Riding with teenagers is a dramatically different experience than riding with children. In the early years, riding objectives need to be scaled back to allow time for stops, snacks, and investigating trailside treasures. In these formative years, there is much waiting, encouraging, and quick rescues when children take a spill! There is joy in these first rides that is not measured by distance or elevation gain. As children transition into teenagers, their dramatic gains in strength, agility, and bike handling make riding with them exciting. After many years of coaching and encouragement, it’s rewarding to experience this fast progression, especially when you cover a lot of ground or increase the difficulty of the riding. The challenge with teenagers becomes motivating young minds that are striving for independence and may have changing interests.
Our family finds itself in this very transition. As we celebrate my son Koby’s thirteenth birthday amid our first COVID lockdown, we marvel as he surpasses my wife Alice in height and shoe size. The teenage growth spurt is more sudden and substantial than we could have imagined, and it seems like he’s taller and more capable on a daily basis. As the snow melts, the rider in me is eager to see where Koby’s interests and abilities are on the bike. We take off on numerous rides together with me in the lead and Koby trailing behind. It is great to ride together again, and we’ve been working up to bigger and more challenging circuits. With each ride, I am impressed to find Koby closer to my rear wheel on the climbs and the descents. It is an intoxicating feeling to dial up the speed and difficulty and see my son respond to the challenge with success at every corner. I’m excited to have a new riding partner!
Like many who love to travel, the pandemic definitely puts a damper on our family travel plans for the summer of 2020. Instead, we turn our focus to adventures on technical trails near our home. With no far-flung trips, we have time to explore local gems that we missed in previous years when we were on bike trips to the Arctic, South America, and Japan. Our time at home on familiar trails provides us with a clear measure of how the kids have grown and developed as riders. As we get out on more rides, it becomes obvious that Koby is developing into my equal as a rider. He has great balance and control of his XS Timberjack and is less afraid of trying new things than I am. At 11 years old, our daughter Ava Fei is capable of riding a wide variety of terrain on her Timberjack 24. When we ride together as a family, Ava Fei surprises everyone when she cleanly manoeuvres through a technical talus traverse on an epic 12-mile loop in the nearby mountains. Alice is riding better than ever with a suspension fork mounted on her Fargo, but she is quick to admit that the kids are more comfortable on technical trails than she is.
In early May 2020, Koby and I are ready to challenge ourselves on a black diamond descent called Mr. Toad. It is the most difficult cross-country trail in our area and filled with technical features – rock slabs, steep corners, skinnies, and drops. As we ride the initial features, Koby is tight on my rear wheel. We ride a 100-ft log skinny, then down over several rock slabs and small drops. At each of these features, Koby rides cleanly behind me without hesitation.
In the middle reaches of the trail, we come across several features that are harder than anything we have ever ridden. Before us is a technical skinny that leads directly into an off-camber rock slab. We stop to look at options and discuss strategy. In a sudden reversal of roles, Koby offers, “I’ll give it a try!” He pedals cleanly into it and disappears down the other side. This is a watershed moment for us as father and son. I am left standing at the top with a feeling that usually only happens when I am riding with my adult riding partners. It is time to rise to the occasion and follow someone else on a clean line ridden with skill and confidence. The familiar voices of self-doubt clutter my mind and it is with some added pressure that I roll into the feature, holding my balance and shifting my weight back as I roll over the rock slab. The rocky trail comes up fast as I sail down the slab, but I’ve done it! I am excited by my own riding, but even more excited to catch up to Koby where he is standing beside the trail. He too has a big grin on his face! We high five each other, and in this special moment I am cognizant of the reversal in roles. Koby is leading and I am doing my best to keep up! We ride one challenging feature after another to the bottom of the trail and I can hardly believe what we have done. Koby has led the entire lower half of the route and it has taken all my focus and ability just to stay with him.
Our successes inspire our riding in the weeks that follow. Koby is excited to ride with his friends and confidently takes on any challenge before him. When we ride as a family, he is always in the front. It is on these rides with family and friends that Koby starts to look at features and drops that are beyond my interests or abilities. It is exciting to see his passion building, but also a little worrisome when I consider the consequences of a crash in some of these locations.
Within a couple of weeks of our successful ride on Mr. Toad, we are back for another lap with the addition of Ava Fei. We have not stopped talking about the ride in the intervening weeks and she is agreeable to try it, and a bit apprehensive. Alice advises caution and decides this ride is too difficult for her.
Koby, Ava Fei, and I start our descent of Mr. Toad in a cedar grove with a chorus of burbling water along the trail. This sound combines with a surface of needles and decomposing wood to mute any noise from our tires as we drop in. The trail is tight and slow as it snakes through giant trees but opens abruptly where the log spans a creek. I take the lead to this first obstacle where I plan to spot the kids over the water. Koby and Ava Fei both ride this 100-ft skinny without hesitation, their wheels passing by me at shoulder height. They are over a little hill and down technical roots and a rock slab before I catch up. I am filled with the excitement of seeing my kids rise to the challenge and overcome the obstacles. I can’t help but think that this ride is going to be another great adventure in our own backyard! I am optimistic about what we can accomplish over a summer, despite the absence of any big plans.
After that initial section, a horizontal traverse leads to a set of technical switchbacks. Koby rides ahead into a tight corner, which is paved with rock slabs that drop into dirt on the lower side of the switchback. As Ava Fei and I watch, Koby balances around the corner and turns sharply toward the drop. In the transition, he holds a good angle on his bike, but fails to shift his weight back over his seat. His bike accelerates down the rock slabs into the concavity below. As his front wheel drops into the dirt the suspension compresses and he flies forward. We watch from behind as he arcs over the handlebars into the boulders below the trail. His bike flips past him. Koby lands hard in the rocks. I am suddenly off my bike and running to his side.
In an instant, everything changes. My new riding partner—the one who has pushed my own riding and motivated me to try new things—is transformed before my eyes into my child. It is as if he is six years old again and has taken a spill off his bike. My mind races when I think of my son being hurt. When I get to Koby his breathing is strained and he is lying face down in the rocks. He isn’t moving. I feel the weight of parental responsibility crush down on me as I gather him up and carefully roll him onto his back. The impact has knocked the wind out of him. I clean the dirt off his arms and chest as I check him over for injuries. As Koby regains his breathing, we all calm down. I help him sit up and cradle him as best I can, considering he is much bigger than when he was six years old. He does not have any major bleeding, nor loss of mobility. His chief complaint is his right wrist, the first point of contact when he landed in the rocks. Gradually we get Koby up off the ground, but he is understandably shaken by the incident. This is the worst crash he has ever had on a bike.
When he is able to move, we walk our bikes a short distance to an old logging trail and wash ourselves in the nearby creek. As we sit and regroup, his wrist stiffens up and it is obvious that we will not continue our ride. We talk about our options and weigh our alternatives. We decide we can ride home via easy double track trails. We slowly make our way. The experience has wiped away my enthusiasm for pushing our limits. When I think about the crash, I feel fortunate that Koby’s injuries are minor and that this happened at low speed. However, I am unsure what our riding will look like in the near future.
As with many things during this pandemic, we have to be adaptable. Koby’s wrist is sore for several weeks following his crash. Instead of riding, we shift our focus to day hikes, spending quality time with close friends. We hike to hidden local spots that are new to us. All the while, we feel thankful to discover hikes near our home at a time when many people are struggling to get outside and find fulfilment.
As a family we discuss the best way to come back after a crash. We ask questions like: Do you jump back on the bike as if everything is normal? Do you take some time to digest the situation before returning? How do you use the experience to learn? How will your choices be different if you find yourself in the same situation in the future? These are rich discussions and great learning for all of us. In time, Koby’s motivation to ride returns. When he gets back on his bike, it is with measured enthusiasm and more caution on harder features. We walk around some challenges that seem too risky and take our time to build up our confidence. It is our hope this experience will inform Koby’s future decision-making as he navigates his teenage years.
What we learn from these adventures by bike parallels lessons learned from the pandemic. We look forward to returning to travel and bigger adventures, but we are willing to wait. These trips will always be there! It is our goal to be aware of the risks and more sensitive to others’ perceptions of safety, so that we can move forward in confidence together.
As we look towards summer 2021, it is our hope to spend our time bikepacking in our home province, exploring a route we originally attempted to ride in 2013 when Koby was just six years old. We approach these plans with flexibility and the understanding that they may need to change based on public health orders once the summer arrives. It doesn’t really matter if we do the ride this summer, though. If it needs to wait for another summer, it will. All we know is that when we do ride the route, it will be with two teenagers instead of two children. It will be a very different ride as a result.
YOU MAY ENJOY THESE FILMS FROM THE CLARK FAMILY...
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The Clark Family: Dan, Alice, Koby, and Ava Fei
Cycling has been part of our life since our kids were born. When they were babies, cycling provided us a time-crunched workout between diaper changes. But these were solitary missions, not family adventures. Our cycling took on a new dimension in 2014 when we left our home and jobs and flew to the tip of South America for our first bike trip as a family. During our eight-month ride, north along the Andes of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia we discovered the freedom that bikes and an open itinerary allow. We experienced the peace and solitude of roads less traveled, strengthened our family bonds, and were welcomed into a larger family of cyclists from around the world - our “Familia Ciclista.”