Nineteen kids are poised on their bikes at the start of the NBX Gran Prix cyclocross race at Goddard Memorial State Park in Warwick. An early winter frost blankets the grass and tingles their handlebar–gripping fingertips, while their eyes are focused on the course. They have practiced, tuned their bikes, walked the trail to identify rocks or tree roots to navigate, and are ready to unleash their caged excitement.
Their 30-minute ride on this off-road bike race traverses two miles of wooded dirt paths and grassy hills, plus obstacles like stairs or shin-bumping hurdles, which the youngsters circumvent by dismounting or bunny hopping. Although the course is shorter than the adults’ six to 10 laps, it’s still like taking a road bike off-piste — rugged, muddy and heart-pounding.
New England’s rugged terrain makes it a popular destination for cyclocross in North America. But because it’s not an Olympic sport, it still exists on the fringes, and has a ways to go before it reaches the level of popularity it enjoys in Europe, where it was founded in 1902.
This particular starting line features a contingent of racers from Aquidneck Cyclocross (AQCX), a group of avid Newport County–area bikers who range in age from 8 to 13. The troupe travels to races like this Gran Prix during the September–December season. They’re so dedicated to this surreptitious sport that they have courses in their backyards and ride stationary bikes indoors, watch old races on TV, and build their own bikes. One impresario even started her own podcast to learn more about cyclocross topics and talk to experts about the sport.
“We see this as a tremendous outlet for our kids,” says Newporter Stuart Streuli, who founded AQCX with Lars Svenstrup of Tiverton in 2016. “What parent would let their 10-year-old do a road race? No one, because there is traffic and chaos. But with cyclocross, anyone can participate, it’s fun and challenging, and there are no external dangers. You come out as a better rider and with an appreciation for what you can do on a bike.
“We make sure every kid can succeed,” Streuli adds. “We’re not trying to scare them. We do want to push them, but they find their own limits.”
AQCX wasn’t initially about racing at all. Streuli and Svenstrup were two dads who wanted to share a passion for biking with their kids. So they collaborated with Bike Newport to offer classes after school at Pell Elementary in Newport in 2016, and at Hathaway Elementary in Portsmouth last spring. They received a grant from the Frederick Henry Prince Memorial Fund to buy bikes for kids who didn’t have their own, and are hoping to expand community partnerships to help get more children on two wheels.
Most of the kids in AQCX’s after-school programs choose not to race. But that doesn’t mean they can’t. During the weekly lessons at Pell, they bike down to Miantonomi Park like pros, powering through the sand volleyball courts and up steep slopes with the stamina of thoroughbreds. They ride around and around, up and down, fall off, and jump right back on to try again. The tricks they’re learning to maintain speed and balance while steering around boulders help build confidence, strength and clarity. Even those who arrive a little less comfortable or knowledgeable are leading their compatriots through the park after a week or two of instruction.
Though the pandemic forced the group to reshuffle, they’re hoping to pick up again soon with new enthusiasts. Meanwhile, the core group has quickly blossomed into a cycling posse, riding around neighborhoods in the afternoon on their own, returning home when the street lights turn on, or taking group rides on weekends in Weetamoo Woods.
“This is a good way and safe way to get kids on bikes, which is our main goal,” says Svenstrup. “The more comfortable they get, the more skills they learn, the more confident they become. Now we ride two or three days a week together, and it’s great to see those skills paying off.”
It’s also a good social builder, he adds, since his podcasting daughter Elena, 10, has become good friends with Willa Harple and Eleanor Goff, also 10, through AQCX. The trio sticks together at races where there have been only six girls among dozens of boy competitors. This gender neutrality is a surprising equalizing factor of the sport: girls ride right alongside their male counterparts and often outlast them.
“It’s just motivation, because most of the time, you think boys are a lot tougher than girls, then you realize you’re riding against boys and it gives you more motivation,” Eleanor says. “Last year’s second-to-last race there were only two girls: me and my best biking friend, Elena. It was kinda fun because she’s a really good rider, and I wanted to see how close I could get to her.”
Willa’s brother Huxley, 8, and Eleanor’s brother Liam, 11, are prime examples of AQCX riding and socializing in action. Perhaps the most obsessed kids on two wheels on Aquidneck Island, they bike in their backyards year-round, and Liam trains for mountain biking and triathlons while building and fixing bikes with his dad. The boys’ age difference doesn’t deter their solidarity, and they spur each other to pedal and push faster.
“This is so good for them. There’s camaraderie with other kids, and it’s a super fun, family thing,” says Allyson Harple, Willa and Huxley’s mom. “It’s a huge part of our lives. It’s not just about racing, though, but biking in general shapes what we do. If we are going somewhere, we go where there is a cool bike path, and plan a weekend around that.
“They share a sense of responsibility, too, and are motivated in this shared mission, which helps them through other areas of their lives. They even get homework done early and set other goals because they will be away biking on the weekends.”
Cyclocross’ outsider status implies a bad reputation, Streuli and Svenstrup say, because bystanders see the jostling at the starting line, or see racers falling in the woods, and jump to conclusions that it’s dangerous. But racers fall on dirt and mud, and they’re going a fraction of the speed of road racers, they explain, so injuries are less frequent and less dangerous.
None of these kids are blind to the dangers, and all have had injuries, they add, from skinned knees to bloody noses. But no injury is bad enough to dissuade them from another race.
“It can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. But I have fallen so many times I don’t know which is the worst,” says Liam, who rode 1,500 miles indoors last winter and participated in 15 races in 2019. “I like being active and biking — it’s just fun. We’re hanging out with the people on the bike team, we bike at least once a week together, trail riding in the woods, or on the road.”
The values learned in this sport make it worth the extra effort of traveling to events and the potential risk of skinned knees, Streuli says. And since the courses the kids ride are the same ones used by adults, it cultivates their maturity and develops problem-solving capabilities and technical aptitude, as well as athleticism.
“We can’t follow them around the track. There is a level of confidence, learning they have the capability to do those things, and they don’t look back to us as parents to help them,” Streuli adds. “They’re in the middle of a race, and we are not there, so they have to figure it out.”
For additional information, visit facebook.com/aquidneckcx and nbxbikes.com/events/gran-prix-of-cyclocross-pg626.htm