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Dig In: Riding With Kids

We anticipate several stories about riding with kids. Our first one comes from IMBA's Wendy Sweet. She has two young boys whom she managed to turn into mountain bikers on a family trip to Fruita, CO. (All of the links in this story will take you to trail descriptions on

The trip could have easily gone either way. I had optimistically planned our first family mountain bike trip to Fruita, CO, over a three-day weekend in October. My husband, Jeremy, and I had taken several bike trips throughout the years sans kids, but the boys were reaching an age where it seemed possible to include them. Over the previous year, we were finally skiing as a family and I hoped that we could start biking as one, too. And while I was concentrating on making it a glass-half-full vacation, I also came up with several contingency plans in which either Jeremy or I could enjoy a solo ride while the other took the kids to the dinosaur museum or hotel pool.

My boys, Alex (11) and Adam (9), are no strangers to bikes. Jeremy and I toted them around Boulder, CO, in a bike trailer as soon as they could sit, and graduated them quickly to a more interactive (yet somewhat unstable and sometimes terrifying) third wheel. By age 5, they were on their own, two-wheeled bikes, but most of our adventures were limited to short jaunts on the cement paths intertwining through Boulder.

In recent months, we had started exploring some of Boulder’s easier mountain bike trails, but Alex and Adam weren’t keen on the whole mountain biking thing just yet. Boulder’s trails are either easy and a little boring, or too difficult and exposed for young novices, and a few trips to Valmont Bike Park had ended in skinned knees and tears instead of whoops of elation.

Fruita is only a 4.5 hour drive from Boulder, so we arrived early enough in the day to try a short ride. We chose 18 Road and quickly made a near-fatal mistake. The 18 Road trail system has all of the necessary features to be a great family area. Most of the short trails are directional, and the downhill trails are rated from flowy green to white-knuckled black. The trails are not much longer than a mile, and many people tailgate in the parking lot while their party members ride at their own paces.

We parked in the lower lot and started riding up a mile-long dirt road to access Kessel Run. The road was initially a gentle incline, but became steeper near the top. Alex was riding a new-to-him bike: a 15-year-old, 24” Stumpjumper we bought off a friend for $20 that would quickly be dubbed, “The Character Builder.” It was heavy, unwieldy, and Alex couldn’t manage the grip shifters.

Adam was on his used, 20” Gary Fisher with five gears. Neither boy had the strength or fortitude to ride to the top. Jeremy and I found ourselves already needing to do damage control, or the vacation would end before anyone set a tire on singletrack. After much cajoling, we walked the boys to the top and got situated on Kessel Run. Alex’s 30-pound bike proved to be great on downhills, but Adam was apprehensive about getting any sort of speed. The solution, we found, was to divide and conquer. Jeremy followed Alex down and I stayed back with Adam, and thus we completed our first loop at 18 Road.

Having learned a valuable lesson, Jeremy and I set up a shuttle with our trusty minivan, allowing one adult to enjoy the singletrack up a trail called Prime Cut while the other drove the boys to the top of the road. After a few more Kessel Runs, the boys were warming up to the trip and ready to try the blue-rated PBR (Pumps, Bumps and Rollers, of course). Adam became more comfortable on his bike, willing to go more than 5 mph, and Alex seemed a little bit too at home, using his skiing experience to fly down the hills. Day one: a success!

The next day we ventured out to the Kokopelli trailhead to ride Rustler’s Loop. A green trail, this area is great for beginners. Every 200 ft or so, informative signs offer tips on mountain bike etiquette and riding. We made sure to stop at each one and let the boys come up with various scenarios for when and how to use the tips. Somewhere between the sweeping vista of the Colorado River far below us and the rock wall towering above, Alex called back to me, “If this is mountain biking, I really like it!”

Yes! We have a convert!

After conquering Rustler’s, we moved on to the slightly more challenging Wrangler’s Loop. After a slow climb that involved more walking than riding, we were off on singletrack again. Miraculously, both kids were having a blast, so much so that after going back to Fruita for lunch, we headed over to 18 Road for another hour of afternoon riding. Having learned our lesson yesterday, we continued to shuttle the car, allowing the driving adult to ride up singletrack and also take harder routes down, such as the exposed Joe’s Ridge. We did have a few crashes—Adam counted all the bumps on PBR and the 51st was not a good one—but there were no serious injuries and everyone was back in the saddle quickly following spills.

Sunday proved to be the most challenging day. We headed out toward Rabbit Valley after a night of rain. The trail system was not as well marked; the signposts had numbers instead of names and intersected moto and jeep trails. On the ride, we quickly found wrong turns and mud, and called it quits after less than an hour. Sometimes, you have to know when to say when.

All and all, the weekend turned out to be a huge success. The fun and smiles vastly outweighed the few tears and frustrations. In my optimism, I admittedly had planned on more rides while one of us took the kids and the other snuck in a guilty hot lap. Though we were not riding the speed or pace I would normally ride with other adults, it was not miserably slow, either.

Our fall Fruita weekend led us to Cave Creek, AZ, for riding over winter break, then a spring trip to Pueblo, CO. When planning rides and trips with the boys, we look for areas that don’t have huge elevation changes and trail systems with lots of options. The parks near Cave Creek had a multitude of green, smooth trails without too much climbing. The South Shore Trail Network at Lake Pueblo State Park features several short trails weaving up and down the bluffs that allowed us to make short loops. And sometimes, we still employ a car shuttle, like when we rode the Peaks Trail in Colorado from Breckenridge to Frisco and had grandma pick up the kids so Jeremy and I could ride back up the mountain.

We also recently upgraded the boys’ bikes. Alex is now on a hardtail 26” Trek and Adam has a 24” Trek with more than five gears (in good conscience, we could not pass “The Character Builder” to him). Having the right equipment does make a big difference for kids. We also swapped out the grip shifters on both new bikes to trigger shifters, which the boys find easier to use.

When riding, we account for the need to split the family into two groups; divide and conquer works well for different riding speeds and for separating bickering siblings. Occasionally, one adult splinters off to ride a section on his or her own. We are finding that flexibility and patience are key to family rides. More mountain biking vacations are on the horizon, and I’m excited to ride longer and more challenging trails with my whole family!

Want to get your kids, or a big group of kids, out on mountain bikes? Register an event, or search for one already planned, to celebrate IMBA's Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day, Oct. 4. The event, developed and coordinated by IMBA, strives to encourage communities around the world to join together and ride mountain bikes with youth. Over the years we've had tens of thousands of kids participate from across the globe, including: Italy, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Malaysia, and Mexico. Informal or formal, one child or 100 children, TKMBD celebrates the joy of riding in the dirt.

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