Zen and the art of cool people on bicycles
by Jim Fahy photos by Brit Huckabay
It’s 5 p.m. on a beautiful, sunny Alabama afternoon. The light is golden, and a gentle breeze perfects the temperature. The rustling of a gravel driveway telegraphs the advancement of young mountain bikers, whooshing past with a balance of precision and wild abandon as I descend. It’s amazing—and I’m just happy I don’t fall on my butt.
I’m on 33 acres of private property east of Birmingham—the home of Scott Green. Not only does Green live here with his family, it’s also one of three places where the 20 or so kids—middle and high schoolers—who comprise the Red Mountain Composite Biking team practice.
“We’ve got about three-and-a-half miles of trails here,” says Green, himself an enthusiastic rider. “We built them a little bit at a time. It was a professional trail builder that built it—a friend of ours. It has features that make sense for the amount of space.”
Over the last four years, mountain biking has become an increasingly popular sport in Alabama. Currently there are 24 teams— about 400 kids—racing around the state. Many of the teams are associated with a single school, but some, like Red Mountain, feature kids from several different schools—hence the “composite” in the name. In Red Mountain’s case, the kids come from Mountain Brook, Homewood, Indian Springs, and Gardendale. Some of the kids, like Green’s son, Alex, are homeschooled.
Normally, Alex would be racing, but he’s recovering from an injury—so, instead, he’s helping fix his teammates’ bikes in the Green’s small but well-appointed workshop. Alex has been working on bikes for about three years—ever since he read the book Zen and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance.
Knowing how to fix a bike is a good skill for a serious mountain biker, given how many unfortunate contingencies could arise during a race or deep into a trail—suspension issues, lost chains, a broken derailleur….
“Bikes are simple,” says Alex. “It’s people that are complicated. You can fix a bike. But you gotta make it right
for the person.” Indeed. Sounds like he’s taken that book to heart.
Alex spins a tire on the bike resting on the workbench—“There ya gooooo!”
The bike belongs to Madelyn Roberson—a 15-year-old from Gardendale who’s crushing every race. She’s currently number 1 in both the state and the nation in her division. Her parents help coach the team. Her younger sister will be eligible to race next year, but she’s been practicing with the rest of the team for years. Like her sister, she is very fast.
Madelyn’s family, like many others on the team, is bound by its love of cycling. As such, the individual families spend a lot of time with each other, too. They ride together, practice together, and travel together. If they drive to a national tournament, then they’re sure to program plenty of stops so they can all get on their bikes and explore.
During practice, the parents push and encourage each other’s kids while acting as timekeepers, coaches, cheerleaders, or fellow racers. Sometimes it feels a little intense, but the kids—all of them smart, precocious, sarcastic, both awkward and athletic—don’t seem to mind. They’re having a blast… So much so that, when it’s time for a post-practice feast, it’s hard
to get them off their bikes and nosh.
A few weeks later, I make it to Huntsville’s Space and Rocket Center just in time for the beginning of The Space Race—the penultimate NICA race of the season. NICA—National Interscholastic Cycling Association—is the body that organizes these races and teams, maintaining standards for its athletes, coaches, and events that put those of typical athletic organizations to shame. Any kid that wants to race can, and they’ll be safe doing so.
“Through NICA we have insurance that covers all the kids for all our rides, all our races,” says William Lockridge, RMCB’s head coach. “All the coaches have to go through background checks, they do risk management, they do concussion tests. We have to take wilderness first aid in case we’re more than an hour away from help. Everyone checks out. It’s a lot of fun.”
Despite only getting into the sport 12 years ago, Lockridge is an avid biker more interested in teaching the joy of biking than pushing his kids to become superhuman—although he seems to have a talent for that too: In addition to Madelyn’s continued success—she trounces her nearest opponent—three of his other kids will place first or second.
“We have some kids that are like, ‘Coach, I wanna win the state championship.’ Okay. We’ll give you all the tools. But the other kids? They just wanna come and have a good time and ride with their buddies—that’s cool. But we’ll teach them skills, because everyone likes to go fast.”
More information on Alabama Interscholastic Cycling can be found at alabamamtb.org