Changing the World of Cycling … One Kid At a Time
Cycling with Kierstin Kloeckner
“It all begins with respecting that all kids will come to cycling for different reasons … none of them better or greater than another. By providing this opportunity … we’re changing lives.”
-Todd Poquette, founder of 906 Adventure Team in Marquette, Michigan
Back in the 1980s, I was one of the lucky kids who got to train with the Gopher Wheelmen junior team in Minneapolis. To this day, I still remember all five of my coaches, two of whom were women. These seasoned cyclists took a bunch of us unruly kids (ages 12-18) out on weekly road rides to practice skills needed to race competitively, but more importantly, skills we needed to stay safe and improve our self confidence.
After our normal warm-up, we’d practice pacelines, sprints, hill climbing and then, once in awhile, we’d head to a grassy field to get comfortable bumping wheels, leaning into one another and water bottle pick ups. It was with this group, and by riding with my father who raced and trained Category 4 racers at the time, I learned that finesse is often more important than speed. Just about anyone who trained their body hard enough could win a sprint to the finish line, but could they do so without taking an entire field out? Could they jump into a paceline during a windy race and control themselves?
Adventure Bike Club Coach Todd Poquette leads a young rider through the skills course. Stacie Poquette photo
As I enter group riding once again, after a very long hiatus, I am amazed by how few people ever learned proper bike handling and group etiquette – causing crashes or near misses in many of the group rides I now participate in. And sadly, it makes me not want to go out in large unknown groups very often, even though I know it’s the best way for me to work on my speed and power.
Being an active member of a small racing team, I act as support and a team rider versus a racer, I often travel to the larger Midwest races to cheer on my teammates. At many of these events, I am often treated to seeing not one, but two large junior development teams from my home city of Minneapolis. Both NorthStar and MNJRC make huge showings with their team vans, coaches, hammocks, tents and entourage. I am always blown away by how well they do in not only the junior races, but often the senior races as well (junior racers are allowed to race in other fields if they have earned points).
This how Team Northstar set up accommodations at this year’s Tour of America’s Dairyland. Making events comfortable and fun for their juniors helps keep them interested and involved. The author sees their hammocks set up at every big race. Kierstin Kloeckner photo
I love watching the coaches stand on the course giving them pointers the entire race, while the parents just take an active part in cheering their kids on. This is exactly how kids should learn how to race. A junior development team is only as strong as the coaches and volunteers. These selfless, warm folks are able to push the youth when they see fit, and back off before the juniors begin to despise the sport. Coaching youth is a lot like dancing. There is so much more that goes on between a coach and a junior racer than meets the eye. Often, coaches become counselors, second parents, confidants and parole officers. Most people don’t have the skills to be able to both push and pull kids at the same time. In my eyes – just like a great camp counselor – being a junior coach for any sport is one of the most admirable jobs out there.
When I left racing, I was still considered a junior (age 16). Sadly, I never really wanted to “race,” I just wanted to ride. And although I was a natural talent on two wheels, taking after my father, I think my coaches knew I didn’t like competing. I loved training and going on the group rides, I just didn’t like putting my wheel on the line. I wish there had been more opportunities, like there are now with teams like 906, for a youth who just wanted to play hard on two wheels. In some ways, I wish my father had opened up the mountain biking door for me. Regardless of neither happening, I found my way back to riding after a two-year hiatus other than bike commuting.
Thankfully, the bike has been the largest mainstay in my life ever since. Here’s hoping the new coaches and junior development programs can tap into that two wheel love for thousands of other kids around the Midwest.
Ryan Grim instructing Adventure Bike Club riders this spring. Chris Holm photo
I am lucky enough to know a few of these very special folks who are involved in these programs. Both Todd Poquette (of the 906 team in Michigan) and Charlie Townsend (of NorthStar in Minnesota) started their programs because of their love for bikes, but it goes so much deeper. Todd noticed the barriers many kids had and wanted to remove them by creating opportunities. Races were never part of the original vision for 906, but events like Polar Roll and Marji Gesick have helped create revenue and attention needed to make the team successful, as well as impacting the community as a whole. Charlie and his wife, Sherry, started Northstar because they had long mentored and coached kids from two different all-aged clubs in Minnesota. When they all raced at ToAD or Quad Cities or Nationals, they noticed that the junior-only teams seemed to get better traction: they were bigger (more girls too!) and the kids had their own identity and seemed well-bonded and proud of their team. It made sense. Kids and parents expect a little league or youth soccer experience when the club is organized solely to help kids learn and enjoy the sport within a team of other kids.
Both teams rely heavily on volunteers, needless to say. Todd said although he hasn’t tracked volunteer data, he estimates their NICA coaches logged in around 500 hours last June-October to kickstart the high school mountain bike team in the U.P. And that doesn’t include the after school programs or adventure bike club hours. He foresees that number will only continue to grow each year as more and more kids want to participate. Charlie’s program also shows the dedication from volunteers with five primary coaches and help from cycling parents and program alums. He states “they are committed to providing quality, USA Cycling-trained and certified coaches. Three of us are USAC Category 1 (elite) coaches. That’s half of the elite-certified coaches in our home states of Minnesota and Iowa. Our other two coaches are USAC Category 3 coaches.”
I asked both coaches why they feel cycling is so important to youth and why they decided to form their programs. My heart filled with joy as I read their answers, and made me wish every child could be a part of their teams.
Todd: “Cycling is about you and the bike. There’s no depth chart. No excuses. You will do hard things and you’ll get results proportionate to the effort you put in. Traditional sports are full of obstacles, ranging from parental politics to depth charts and kids who just do not fit the mold of a football player, etc. There are a ton of athletically-gifted kids out there not suiting up for a variety of reasons, but you put them on a bike and they soar. Athletic pursuit and results aside, cycling brings kids outside to experience the world around them. They’ll gain confidence, independence and a connection with the world around them. The world is full of too many screens and distractions … I want kids to feel the wind in their hair and those moments of freedom you experience during a ride.”
Charlie: “Hopefully, NorthStar has positively influenced each of our riders. Developing every single member is really important. Their needs are all different, of course. We work with some to plan their season, so they have achievable but still motivating goals. Others need help honestly debriefing themselves after races to identify what weaknesses they can work on in their training. Still others need help building the skills and confidence to descend or corner without braking or to position themselves effectively in a fast-moving pack. We want every kid who is interested to get a chance to try competitive cycling. Our primary sponsor-partners (CSM, HED Cycling, Specialized, Bicycle Chain and some generous private benefactors) allow us – when needed – to outfit kids with bikes, race wheels and other equipment. We also have subsidized race fees, clothing, travel, team and USAC camp fees and expenses when we know that an athlete couldn’t otherwise participate. We have a confidential process to make sure we best leverage our resources when allocating team equipment and funds.”
My hope, by others reading this, they feel inspired to make a positive impact on a kid’s life in their community through two wheels. These two coaches have offered their time and energy to not only their own teams, but also with a junior program I’d like to start one day. They have proven we can never underestimate what programs like this can accomplish, and I can’t thank them enough!