Thursday, May 19, 2016

Races for the Groms

Last fall we were given the reins to a small operation putting on MTB events for middle school aged kids in Folsom.  It really opened up our eyes to a need for quality race experiences for young kids, who rarely get to race bikes on their own course designed for them and without being mixed in with adults.  So Jen and I started brainstorming how to best format events for kids and what would be the real goal.  Because neither of us believe that 8-14 year old's should be solely focused on competing, winning and getting prizes, but both of us feel that there's unmatched learning and positive experience that comes from competing with others and giving your all.

The goal we landed on was to provide an opportunity for youth mountain bikers to learn how to race in a safe, fun environment.  It sounds simple but executing those four key terms effectively is the key.

We put our own stamp on it with a new name, website and a fresh venue.  The Folsom Grom MTB Series was born.  I would set up three short track courses on Friday nights at Folsom Point on the south shore of Folsom Lake.  Which provided a nice place for families to hang out and parents to see their kids almost all the way around the course.  Each category would race for 25 minutes on the small course ticking off as many laps as possible.  And since we wanted to recognize each racer for their accomplishment regardless of placing, they would receive a small helmet sticker (think college football helmet badges) for each lap they'd complete.  And the top 10 would get a rank sticker to put on their number plate, making that a series trophy as well.

Before each category start, I'd have a pre-race meeting to make sure everyone understood the format and racing basics, then I'd lead them out around a lap and walk them through the features.
The pre-race meeting with the 8-10 boys.

Leading out the 8-10 boys on their first scouting lap.

The first week's course was just over a half mile long and after I led the first group around of 8-10 year old boys, they were stoked and so excited to race!  We were actually caught by surprise with how many laps they did, with the lead group cranking out 8!  They were executing water bottle handoffs with their parents on the climb and really getting into it.  It was awesome.

Grom racers on course alongside Folsom Lake

Groms descending the singletrack downhill on week 1.

11-12 year old boys racing, with Bear Development Team rider Bryce Lewis behind as a safety rider, with a couple 8-10 boys cheering along side.

The girls even showed up in numbers and were shredding it.

Grom girls racing the singletrack in the trees.

The level of excitement and accomplishment that the kids had after each category finished, regardless of placement, was awesome.  Hearing the kids debrief with their parents and fellow racers afterwards, talking about their struggles and successes during the race with such enthusiasm was very cool to hear.  I'll paraphrase some of what I heard into one youthful run-on sentence...


Week two was a little longer course at .65 miles and had one steep descent.  There were a couple kids who weren't quite up for it after their pre-lap with me, and took advantage of our scout lap refund policy.  But most of the kids were very excited, and thought it was cool to have a different course.  We had our biggest turnout of the series, with a really good showing from the girls!

Leading the Grom girls out for their week two scouting lap.

8-10 age category Grom racing towards the downhill with the Folsom Lake backdrop.

Groms raced on singletrack in the trees at each race

Week 2 girls 8-10 podium

At one point in the girls race, there was a crash right at the start/finish line.  Two girls seemed to clip bars and they both went down.  They both got up, but were panicked and shaken.  I helped rotate one girls handlebars back in place and she rode off.  And the other had hit her knee pretty hard and was working through it, crying, trying to shake it off.  Her Mom was there, asking if she wanted to stop and that would be ok.  But she, still crying, said no and swung her leg over and kept going to finish the race.  It was really cool to see, since that's the type of determination that will go way beyond cycling.  Another girl had dropped her chain half way through the lap and ran the rest of the lap with her bike until her Dad could fix it, and kept going.  They didn't quit when it got hard and finished what they started, truly giving their best under adversity.  One of the main experiences and learning opportunities we wanted to give kids with these races.
Grom racer descending after a crash

I also had a coworker who I had told about the races, and he brought his kids out that second week.  I bring this up because they're not a "cycling" family.  The kids were on bikes with coaster brakes and tires made for cruising around the neighborhood, and I was a little worried about them on that steep downhill.  But on their pre-lap I saw each of them navigate it with youthful fearlessness and continue on with smiles.  They both finished their races and loved it.  It was very cool to see that we'd made the races accessible to those families truly new to the sport.
A Grom riding the course on a coaster brake bike in her first race

Coming out of the trees and looking for the next corner, loving his first bike race

The final race was the longest course at 3/4 mile and a good climb in the middle.  That climb was tough for the youngest kids and really spread them out, but they all liked the added singletrack they rode leading up to the climb.  There were some pretty tight races in the series points standings, and those kids vying for a podium were focused and determined.  

Final instructions before the girl's start their last race

The two Grom girls leading the final race

13-14 boys on the additional singletrack for the final race

The racing was excellent.  At one point in the 13-14 boys group, I jumped in and followed the two leaders who were tied in series points.  They had been seesawing for about five laps so I wanted to see how it was going down.  And it happened that lap.  The eventual winner, Nick, was second wheel after the initial climb and singletrack.  He resisted the urge to pass when the course opened up again before the next tight spot, knowing the door would be open again.  Staying together, they navigated the singletrack and s-turns before the climb, and then as soon as they hit the climb, Nick attacked in full sprint.  Brandon, who was already pushing the pace, tried to match the attack.  A gap was forming.  I shouted some encouragement to Brandon, urging him to give it all right then.  That he HAD to match the speed and he could breathe on the downhill.  He just didn't have the horsepower in those young legs and the race was won right there.  Nick stretched out the gap to take the win and Brandon still kept up the pace for second.  

Nick pulling away with Brandon in chase. Followed closely by Clint Claassen, Race Director, observing the battle.
After their races, the kids put their final placement stickers on the number plates and donned their series podium t-shirts.  It was smiles all around.  So thankful to the sponsors in Folsom Bike, Mikes Bikes Folsom, Versa Care EMS, and Happy Trails Neutral Support that truly helped make these races happen.  The High School racers (Bear Development & Folsom High) who came out and volunteered with setup and mentoring the Groms as course sweeps were great role models.  And a big thank you to our all volunteer staff: Julie, Allyson, Brian, Shepherd, Robbie, Karen, Pam, Heather, and the Gross family for watching our mini Grom.

A Grom racer puts his final rank sticker on his number plate. Lap stickers also shown on his helmet and number plate.

The top five Groms in each category for the series were awarded custom t-shirts, supplied by Mike's Bikes.

This came together in less than two months, and we had 181 registered racers (78 unique) over the three races.  It was a lot of work, but a privilege for Jen and I to have the resources and opportunity to create these events and experiences for the kids.  I love being able to coach and truly grow the sport for the next generation, and we'll be looking for more opportunity to do that in the future.  If anyone is interested in joining in, let us know!


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  2. Clint, I'm so stoked on this and it looks like you had an awesome turnout for a first year series! My daughter turns 8 soon and hopes to race next year. If you need help with something please reach out to me and I will find some time to assist.