BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Like most 12-year-olds, Gaby Erickson has been riding a bike since she was in grade school, though mostly just around her neighborhood and on paved trails.
Since joining the Black Swamp Riders, Gaby is now traversing dirt paths through the woods and hills at Ottawa Park and Oak Openings Metropark.
“I like the stunts and learning things I’ve never tried before,” Gaby said. “It’s a way to face my fears. I might be afraid to do something, but after I learn how to do it, I’m not afraid anymore.”
Gaby is a member of the new Black Swamp Riders, a Northwest Ohio team in the Ohio Mountain Bike League and part of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). Started in California in 2009, NICA now has over 20,000 members in 30 states, but didn’t have a chapter in this area until this summer.
The Black Swamp Riders are led by Gino Torio and several other volunteer coaches. The goal, Torio said, is to expose students in grades 6-12 to mountain biking.
“It doesn’t matter if they are athletes or if they have experience beyond biking around the neighborhood. We encourage kids to set goals based on where they are, so that they grow personally and as mountain bikers.”
While high-end racing and industry marketing might show riders doing crazy things, that’s not representative of what NICA does, Torio said. NICA introduces kids to the sport without high pressure and high consequences.
Coming out of the woods from the single-track bike trail at Oak Openings last week, several of the members gathered to chat about challenges and successes.
Katherine Meyers, an 11-year-old from Maumee, said she’d really only biked on the paved Wabash Cannonball Trail with her family. Her dad, Greg, had done mountain biking and off-road triathlons when he was younger, and signed up to coach.
“I knew about this place, but I love the group biking,” Katherine said of Oak Openings. “There are a lot of people who are new to biking, and this builds self-confidence.”
Two years ago, 14-year-old Andrew Crabtree got into mountain biking – mowing lawns and saving his money to buy a $400 bike. Now, he has his own YouTube channel about the sport. Since he recently moved from upstate New York, finding other teens to bike with was difficult until he heard about Black Swamp Riders.
“Now I get to ride with people, and riding with those who are above my skill level challenges me,” Andrew said.
Brothers Josh and Justin Crozier of Erie, Mich., started mountain biking two years ago, said their mom Julie, who has enjoyed the sport for several years.
“It’s interesting getting to see people who have not biked a lot progress so much. They could barely ride, and now they can ride the track and are a lot better,” Josh, age 14, said of his teammates.
At the first team meeting, the students learned how to change a tire and fix a chain. From there, the focus was on riding on small drops and practicing in the grass before graduating to riding the trails.
Every team member has the option of competing in the four Ohio mountain bike races, held in Yellow Springs, Chauncey, Carroll and Dover.
“We really want one in Northwest Ohio and we’re looking at venues,” said Ohio NICA executive director Jen Malik, who brought NICA to the state in 2018.
At the events, camping is encouraged, as the kids do a pre-ride of the course on Saturday, participate in team bonding experiences on Saturday night, and ride on Sunday. The cost is $50.00 per event and students can participate in as many as they want.
These are not the type of races where riders are facing dangerous obstacles, Malik said. Mountain biking does have inherent risks, but in this league, there are not ramps or jumps.
“A lot of times, people think of Red Bull Rampage. We’re not sending children to their demise. Risk management is the No. 1 thing we focus on,” she said, noting that coaches receive extensive safety training.
As some of the parents of Black Swamp Riders can attest, mountain biking is a lifelong sport. Eric Erickson bought a fat-tire bike to ride with his daughter, Gaby. Adam Slough, co-owner of Mountain Man, has also been biking for years and introduced his son to the sport.
Torio, who was a wrestler before graduating from Macomber High School, sees mountain biking as a sport that can last a lifetime – far beyond what he calls “stick-and-ball sports.” He recalls one of his first mountain biking forays, to Great Seal State Park in Chillicothe.
“We were stopped, resting on a hill, and an old guy – he was 70 – rode right past us. That guy became my hero that day. You can keep doing this sport deep into your senior years,” Torio said.
Malik, who joined a mountain biking group for women in order to improve her cycling during triathlons, found a great group of people who became friends and encouraged her. At 32, she continues to bike on a regular basis.
“With a soccer or basketball team, it’s just a few kids who get to play,” she said. “With NICA, everyone gets to ride their bike at the event if they want to race. This is focused on building a lifelong advocacy and a love of the outdoors. We want people to come and be happy.”
New members are welcome until the week before the Saturday, August 28 race in Yellow Springs, as long as they have an opportunity to attend just one practice prior, Torio said. Interested riders can sign a waiver and try out a practice before paying the $150 fee.
While bikes and gear can be expensive and hard to come by – there is currently a global supply shortage of bikes and parts – NICA is dedicated to helping out with scholarships and used bikes where needed, Torio said.
Participation in Black Swamp Riders does require a commitment to helping maintain the trails in the two parks. Jacob Slough, a 14-year-old from Waterville, has already invested nearly two weeks’ worth of time into trail work. That component is vital because mountain bike trails are maintained by mountain bikers. “Without trails, we would have nowhere to ride our mountain bikes,” Torio said.
As the organization grows in Northwest Ohio, Torio would like to expand the number of practices at each venue. For now, the team meets at Oak Openings on Tuesdays and Ottawa Park on Thursdays. For information, visit the Toledo Area Mountain Biking Association (TAMBA) website at toledomtb.org or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.