Green Trails, Greenways, and an Ecosystem of Trails
Some seventy miles south of Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia is Greenbrier State Forest where a team of 6th to 12th graders ride bikes, steward trails, and build community through mountain biking.
The Greenbrier Valley Hellbenders Youth Cycling Team (GVH) was formed in 2019 as part of the West Virginia Interscholastic Cycling League, one of 31 NICA leagues across the country. Coaches Sarah Elkins and Max Hammer founded the team because they wanted their son to be able to ride with other kids and have more opportunities in mountain biking. The team started out with nine student athletes.
Max has been riding, racing, and building trails for decades. He and Sarah are staunch mountain bike advocates and long-time IMBA supporters. They helped GVH secure a Trail Accelerator Grant in 2021 to explore bringing more trails to the area. IMBA chatted with Max and Sarah to find out how their background in trail stewardship and advocacy inspires how they coach student athletes.
Kindness comes first
In GVH’s first season, six members raced and three had podium finishes. The Hellbenders had 26 riders in the 2021 season and continue to have strong showings at NICA races. But the athletes don’t let winning get to their heads. Even with all the awards, kindness takes first place.
Sarah shared how one of GVH’s more advanced riders spends a lot of time training outside regular practice hours but shows up for team practice to support his fellow riders.
“He’s so good but he’s so kind,” said Sarah, describing one of the team leaders. “He has to train so many miles outside of practice to continue at the level he is riding, but he has already said that he’s coming to all of the practices.”
“He can't wait to be there and ride with these kids. He’s so encouraging and so the youngest kids adore him. We have this real sense of family on the team where we don't tolerate bullying or talking smack to each other. But we also haven't had to manage that much. There's just such a great culture of encouragement among the kids,” Sarah said.
It’s not all about racing
Max and Sarah instill in their athletes that the point of mountain biking is to just ride. This takes pressure off kids to compete so they can focus on having fun. For some kids, just being on the trail with their teammates is enough. For others, the big win comes from discovering their strengths and developing confidence.
“Some of our kids don't participate in any other sport and probably didn't imagine that they'd be mountain bikers. And they're smoking on the trail. It's really cool to see kids who maybe wouldn't get to define themselves as an athlete but they're discovering they're really good at this,” said Sarah.
Someone’s got to care for the trails
Max has been working on trails for as long as he has been riding, so trail stewardship is something he instills in the Hellbenders. “Why wait for someone else to do the work?,” Max said.
“Our kids know that we have workdays and they come out and learn how to take care of the trail. They learn that someone’s got to do it. They are not under the impression that the government is taking care of these trails. They know they’re the ones doing it,” Sarah said.
Growing the GVH family
During team rides, it is common for parents and younger siblings to join in. At training sessions, parents will often hike in the woods or picnic by the trail. Even as spectators, family members are communing and enjoying the outdoors, which builds a sense of community and makes them more likely to help steward the land and advocate for trails.
And the GVH family keeps growing.
“Yesterday I was out in the forest hiking and one of the kids from our team was out there with his dad. They were riding with a new kid who wants to join the team next year, and they were teaching him the ropes. They’re getting him used to riding singletrack, he’s never ridden singletrack. It’s another rising 9th grader who will be out there with the team, and another dad and another kid making sure he is confident before our season starts,” said Sarah.
The future is bright
Exciting things are happening in Greenbrier Valley. The Hellbenders are entering their fourth NICA season this year. Through the Trail Accelerator Grant, a feasibility study is on its way to hopefully bring more trails and bike amenities to the State Forest, Greenbrier River Trail, Lewisburg, and White Sulphur Springs.
Keep your eyes peeled for more. A GVH athlete racing the World Cup in Snowshoe in the near future. A new generation of engaged trail stewards. Even kinder trail users. With a strong team, supportive coaches, and a tight-knit community, anything is possible.