Indoor training sessions, volunteering, trail work and cycling on everything from rugged terrain to basic bike paths are nothing new to the kids of the Youth Off-Road Riders (YORR), a cycling program offered to local youth through the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County.
Anthony Branch, director of YORR, said that crossing the finish line comes with a great sense of accomplishment, and wanted to make that opportunity available to any kid willing to give biking a shot.
“I’m a cyclist myself and became really passionate about the sport, and then became really curious about the culture of bicycling,” said Branch. “I thought it would be a neat program to offer to kids and started from there.”
YORR initially served about nine children, but after a successful silent auction last March, the program received enough funds to accept more than 38 kids, all of whom got a chance to cycle recreationally—and competitively—with the assistance of coaching and peer support.
“For me personally, it’s about making a connection with kids who have the same passion that I have and giving them an opportunity to be exposed to something they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to be exposed to,” Branch said.
The organization’s second annual benefit auction is set for Friday, March 6 at the Terry Trueblood Recreation Center from 6-9 p.m., and will offer local, bike-related goods and services, including many items from local bike shops. A few “big ticket items” will also be available, Branch said.
“Last year, it was well attended, we had a great turnout and it was very well put together, so we’re hoping for that again this year,” Branch said.
Attendees will also be able to tour a display of hand-built bikes, created by students from a class at the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History. Everything from vintage bikes to the latest cycling models will be present at the display.
All funds raised will go toward the youth cycling program, which is critically important for the program’s continuation, Branch said. Before their first auction last year, for instance, the program didn’t have enough money to fully support all of its participants.
“We didn’t have the capacity to take them, for that many kids, to the competitive part of cycling or even just to ride on the trails,” Branch said. “We didn’t have the equipment, and we just didn’t have the capacity, but with those funds we were able to purchase some new bikes, to build on the bikes that we had previously that were donated.”
The $11,186 raised at last year’s auction was used for helmets, clothing, travel expenses and race entry and licensing fees. The group was also able to purchase their first bike trailer, which can now load approximately 18 bikes for races, making travel arrangements much easier.
The kids of YORR have competed in mountain bike and cyclocross races all over Iowa, with the youngest riders starting at nine years old.
Anne Duggan, an active cyclist and volunteer with the program, said that the training, while not a strict program, can be rigorous, fun or both—depending on the level of cycling the kids wish to pursue. All levels are often welcomed with determination and excitement.
“They’re not being coddled,” Duggan said. “They go into races, real races.”
However, the true benefit stems from finding a network of peers that share the same excitement.
“People who are established [cyclists] are really supportive of kids learning to bicycle,” Duggan said. “Everyone’s always nice, and it’s a very inclusive community.”
That biking community recently sent a 16-year-old racer to national competitions. Iowa City West High School junior, Kendra Law, recently finished the USA Cyclocross Junior National in Austin, Texas. Law initially got involved with YORR in eighth grade and says that crossing the finish line at her first big race was “one of the best feelings.”
But it’s not the competitive aspect that keeps her on two wheels.
“Everyone’s extremely supportive in the sport, which is really unique about biking, I think,” Law said. “It’s not as competitive; it’s more about setting your own goals.”
Law recently got a job at a local bike shop, where she is expanding her knowledge of bicycle repair and mechanics. As an older member in YORR, she enjoys working with the younger kids and hopes to see the riding continue so they get the chance to benefit from the same opportunities.
“I think it’s a really good experience for any kids that do join, and maybe even life changing,” Law said. “For me, it was life changing, and I think that it’s a really good program to keep around.”
Branch said that they hope to raise a similar amount at this year’s auction. The impact of cycling is evident in how it affects the kids, he said, and he hopes they have the means to keep pushing themselves through a challenging, yet enjoyable sport.
“When they’re out there cycling, they’re learning about themselves, in a different way that’s maybe not academic, but when they do have really significant challenges in their life, or are struggling academically, they can then tie [cycling] into it,” Branch said. “I can show them, ‘Yes, you can overcome a challenge and that you have the ability and skills to set a goal, and meet a goal, and to overcome the challenges associated to achieving that goal.’”
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 172.