This summer marks the 15th anniversary for Mighty Bikes, a children’s mountain biking program in Anchorage. Martin Stewart and I conceived of Mighty Bikes with the idea of keeping kids enrolled in Alyeska Ski Club programs in shape during the summer off-season.
Shortly after its inception, the program opened to all children in the Anchorage Bowl. Mighty Bikes has grown from 10 kids and two coaches to 300 kids and 50 coaches who volunteer their time to spread the joy of mountain biking.
The program alternates locations on Tuesday and Thursday evenings to give the kids a variety of trail experiences from the swoopy flow trails of Kincaid Park to technical cross-country on the Hillside. The kids learn how to ride among a group of peers, challenging themselves to learn skills on terrain appropriate to their ability.
“I started riding with Mighty Bikes when I was 8 years old,” says 14-year-old Ellie Mitchell. “I hadn’t had a whole lot of experience mountain biking but I was eager to learn. I remember going home after my first night of Mighty Bikes and I was really excited and happy and eager to return for another night of biking. Even years later, I still returned home after Mighty Bikes with the same excitement and happiness.”
Learning the sport among peers is one of the keys to the success of the program. Parents try to teach their kids to ride but they often pick up the skills easier when they’re with other kids. Indeed, they tend to perform better when well-meaning parents are out of the picture.
Ellie’s enthusiasm for Mighty Bikes is infectious. Mountain biking is so much fun that the kids aren’t aware that they’re getting good exercise. Even more, the program can enhance social skills and self-confidence.
“My first year of Mighty Bikes I was very shy, and I didn’t have any friends in my group. I quickly made friends though because everyone was so friendly. I remain friends with some of the people I met my first year of Mighty Bikes. The people who are involved with the program made Mighty Bikes so much fun, and every night of Mighty Bikes was a blast! The coaches’ encouragement and the friendliness of all the kids made me want to return every year to Mighty Bikes.”
Although the goal of Mighty Bikes is to teach kids the fundamental skills of a sport they can enjoy for a lifetime, the program has been a launching pad for a few young competitive cyclists. Josh Yeaton (GS Ciao Cycling) and Maddy Boutet (Twenty16 Pro Cycling), for example, are currently racing on elite and professional cycling teams in the Lower 48. Ellie similarly dreams of a competitive cycling career.
“Even today I remind myself what they taught me, that confidence is necessary for improvement, and it is still a lesson I continue to use as I become a stronger cyclist.”
Mighty Bikes has taught a generation of mountain bikers in Anchorage. Some of those who grew up with the program have returned to coach other kids and give back to the community that influenced them.
Petra Davis, 22, is a Mighty Bikes alumna and was one of the first to join Mighty Bikes when it was a new program. Petra spent her summer breaks from college coaching and has returned to Anchorage to work full time.
“I have been involved with Mighty Bikes since 2001, was a Mighty Biker until age 14 and started to assistant coach at 15. I have been involved with Mighty Bikes longer than any other program in my life.
“I think the best part of Mighty Bikes is the sense of community and camaraderie. Kids are rocking roots, climbing hills, riding through rivers, and all this is great for building confidence and gaining skills, but even more you’re learning these skills together. Celebrating your own success is great but celebrating for someone else, with someone else, as a group, is just that much better.”
If anything, Mighty Bikes is a victim of its own success. This year the program had to turn away over 100 kids who wanted to join the fun. Expansion of the program is within reason but at the risk of perhaps losing the essence of the volunteer organization. As more kids participate, more support and coaches are needed to provide a quality experience and ensure rider safety.
But perhaps Mighty Bikers are becoming a renewable resource as kids return from college and become coaches as Petra has. The program is only as good as its coaches, their generosity of their time and passion for teaching mountain biking.
“I believe Mighty Bikes is a great way to get into mountain biking, to get outside, and get active,” concludes Ellie. “It’s a fun way to learn how to mountain bike and meet new friends. It taught me how to have more confidence as well as become a better cyclist. It got me out of the house and moving. Mighty Bikes was a fun and enjoyable experience for me. Mighty Bikes will teach any kid not only how to bike but so much more.”