Ride on, Midland Mountain Biking Crew

Starting a new community program is no easy task, but C.J. Brey, the founder of the Midland Mountain Biking Crew, was up for the challenge.

“We’re here to learn and grow and beat ourselves and get better every day,” says Brey.

The Midland Mountain Biking Crew is a youth-focused mountain biking group for elementary through high school students. The Crew meets on Wednesday nights at the City Forest in Midland.

“I grew up mountain biking; I just had a passion for it,” says Brey. “I had an older brother who was into it, and I just thought it was cool as a kid.”

Growing together, on the trails

At the beginning of every meetup, Brey says the Crew goes through about 15 minutes of basics. They include everything from reminders about oiling bike chains to the proper way of going over obstacles. After that, groups form up with coaches and head out on the trails.

At the beginning of every meetup, Brey says the Crew goes through about 15 minutes of basics. “All the teaching, all the learning, and all the excitement come from peer-to-peer [exchanges] on the trail,” says Brey.

With education being the intention of the Crew, and the Crew being open to bikers of any skill level, Brey tries to put the kids in appropriate groups based on their performance.

“Skill on a bike is not determined by age,” says Brey. “Some kids learned to ride a bike at 2, and some kids aren’t riding the bike off training wheels ‘til 5.” 

To make things easier to organize, Brey uses a color system other MiSCA teams have implemented successfully. 

The ratio of genders in the Crew, according to Brey, was about 80% boys and 20% girls.“I broke out four different colors: green, blue, orange, [and] red — from most basic to most skilled,” says Brey. “We just watched the kids and moved them around.” 

The coaches in charge of the teams are approved by MiSCA. The coaches do the job of watching and instructing kids as they ride.

“[Coaches] are carrying first aid; they’re carrying tools and equipment,” says Brey. “They’re stopping the group, talking about obstacles before they tackle it, making sure if you’re not comfortable you go around it this time — or if you’re going to do it and you’re not sure — they’re there to watch.”

If more coaches get registered, more kids will be allowed to join.One of the coaches is Blair Stewart, an engineer at Thermo Fisher Scientific and a born-and-raised Midland resident. 

“I’m a coach at heart,” says Stewart. “[I] also have coached baseball, softball. It’s something I just love to do. Big proponent of recreational sports. [It’s] good to provide a place for kids to be outside getting exercise.”

Stewart’s family — his wife Becka, and their two sons Koen, 11, and Macklin, 5 — are also part of the Crew. Becka coaches; Koen and Macklin ride.

“It takes a little more energy,” says Koen, fifth-grader this fall at Plymouth Elementary in Midland. “I’ve never really like playing team sports. [Mountain biking] is the only sport that I like.”

As for what Koen would say to other kids thinking about joining the Crew: “I would say it would be a very good thing to try. All the coaches are great, friendly, and it’s laid back.

Groups form up with coaches and head out on the trails.The Midland Mountain Biking Crew has other options to hit the trails besides belonging to the Crew directly — once the season begins, Brey will be hosting Saturday morning open rides on different trails around the area for any kids who want to come out.

“Whether it’s at Mid-Michigan Community College, or one of the places within the region, not just City Forest, [also] Pine Haven,” says Brey. “We’ll go for an hour ride, nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, to get everyone who wanted to ride, who can’t ride with the team, out there.”

Getting the Crew together

While living in Ohio, Brey would often take his son Jack mountain biking. Brey’s wife, Jennifer, found them a local mountain biking club for kids run by a teacher who had built a small trail in the woods.

“I checked into his story to determine if we could sign up for it,” says Brey. “It was full already, no surprise, but they had open races [...] and when we were down in Columbus I took my son to a race and got to meet the guy who put it together.”

Races are an opportunity for the kids to show their stuff and have a fun adventure on trails they wouldn’t usually explore. That teacher had around 60 kids sign up the first year. The second year, they had to cut it off at 200 kids.

“I saw the numbers and I was like, ‘holy cow, when we get back to Midland I want to put something together like that,’” says Brey.

After moving back to Midland in 2019 and taking some time to settle in and get situated with a new job, Brey and his wife were able to get some plans rolling in the winter of 2020. 

“My wife sent me a link to MiSCA, which is the Michigan Scholastic Cycling Association,” says Brey. “[...] I followed the link and contacted the organizer and found out that yes, in fact, there are MiSCA teams all over southern Michigan.”

“We’re here to learn and grow and beat ourselves and get better every day,” says Brey.MiSCA does the work of setting up insurance, hosting online platforms for registration, conducting background checks and certifying qualifying coaches. 

“[MiSCA] put together a six-race youth-only series in the fall, and it’s from ages basically first through 12th-grade,” says Brey. “And I said, ‘man, this is super cool, I want to do it,’ and [the organizer] was like, ‘go for it.’”

After receiving the go-ahead from MiSCA, Brey put together a Facebook group, figured out a name for the group, and contacted his friends and immediate social network. They decided the City Forest in Midland would be the perfect place for the club to meet.

“We had, at that first meeting, probably six parents come out,” says Brey. “I’m like ‘okay, it’ll be fun, it’s not going to be anything huge,’ and then three weeks in we had to shut the spigot off at 50 families registered.”

Brey opened up registration for the 2021 season on March 31, and within the first two weeks, received 30 sign-ups.They’d usually have about 25 kids show up to the City Forest trails out of the 50 registered, but they would sometimes have upwards of 70 people out with them, including coaches and parents. The ratio of genders, according to Brey, was about 80% boys and 20% girls.

“By the end [of that first season] we had almost as many parents as kids riding bikes,” says Brey. “That was a huge win; [I] didn’t see it coming — [I] had no idea [about] the fulfillment and the give-back, the whole community around what I was creating.”

The feedback was enough to convince Brey he should do another year. He opened up registration for the 2021 season on March 31, and within the first two weeks, received 30 sign-ups. At the time of writing Brey has closed registration with a total count of 56 registered kids.

“The secret is getting more coaches out and getting them registered at level 2 ride leaders and level 3,” says Brey. “[...] If we could get more, we would allow more kids.”

Future trails for the Crew

Belonging to MiSCA gives the Midland Mountain Biking Crew the opportunity to attend six races around southern Michigan, known as the D&D Bicycles MiSCA Race Series. Last year, according to Brey, around 250 kids would attend each race — around 600 are expected to attend each race this year.

MiSCA does the work of setting up insurance, hosting online platforms for registration, conducting background checks and certifying qualifying coaches."We’re running out of places to race with capacity,” says Brey. “You go, you basically set up a tailgate area for your team with your tent and food and drinks and everything. Everybody comes down and then they have races throughout the day, all around the course.”

Brey notes that families will come down to the race area the day before and pre-ride the course — some will even choose to camp out in the area.

“[That’s] my goal,” says Brey. “To get a campsite and pre-game the day before — ride, grill out for the team — really [...] turn it into something special, where the kids get to really settle in with each other.”

The races are non-competitive, meaning there are no prizes given out for winning, but they’re an opportunity for the kids to show their stuff and have a fun adventure on trails they wouldn’t usually explore. 

“There are scholarships available out there,” says Brey. “You know, you can go to college and do this, but most of it is just group riding — kids just having fun. Most of our riding is just that, it’s a good, fun, adventure ride.”

Read more articles by Patrick Sochacki.

Patrick Sochacki, Oscoda native, has lived in Bay City since he was 7 years old. He is a freelance journalist for Catalyst Midland, produces news stories for Delta College Public Radio, and is a freelance podcast producer. He was also editor-in-chief for The Delta Collegiate, Delta College’s student-run newspaper. He can be reached on Twitter @PatrickSochacki.
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