your head.”
So, Charlie, how many times did you fall during the Marji?
“I didn’t really have any bad falls,” he tells you, “but I probably fell 15 times.”
“You fell more than that!” Caden interjects. “I know for a fact that I fell at least 35 times!”
Again you’re struck by these youngsters’ willingness to fall and fail (temporarily) and suffer and pick themselves up.
“Biking teaches you to suck it up,” Caden says, “and get it over with. Like with a job, you may not like it but you need to do it because you need to get paid.”
This is when Poquette, their coach and their mentor, beams. This is what getting young people on bikes is all about. They learn about Life on the trails out there. The good and the bad. The sublime and the miserable.
Most of all, they learn about themselves.
Poquette tells you about the practice they had last year when he had them finish with three separate, timed laps around a trail. He told the 11 riders to go all out on these runs. They each finished the first lap, panting, exhausted. Then they did the second lap; now their tongues were hanging out, their muscles were tightening up, and everybody was ready to be done with it.
And then Poquette told them, “Okay, on this last lap, I’ll buy everybody dinner if everybody…everybody…posts their fastest lap!”
The protest was loud and immediate. “You shoulda told us that when we started!” “We can’t do it!” “That’s not fair!”
They raced their last lap. Each of them posted their fastest lap. All eleven. They went out to dinner on Poquette’s dime.
A sense of achievement is what biking brings them. Self confidence. And therapy too.
“Sometimes after a stressful day at school, I just go out on the south trails,” Jacey (above) says, “and I get into a rhythm. It makes me feel better.”
It seems so simple, especially at a time when we’re constantly reading about troubled adolescents, bullying, alienation, isolation, even suicide. Why not get kids out on the trails?
And it makes you wonder why, in the Upper Peninsula of all places, we haven’t heard more about mountain biking programs for young people until now. Most kids have bikes and Marquette County is filled with trails.
Not only that, but national magazines and online publications are singing our praises, and we have the Ore to Shore and Marji Gesick races to spread the word.
“I don’t know why, but we’re getting started a little later than other regions,” Poquette tells you. “Seriously, this is kind of a racing mecca. And I believe this thing (youth mountain biking) is on a launching pad. We’re getting ready to take off.”
They’re taking off because he and 15 other coaches are spreading the word about the 906 Adventure Team. Not only in Marquette but in Ishpeming, Negaunee, and all over the county.
They’re taking off because they’ve gotten serious financial support from the Rotary Clubs, the Community Foundation, the Bell Auxiliary, the Western Marquette County Health Foundation, and Border Grill. They’ve bought a racing trailer and mountain bikes for kids who can’t afford them.
And they’re taking off because the boys and girls–even the so-called “non-athletes”–love it.
“They’re working out their stuff by getting on a bike,” Poquette says. “The 90 minutes of exercise, the release of endorphins, and the chemical impact it has on kids is enormous.”
It also gets them off their phones, off their computers. Away from drugs.
“It’s an adrenaline rush,” Caden adds.
“It’s just fun,” Jacey says. “And it’s so cool because it’s right in my backyard.”
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