It’s hard to match the energy of a gang of young riders about to head out mountain biking but, on a sunny March afternoon, Adam Walker’s arrival actually amplifies the stoke-level.
The assembled youth are the Dirt Squad, a group of 12-15 year old riders Walker coaches. During the last month they’ve spent as much time building trails for this weekend’s Canada Cup race as they have building skills on the bike.
“The kids were really excited to get their hands dirty,” Walker says. “We dangled the carrot out there a while ago that there was going to be some trail building down the road, and they were all really stoked to hear that.” When the team found out their work would be featured in the Canada Cup, that stoked stepped up a couple notches.
“I don’t think they quite realized at first that the Canadian team was going to be here racing on the trails that they built. When that penny dropped, there was some pretty wide eyes. They were like ‘Really?! Catharine Pendrel’s going to ride this trail?'” Now, Walker says, “you can’t really keep them away from the tools, they almost want to dig more than they want to ride.”
Talking to the riders, it’s clear the upcoming race weekend has injected a boost of energy into the Dirt Squad.
“I’m really excited to see them race!” says Adele Winker. After trying out some Island Cup events, Wniker will be on course herself this weekend, and is looking forward to sharing the course with the pros. “They’re who I look up to, so I’m really excite to see them race and to be able to race on the same course as they do.”
Leif Bjornsen and Hayden Wright won’t be racing cross country, but they will be in Sunday’s Island Cup enduro event. Still, the idea of having Canada’s top riders race on a trail they built clearly means something to the two riders. “It’s crazy to think that, that professionals are taking your work in hand,” says Bjornsen, adding “It’s an honour to know that professionals will be racing what we built,” with Wright backing that sentiment.
“It’s been really amazing to see them take ownership and to take so much pride in their own trails,” says Walker.
While Dirt Squad is as much about riding as it is racing, Walker thinks there’s a huge benefit to the local young riders to have the Canada Cup event in town to bring together all levels of the sport.
“It’s one thing to have all these elite level riders in town, but when the kids can see that there’s this stepping stone, this pathway from Dirt Squad to provincial team to potentially national team down the road, it really bridges that gap. It makes it look real, look possible,” says Walker. “Everybody started where you are now.”
Walker coaches the Dirt Squad, Cycling BC iRide programs and the BC provincial team. He sees benefits for all levels of riders, from youth to the provincial elite.
“I think it really shows to them, especially with the higher level athletes that are from B.C., it shows them there’s a pathway and that it’s possible,” says Walker.”These riders are just normal people who committed to a goal and stuck with it. That hard work, tenacity and a bit of stubbornness can get you a long ways in life, whether that’s in cycling or in life in general.”
The Dirt Squad is program is focused on building riders, who might happen to race. “One of the big focuses of the program is trying to get them to be ambassadors for the sport.”
Still, as a former national team member and Canada Cup champion, Walker thinks his young riders should at least try racing. Most of the Dirt Squad members will be racing at some point over the weekend.
“We’ve got a few that will race the cross country. I think all of them are racing the enduro. When we first started the program, we said ‘It’s just a bike program, it’s not really a racing program – but – I would love it if you at least tried once race.’ Secretly, in the back of my mind, I knew as soon as they tried one race they’d be bit by the bug. I could see how competitive they were, but the whole thought of racing was a bit intimidating.”
While the squad’s keen on enduro, convincing them to race cross country took a bit of outside help. While on a training camp in Victoria over the winter, Haley Smith and Andrew L’Esperance helped out. “They came in to talk to the kids one night while they were doing their gym session, and said to the kids ‘You know, if you want to be fast at enduro, you should race cross country.’ So now we’ve got a bunch of the guys that are going to race cross country even though they’re on bigger bikes, they just want to do it to get faster.”
If his kids do want to race, Walker sees value in trying all kinds of racing. When Smith and L’Esperance stopped in, he says, “They really supported the seeds I’d been planting. Mountain biking’s mountain biking. I have this conversation, about trying to create whole athlletes who happen to be mountain bikers, with other coaches all the time. We don’t want them to specialize until much later, until the end of their time as juniors.”