Where Art Thou, Young Cyclists?

A Sunday ago I volunteered to help with the TART Trails Leelanau Harvest Tour, which is a recreational bicycle ride that attracts about 1,000 people every year. They get to pedal some of America’s most sublime bike terrain during the crisp, perfect-temperatured days of September. I had the important job of standing at an intersection where the long-distance riders went one way and the shorter-distance riders went another way, making sure that each ended up on the right route.

The thing that struck me about the riders was that there were so few people under the age of say, 45. (I’m 51, so nothing against people over 45.) I figured it probably had something to do with the fact that September is a big travel month for the empty-nester set, and not so much for the young parents set. But still, there are lots of 20-somethings out there who aren’t married or don’t have kids…where were they?

Then, a week later, I was talking with a top Michigan woman cyclist to discuss our doing a story about her and the commitment it takes to compete at that level as an amateur, with no money at the finish line. She’s in her early 40’s and finished first in the big state road race this year, open class, meaning she beat a bunch of women 20 years her junior. But, in talking with her, we got onto the topic of the average age of cyclists, and she told me that the group she’d really like to see get into cycling more is kids, teenagers and college age. She said that when the local cycling clubs ride, there are hardly any young people. She rode the Leelanau Harvest Tour ride and noted the same thing that I saw: very few young people.

In some ways, I think the bike companies are their own enemies in the desire to recruit kids to road biking. Why is it entry level road bikes are $750 when you can get an okay mountain bike for $350?

But beyond price, how do we, here in the North, draw our young people to sports that truly celebrate the landscape and water that we have here? Richard Louv, who wrote “Last Child in the Woods,” explores the idea of kids being indoors or on ball fields at length, and people across the nation are responding. In our region, the most shining example is the Getting Kids Outdoors group near Petoskey/Harbor Springs. But in many ways, the answer is pretty obvious: parents can simply set the example themselves and get outside to enjoy what we have with their kids.

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine

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2 thoughts on “Where Art Thou, Young Cyclists?”

  1. I, too, was struck by the age group of the riders. We did the 25-mile loop of the Harvest Tour this year with two of our kids, ages 13 and 10, and a friend of theirs who is 12. First of all, it was an absolutely gorgeous day, gorgeous route and a well-organized tour. And I observed what Jeff did—the group was decidedly older.

    Here are my thoughts about road biking and kids. I agree 100% about the equipment and the prohibitive costs. Even buying a good, used road bike can be pricey. We rented one road bike for the tour. But, in addition, you really can’t even get a road bike for kids 10 and under and if you find one, the expense is huge for something they will outgrow very quickly. That means, as a family, we have to find a way for 10-year-old Liv to road bike with us or choose something else. Neal attaches one of those single-wheeled bikes to his road bike and they ride tandem, but that extended bike is really heavy and it made for a long 25 miles for him!

    Second, Austin and Cam (13 and 12) flew around that course. I was very comfortable with them going on ahead as the route was very well marked, but, at the same time, I was really anxious because so many of our roads don’t have biking shoulders. This was true for a good portion of the 25 miles. Austin often rides his road bike 9 miles to school and, at our insistence, takes the longer route so that he has a shoulder almost all the way. And still, it is hard not to worry about safety. We have ridden almost every trail system, from Benzie to Harbor Springs, which is a safer way to go but not exactly out our back door.

    Out of four kids, one of ours can’t road bike yet and only one of the others has taken to it. I think that might be because he started earlier. We couldn’t consider road biking as a family activity until at least our third child could fit on a road bike. That means when he was old enough to road bike his older brothers were starting as well at 3 and 5 years older, well into their teens. They still bike when we bike and I have to believe that will count for something as they get older.

    Road biking isn’t the easiest thing to handle logistically and families are sometimes already overwhelmed by logistics. The equipment is expensive and can be finicky. You need good and safe routes and enough time to enjoy the ride. Kids have to be old enough to fit on a road bike and, in families, you often have to accommodate different skill levels which means spreading out on the road system. Those are all reasons that it is a little bit of a hard sport to get kids into at a young age.

    The reasons to do it? Time together in a beautiful landscape. Thrilling rides that get kids’ hearts pounding. Terrific stops for water and picnicking which is great time to lounge around and talk. Wonderful exercise. And on and on… Our goal? To get Liv a few inches taller before the next Harvest Tour rolls around!

  2. Great post Jeff (and thanks for helping out at the event!) Many young people just have one bike- a mountain bike- and haven’t experienced road riding. If they already enjoy mountain biking, I think most would enjoy road riding if they give it a try. Some folks who come to our Bike Education Classes are terrified of riding on the road and maneuvering “like a car”. So, there is a comfort level with being so exposed on the roadways that people need to feel comfortable with.
    I guess the message here is to get young people on bikes and hopefully they will continue to pursue it as a lifelong activity.

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