TRAVERSE CITY — The sea of orange-clad cyclists fanning out from the Grand Traverse County Civic Center weekday afternoons is the state’s largest youth mountain biking team in training.
With 182 members this fall, the colossal Grand Traverse Region Youth Mountain Bike Team offers young riders training, support and enthusiasm.
Participants include first through 12th graders who attend 28 area schools.
As their fall season winds down — culminating with more than 100 joining in the Iceman events — the team is fast becoming a Traverse City institution.
The burgeoning group reflects a surge of the activity’s popularity nationwide.
“Youth mountain biking is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., not just in Traverse City, Michigan,” said team co-founder Ty Schmidt.
The regional youth mountain biking team is a Norte program, one of the local nonprofit’s numerous endeavors to connect kids and bikes. Like the nonprofit, the team’s goal is to embed biking beyond a sport or a recreational activity and into a lifelong love.
“The vision is really to hook kids for life on biking,” added Schmidt, executive director of Norte.
Gwen Schmitz, 13, was initially skeptical of a sport her parents wanted her to try. Now the eighth grader at Woodland School sums up her two years with the team as a “wonderful experience.”
The key has been the blast she has during the spring or fall season’s thrice-weekly training rides.
“We are all talking and laughing a lot,” Schmitz said. “I’ve made new friends not in my school.”
A competitive person, she relishes racing as well as the opportunity to set and then achieve personal goals. Team members and coaches are always supportive, whether a rider is working on wheelies or preparing to tackle the Iceman Race.
“Everyone just encourages each other, it’s really great!” said Schmitz, a junior varsity team member who last year competed in the shorter Slush Cup race This year she challenged herself to complete the full Iceman.
Positive, mutual reinforcement is a hallmark of the team, noted varsity coach Heath Day. One of nearly 30 team coaches, Day has been involved for four years. He appreciates how the riders are encouraging, respectful and pitch in. The little kids look up to the older riders, who make sure to cheer on the younger members.
“Riders can be competitive on race day but at the same time willing to stay back and help people in need,” said Day, who has two children on the team.
The bottom line for participants is learning life skills and building character not accruing wins.
“It’s a great group of kids,” he added. “They really come from all backgrounds and have a love for the team sport and being together as well as pushing themselves.”
Junior varsity coach Aislyn Johnson has coached many sports, including basketball and cross country. She now leads a mountain biking group that includes eighth graders who have been training together since sixth grade.
“By far this is the coolest thing I’ve ever been able to be involved in,” said Johnson, a coach for two years.
She loves sharing the sport with her daughter, Mazzy Warren-Johnson, 13, who is on her team.
“As a parent, I have watched my own daughter have a whole new mindset on setting goals and meeting new people and trying a new sport,” Johnson said.
The Grand Traverse Region Youth Mountain Bike Team launched in 2015 as a small, close-knit group. In fact, the first efforts included just Ty Schmidt, his two sons and another child riding together on Sundays. The resulting growth and popularity of the team four years later is satisfying personally and professionally.
“When I moved to Traverse City in ‘06, there were many great cycling teams and clubs but nothing for kids,” he recalled. “Selfishly I wanted my boys to get out and do it as well. So I just started these family group rides.”
“Youth mountain biking is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., not just in Traverse City, Michigan.” Team co-founder Ty Schmidt