Racing Against The Curves

Blaike Vlasschaert, left, and Simeon Rodriquez are members of the Umpqua Valley Composite Team, which competes in a youth-oriented biking league. Photo by Craig Reed

The trail weaves through the trees. There are some dips, bumps and banked corners, but the young mountain bikers pedal steadily along the course.

It’s a challenging experience for the young members of the Umpqua Valley Composite Team, but they adjust their speeds to maintain control over the hillside courses they ride.

“It’s an adrenalin rush,” says Simeon Rodriquez, a 13-year-old Melrose area resident. “I like being outside, racing and having a good time when we go to races.”

Blaike Vlasschaert, a 12-year-old Melrose resident, describes mountain biking as a fun activity.

“I like trying to get faster, but under control,” Blaike says. “Faster in a fun way.”

The young rider knows it’s no fun crashing on his bike, which he did a year ago during a practice run. He says he used his brakes incorrectly, got off trail, hit a tree and went down.

“I wasn’t injured, but it didn’t feel the best,” Blaike says. “It was a little scary.”

Both boys are members of the team founded in 2018 by Evan Kruse, a long- time avid mountain biker. Evan, 44, wanted to provide a biking opportunity he didn’t have when he was a young rider.

“When I was in high school, we didn’t have a youth-oriented league in Oregon, so I raced with the adults,” he, says. “It was fun, but it’s more fun to ride with kids your own age.”

When Evan’s children were old enough to ride competitively, he started the Umpqua Valley team and opened it up to kids from sixth grade through high school. The team is one of 20 in the Oregon Interscholastic Cycling League. The National Interscholastic Cycling Association supports the Oregon league.

The Umpqua Valley team has 12 members and is open to welcoming more. Practices start in July on trails at Cooper Creek Reservoir near Sutherlin and at Champagne Creek Ranch near Lookingglass. Some practices are held at Stewart Park and River Forks Park, where cones are placed to create a course.

Simeon Rodriguez helps maintain a local trail—a requirement to be a member of the Umpqua Valley Composite Team.

The race season begins in late August. The team competes in 4 events and then in the state championship. The 4 events involve multiple laps on short courses in Madras, Prineville, Klamath Falls and Newport.

“It’s night-and-day difference between youth and adult riding,” Evan says. “With youth, the focus is on safety, on appropriate exercise. We definitely have safety standards.”

At the youth level, there are no big jumps and big drops. Where there is a greater possibility of falls, trees and rocks are removed from potential landing spots.

“We actually have a great safety record,” Evan says. “There are some injuries, but nowhere near what traditional high school sports see. We focus on skills and technique training. We try to give the kids the right mindset and the right tools to ride safely.

“I learned that lesson. I hurt myself bad enough that I couldn’t ride comfortably for a while. I had to do a reset. It’s a lot more fun if you can ride the next day rather than be laid up after a wreck.”

The training classroom is at the trail- heads, then riders pedal to the trails to practice against the curves and any obstacles.

On race day, there are length standards. Junior high events last about 45 minutes, and high school races last just over an hour.

There are three divisions: middle school boys, all girls and high school boys. In each division, riders start separately with the older kids going out first, followed every 2 minutes by the next grade in that division.

Simeon is followed on the trail by fellow rider Blaike Vlasschaert. Along with 10 other team members, the boys start practicing this month in preparation for racing season, which begins in late August. The group is open to youth in grades 6 through 12.

Each of the courses for the youth races offers segments where passing is possible.

One of the requirements of being a member of the Umpqua Valley team is volunteering to help keep the trails cleared of vines and branches, and helping eliminate drainage issues.

“There’s no time requirement, but it’s part of the program,” Evan says. “You can’t just use the trails and not put any work into sustaining them.”

The Umpqua Valley team has some loaner bikes for riders who might be interested in the sport but don’t have
a bike. A helmet is required, and team members are encouraged to wear safety glasses.

Team coaches are marshals on the course during races, and there are paramedics at the events.

Evan says friendly and nonaggressive behavior is encouraged.

“The race is an energy-filled party,” he says. “It’s an absolutely fun environment. Winning for the riders is finishing the race. Everybody is celebrated. There’s no negativity in the organization, which is really impressive.” 32780

For more information on the Umpqua Valley Composite Team, go to the team’s Facebook page or text Evan Kruse at (541) 580-4402.