Local mountain bike team eager to begin second year

With its second year set to start on Wednesday, the Fairfield County Youth Cycling Team appears to be here to stay.

Formed in 2015, and sponsored by the Outdoor Sports Center in Wilton, the team is open to young riders aged 9-18 in the Wilton-Norwalk area. The current roster of 13 is comprised of riders from those two communities as well as Westport, Weston and Redding.

“Most of the riders have been with team since the start,” said Monika Stokes, one of the team’s two coaches along with Evan Tobey of the Outdoor Sports Center. “They’re great kids and really, really awesome parents, and everybody’s really excited about riding again.”

The Fairfield County team was formed as part of the Connecticut Cycling Advancement Program, or CCAP. The team works on fundamental mountain biking skills such as proper body position, controlled braking, and climbing and descending.

The team is open to riders of all levels. The overall goals, said Stokes, are to build team unity, engage siblings, and to get the kids outdoors and “form them into little human beings.”

So far, it’s been a success on all levels.

All the kids have become really good friends. The parents help each other getting the kids to practice. There’s a big community being built around it,” she said. “I’m hoping they become friends for life.”

According to Stokes, "siblings, parents, and friends of the riders are starting to ride, as well, and it's great to see others getting the mountain biking bug.”

Practices are on Wednesdays and Saturdays at Cranbury Park in Norwalk, with races on select weekends. There are also field trips to other riding destinations in Fairfield County.

During the fall season, which runs through November, the team will train for cyclocross and compete in eight races, all in Connecticut.

Cyclocross is a form of bike racing that involves riders dismounting and remounting to avoid obstacles on foot while navigating different types of terrain on mountain bikes. Other important skills that are taught include racing starts, cornering, race strategy, pacing and proper nutrition.

It’s specific to the fall season, but these are skills common to any kind of riding,” Stokes said of Cyclocross.

Racing is optional, but newcomers have the opportunity to watch and learn from the team’s more experienced riders.

“If they don’t want to ride, they come and cheer. We train them so they see the other kids and are motivated by how well they ride,” she said. “They really love it. They do race when they feel like it. We try to make it, most importantly, fun so it’s not a competition.”

The Outdoor Sports Center has been a big part of the team’s success. In addition to its sponsorship, the Outdoor Sports Center designed the logo and jersey for the team along with promotional materials like the team banner.

The shop had also helped with checking and maintaining helmets and bikes, and bike repair.

“Outdoor Sports Center has been incredibly helpful to the team. They supported it before it was even born,” Stokes said. “They understand the kids are going to ride hard. The can provide them with a good bike and set them up so they’re confident in their equipment and abilities, and go out there and have fun.”

The Outdoor Sports Center bike shop has become sort of the team’s home base, where riders can pick up accessories and get bikes tuned up on the way to or from practice.

Tobey, a bike mechanic as well as an accomplished racer, brings a ton of technical and riding knowledge to the team this year as the new coach.

He recently completed the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race in Colorado, said Stokes, and is “a great inspiration for our riders.”

For Stokes, teaching kids to enjoy biking, and to get them riding in the woods, is a labor of love. She got the club started because her 10-year-old son was looking for some riding buddies on their riding trips.

“He wanted to take friends. I love to ride and I love to be outdoors. I think it’s important for kids today to be outdoors and learning some life lessons out in the woods,” she said. “I really like connecting with kids and see them get better and stronger, and becoming better persons. It’s a lot of fun.”

The response from riders and families has been overwhelmingly positive.

As one parent said, "My family of five already enjoys cycling together and now we have found a local opportunity for my sons to learn to mountain bike and be part of a team. Not only were there opportunities to race when the boys felt ready, but we were introduced to other mountain biking locations around the county. Now my third son is ready to join the team.”

The only things holding back the team’s further growth at this point seems to be the team itself. Stokes limited registration to 13 riders this fall — with 11 of them returning from last season.

“I think because it’s an all-volunteer effort, there are some limitations,” she Stokes. “There’s definitely more interest and we have a wait list.”

But as the sport of mountain biking continues to grow, she hopes to expand the Fairfield County team in the future.

“That’s always been the longtime plan. We want to make the team bigger and get more kids to fall in love with biking.”

For now, Stokes said it was important to keep things small — and fun.

“It gives us the opportunity to work with the kids closely and give them more attention,” she said. “I like to start out slowly first and do it really, really well. If we can build out to that would be great.”

Note: For more information about the team, stop by Outdoor Sports Center or visit the CCAP website.