Austin's bike was stuck in the mud and going nowhere. Literally.
Austin, a 13-year-old McFarland, Wisconsin, Middle School student, was participating in Bicycling Wisconsin, a summer school class emphasizing outdoor recreation. Austin and his bike were mired in the tractor pull track running alongside the Elroy-Sparta State Park trail in Norwalk, Wisconsin.
Last summer was Austin's third year in the program, so I knew of his ability to discover alternative routes. As Austin later pointed out, our guidelines did not specifically prohibit students from riding their bikes on a tractor pull track filled with six inches of clay mud, and he figured his mountain bike would be just as good at mud-shredding as any tractor.
Adolescent logic, while often irrational, has always made me smile, and this was the second time Austin's decision-making left me grinning.
I began the Bicycling Wisconsin class in 1991 to share my love of cycling with my McFarland High School students, giving them an opportunity to get out of stuffy classrooms and enjoy some exercise on state park trails in Wisconsin's great outdoors.
My plan was met with skepticism back in 1990 when I first shared my idea with friends and colleagues.
"Why in the world would you want to take 50 kids biking all day?" some asked.
The doubters said students wouldn't sign up or enjoy it (it would be too hard), transportation of the students and their bikes would be too difficult, the activity would be too unpredictable and dangerous and organization would be mind-bogglingly complicated.
Nevertheless, I recruited colleagues and fellow cycling enthusiasts Tod Lacey and Becky Stokes, and the program we started has proven the doubters wrong. As teachers we were highly motivated knowing too many young people are denied opportunities to discover the joy of silent sports. This continues to be the case today in our world of addiction to high-tech entertainment and skyrocketing adolescent obesity.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the prevalence of obesity among adolescents aged 12 to 19 years increased from 5 percent to more than 18 percent between 1980 and 2008. Programs like Bicycling Wisconsin, meanwhile, help young people develop healthful habits that can last a lifetime.
Jeanne Hockett, who teaches at McFarland Primary School and helps chaperone Bicycling Wisconsin rides, supports the program for this reason. "For me, a physical fitness educator, it's great to see older students and their progressing fitness levels. Bicycling Wisconsin is an awesome physical challenge for kids," she said.
John Wells, McFarland School District Summer School Coordinator for the past 10 years, considers the program a success.
"Bicycling Wisconsin is one of our most popular offerings," Wells said. "Many of the students who participate would not have the opportunity to ride on our state trail system were it not for Bicycling Wisconsin. They are able to enjoy the trails, learn about the natural areas adjacent to the trails, spend time outdoors, get exercise and be with their friends. Kids sign up again and again."
What follows is a quick blueprint for a cycling program for young people that could be successful in your community, too.
1) Choose trails, plan routes, set schedule
In McFarland, the decision to ride on nearby state park trails was an easy choice from the start. Each trail offers easy access and parking, bathrooms, exact point-to-point routes, a choice of distances, a variety of outdoor and historic features, and a safe (flat and consistent) riding surface of aggregate limestone/packed earth commonly found on reclaimed railroad corridors.
Wisconsin has more than 30 paved or limestone state trails state suited for touring. A The Department of Natural Resources' website details trail offerings another 30 off-road trails which could accommodate similar youth cycling programs. (dnr.wi.gov/org/land/parks/trails/bike.html) See the sidebar for the five trails we visit.
We offer five day-long trips on Fridays when summer school is not in session. Students thus avoid conflicts with other classes. Since state park trails are busier on weekends, weekday riding minimizes mishaps for our inexperienced young cyclists.
We've never postponed a trip because of rainy or high or low temperatures, but we do schedule one rain date in case lightning or high winds cause a postponement of a bike trip. In 20 years, we've had to make up postponed trips on the rain dates only a few times.
2) Publicize program & make it easy to participate
We heavily advertised the program from the start with in-school posters and fliers, schoolwide publications and articles in the local newspaper. The program is sustained now through both student and parent word-of-mouth. Teachers and trip chaperones talk the program up with students and display photos. Summer school registration materials contain accurate, fun descriptions.
Offering the activity to a multi-grade (middle school and high school) group works well and attracts the most participants. Any student in grades 5 to 12 can sign up. High school students are often asked to serve as mentors for the youngest kids.
"It is not unusual to have kids participate four or five straight summers and then come back as helpers when they get to high school," Wells said.
To make trips attractive to parents, each is a day-long activity (we leave at 8 a.m. and return mid-to-late afternoon) to reduce childcare concerns. Registrants can sign up for individual trips, costing $20 per trip, or for all five for $75. We recruit parents, who attend for free.
Lisa Starke from McFarland rode last year with her sons Jimmy, 14, and Justin, 12. "I love this multi-age activity," she said. "It gives kids the opportunity to do a long ride at their own pace and shows them they can do something they had doubts about."
Too many of us underestimate the strength and endurance of young people. Parents like Lisa and school administrators appreciate programs like this providing the spark to get their kids exercising.
Sue Murphy, a former Bicycling Wisconsin chaperone and now principal of Waubesa Intermediate School in McFarland, agrees. "The students learn about biking as a form of recreation and exercise. I wish we could get more kids to ride to school. It would be more earth friendly and better for them physically," Murphy said.
Trips average 20 to 25 miles in length. For the first few years of the program, we only allowed high school students and they rode 40 to 50 miles. Since most participants these days are middle school students, we've shortened the distances. Regardless, most students have no difficulty completing the routes. And some who attend with their parents even admit enjoying biking with mom or dad.
Tod Lacey, a McFarland High School teacher who has ridden as both a trip chaperone and parent, appreciates the family friendly aspect of the program.
"Few families would be able to load several bikes in their car and then take the entire day for an extensive ride. Plus, they would have to double-back and ride the trail to their starting point. This program allows kids and parents to experience the state trails under optimal conditions," Lacey said.
3) Simplify bike & student transportation
Shipping 60 bikes is remarkably easy. We rent a 26-foot Ryder truck for the day. We prefer one with a ramp, allowing students to help load their bikes. Rope is used to stabilize the bikes and some students bring blankets to keep their bikes from getting scratched. Unloading the bikes takes less than ten minutes.
One adult drives the truck (no special license is necessary) and everyone else rides a school bus. After dropping bikes and students off at the start point, the bus and truck are driven to our lunch destination, allowing students to leave their lunches/supplies on board.
After the lunch break, the bus and truck are driven to meet students at our final destination. Occasionally students having a tough day are allowed to stop after lunch and take the bus to the end. The infrequent 90-degree, high-humidity day is sometimes tough on young adults who are more easily affected by heat than adults. This is a nice safety option, also useful for students with allergies or health issues.
4) Stress safety & don't sweat the little stuff
A few weeks before the first ride, parents receive a detailed letter listing behavior expectations, bike maintenance tips, dates and times a final checklist.
As riders arrive for each trip, safety begins with a quick bike inspection. Brakes and tires are checked and bikes are repaired, as needed, before being loaded on the truck. All adults carry repair essentials. The adult rider bringing up the rear makes sure to have a well-equipped bike repair tool kit, too.
Of course, helmets are mandatory. (In 20 years, only one student has been left home due to a forgotten helmet.) We encourage all students to have cell phones. All adults carry first-aid supplies, a phone and a spreadsheet with student and parent cell and emergency numbers.
The number one inquiry I receive regarding organization and safety is how to cope with the wide divergence in pace expected when riding with a multi-age group. Some envision us riding together en masse, the cyclists assembled in one long line, kids bookended by adults at the front and back and the group mandated to ride together at the same slow speed. Herding cats would be easier, and probably more fun.
We organize ourselves differently, beginning with a buddy system. We require participants be with a buddy at all times, no exceptions. Any student without a buddy rides with an adult. A minimum of three adults is on the trail at all times: one with the front group, one in the middle (with the largest or neediest group), and one at the back. A fourth adult, the truck driver, rides the trail in reverse after parking the truck at our destination. The driver will meet up with the first group and ten ride back to the destination or wait for others.
Parents - the more the merrier - sometimes volunteer to ride with needy students but usually ride with whomever they choose.
This system allows students to ride at their own pace. The lead group will finish about an hour ahead of the finishers on a typical 20-mile trip.
Students who attend all five trips can recite the written guidelines we orally present. Anyone familiar with middle school students understands why the number one rule we stress is to obey stop and yield signs on the trail. Breathing, riding a bike and talking with friends show our riders truly can multi-task. Yet they sometimes forget to think. State park trails bisect many roads, and riders have to be reminded loudly and often to stop at the intersections.
5) Make it fun
Allowing students to ride at their own speeds is the key to a fun time. They can pursue trail diversions, like photographing the bullfrog under the bridge, picking tasty berries, cooling off with water fights, exploring animal tracks and reading trailside signs.
We offer side trips to faster or thrill-seeking students. For example, on the Military Ridge State Trail, each year a small group follows a connector trail and park roads to the lookout tower on top of Blue Mounds. At Governor Dodge State Park, we've broken students into two groups to go swimming or off-road biking.
Our lunch stop and final destinations are chosen to offer fun, off-bike activities. Ice cream stands, trailside convenience stores, historic sights and signs, playground equipment, rivers and lakes, picnic tables, open parkland for playing Ultimate Frisbee or tag. Features and amenities like these foster enjoyable activities and keep idle time short.
Each participant receives a brightly colored T-shirt designed by a high school art student. "They wear the T-shirts as kind of a badge of honor, saying 'I rode that far. Wow!'" said Marc Heuer, a McFarland Indian Mound Middle School teacher and frequent trip chaperone.
Another activity for riders are the trail scavenger hunts. Each student receives a trail guide with trip guidelines, trail history, map and scavenger hunt questions. The hunt is interactive, requiring students to read about the region's history, use math and map skills, talk to adult chaperones, interpret trail signs and solve puzzles by consulting with their peers. Winners receive bicycling prizes donated by Stoton Cycle, our local bike store in Stoughton. Gloves, water bottles, gift certificates, and seat packs are the popular prizes. The T-shirt cost is offset by contributions from our printer Sports Products, Mfg., in Oregon.
6) Be flexible
Murphy's Law increases exponentially whenever adolescents are involved, so we've come to expect surprises and learned to be flexible.
The weather does not always cooperate. Lacey remembers a need for flotation devices following a particularly bad storm.
"The Monticello area was doused with 13 inches of rain the night before our trip," he recalled. "About five miles into our Sugar River Trail ride, the path was washed right out. You can't bike in water a foot deep. We wound up turning around and going back to New Glarus."
We've modified routes a number of times due to trail conditions, wind, temperature, humidity, lightning and predicted storms. Knowing weather forecasts and alternative routes allow us to remain flexible and assure safety and maintain our sense of humor.
Michelle Garvey, Indian Mound Middle School teacher and trip chaperone, still laughs about an alternative adventure. Garvey was the designated truck driver on the Badger Trail in 2008. After dropping the truck off in Monroe, she began riding north on the trail to meet us riding south from Monticello. Garvey is a fast rider so we expected to meet her halfway between Monticello and Monroe. But she didn't arrive and called instead.
She was on the trail, she explained, but hadn't seen anyone yet. And by the way, where exactly is the Jane Addams Trail on which she was now riding? Mystery solved. The Jane Addams Trail begins where the Badger Trail terminates. Garvey had ridden 6.5 miles south, not north, and now found herself in Illinois. She still beat us back to Monroe.
Our guidelines and procedures are also subject to Murphy's Law, prompting modifications. For example, we've changed the way we handle the few big hills on our routes, like the park road at Blue Mounds. We now queue students at the top of the hills and start them at 30-second intervals. In addition, depending on the size of the group, we may station an adult mid-hill to remind students to go slowly.
Why this approach? Well, that brings us back to Austin. Three years ago, Austin's rear wheel slid out from under him on a steep grade at Governor Dodge State Park. The good person he is, Austin walked his bike back up the trail to warn others of the slippery spot. Unfortunately, as others came around a bend, they encountered well-meaning Austin in the middle of the trail, and they were forced to take evasive action, resulting in a multitude of crashes.
Two hours later, as I was calling parents from the emergency room at the Dodgeville Hospital - I had five students in five different rooms - a new way to handle hills seemed reasonable. Every student was released with minor cuts and bruises. Only Austin suffered a concussion, and his injury proved to be minor and didn't dampen his love of bicycling. He was back the following two years.
Joe Brady is the head cycling coach for the Western Wisconsin Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Chapter's annual Ride to Cure Diabetes, this year taking place in August at La Crosse. He welcomes inquiries about establishing bicycling activities for young people and will gladly share resources and information. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Guidelines & reminders
Students read this list with us as we present it aloud for their safety:
1) Choose a buddy (or buddies). You must stay with your buddy on the trail at all times as a safety precaution.
2) Leave the trail clean. Dispose of litter properly.
3) It's OK to explore streams, wildlife, flowers, etc., along the trail, but remember to respect private property. Always leave your bikes next to the trail so you can be located.
4) Be on the lookout for loose gravel, especially near roads and bridges. Also look for dips and potholes. It's easy to catch a tire and fall so be careful.
5) Obey all stop and yield signs on the trail. Car drivers can't see bikes until they enter the roadway.
6) Stay to the right and ride single file when other riders approach. Ride defensively.
7) If your bike develops a problem, wait along the trail. The last adult will have repair tools.
8) If a farm dog chases you, yell "NO!" If this doesn't work, get off your bike and keep the bike between you and the dog. Calmly tell the dog to go home. Don't show fear. Begin to walk slowly down the road. When you leave the dog's territory, it will give up and you can ride on.
9) Drink plenty of water along the route and wear sunscreen. If you feel ill, wait alongside the trail in some shade for an adult. Adults have first-aid supplies.
10) In case of lightning, remember to never stop under a tree. Put on a jacket and continue to the next town to find a building for shelter.
11) Always wear your helmet and keeping it buckled.
12) To be eligible for prizes you must correctly answer the scavenger hunt questions. It's OK to help each other.
13) This is not a race. Take your time, have fun, and enjoy the trip.
Bike Repair 101
Take every tool you can fit into that bike bag, and don't forget the duct tape, chain oil, zip ties and superglue. Here's a short list of on-trail wrenching dilemmas you can expect to face:
• Chains: broken, frozen, noisy. I've seen them all. On one of our first trips in the early '90s, a young girl's chain broke less than a mile from the start. Over the years we've fixed many chains. Bring a chain link tool and extra links and know how to use them.
• Tires & tubes: Participants are required to bring spare tubes and pumps or C02 cartridges. Some actually do this. I never know what tube size to expect when a student hands me his or her spare tube. I've seen every size from a 16 inch to a 700 x 32C presta valve. Unfortunately, these are often brought as replacements for 26-inch tires.
I always bring spare 26 x 1.75-2.25 inch tubes, the most common size. Almost all student bikes have Schrader rims. I've yet to see a 29er on one of our rides. I carry a frame pump, as it's faster than a mini-pump and less costly than C02 cartridges. I've needed to use tube repair kits and only once needed to use a dollar bill to strengthen a tire sidewall.
• Brakes & cables: A few years ago, an older boy started at the front, but by mile five had drifted back to me in the caboose. His problem was easy to diagnose: Both his brakes were rubbing and his front tire might have had only 10 pounds of pressure. I adjusted his brakes as he pumped up his tire. Shortly after, he and his buddy took off and beat us to lunch by 30 minutes. Brakes need adjusting on virtually every trip we take.
• Seats, seats, seats: More than half of our riders need their seats raised on the first trip each year. Riders show up with bikes that fit them the previous year but haven't been touched since. Raising seats and bars is a must to accommodate adolescent growth spurts, so come prepared. I carry a well-equipped multi-tool and a small adjustable wrench for these tasks.
• Spokes, bars, & derailleurs: Students do crash and will break or bend every bike part imaginable. On the Military Ridge State Trail a few years ago, I found a student pointing at his rear derailleur jammed into two broken spokes. This particular young man always kept us smiling with his bike antics, riding recklessly as fast as he could. Twenty minutes later, I had him on his way on one of McFarland's first singlespeeds, thanks to a pipe clamp and spoke wrench. Since I got to choose the gear, his riding too fast was no longer an issue. Two problems solved!
Be sure to appeal to the Department of Natural Resources a week in advance to waive the state park entrance fees for school bus and truck parking. DNR personnel are great resources for trail information and have been very supportive of our program.
We visit these five trails in June and July in the following order:
Glacial-Drumlin State Trail
This perfect first trip is short, beginning at the trailhead in Cottage Grove. We take a water break at Deerfield and rest breaks in London and Lake Mills and end at Aztalan State Park, one of Wisconsin's archeological treasures with mysterious pyramid mounds and a historic stockade on the Crawfish River.
Along the way we can see a bison ranch and acre after acre of mint and sod farms. The 1.5 miles we ride on County Highway Q is safe with a wide paved shoulder.
Total distance: 20 miles.
Sugar River State Trail
Our second trip begins in the heart of Brodhead. On miles of shady trail, we discover a restored covered bridge, abundant wildlife, trailside caves and the meandering Sugar River. We end at the Swiss village of New Glarus, where tasty, cool ice cream awaits us at the trail's end cafè.
Total distance: 23 miles.
Military Ridge State Trail
We begin at Grundahl Park in Mt. Horeb. This trail offers scenic vistas, an optional side trip to one of Wisconsin's highest elevations atop Blue Mounds, a deserving lunch break in Barneveld, and an easy, mile-long downhill ride to our final destination, the beach at Governor Dodge State Park, where we enjoy a refreshing swim.
Total distance: 23 miles.
Badger State Trail
Just a few miles from our starting point at Belleville, we discover the historic Stewart Tunnel, the trail highlight. After walking our bikes through the winding, dark tunnel, we bike the cliff-lined trail carved out of Green County's beautiful hills before ending at Twining Park in Monroe.
Total distance: 20 miles.
Undoubtedly one of the nation's oldest and most-loved state bike trails and the favorite of our riders. From our start at Kendall, we enjoy the cool, refreshing air of two famous tunnels traversing the hilly Hidden Valley region and its incredible countryside. After a lunch break in Norwalk, we ride out and back to the famous Norwalk Tunnel, which is almost a mile long.
Total distance: 22 miles.