From providing trail education to teaching kids how to ride, this organization makes cycling more accessible.
Bicycling | February 2022
Read the full story at bicycling.com.
“Race, hey, hey!” exclaimed one 12-year-old kid as he hopped out of the van with a dozen peers, at the trailhead parking lot of Malibu Creek State Park. He and the others waved at Race Headen, mountain bike ride leader, coordinator, and scheduler of the Youth Adventures program.
Co-organized by the National Park Service (NPS), the Youth Adventures program offers bimonthly meetups to facilitate outdoor opportunities for children with limited access to public land. The majority of today’s group of kids had never traveled outside of Los Angeles or ridden a bike.
Headen smiled and yelled, “You came back!” welcoming the kids, a handful of which were back for their second ride. “Anytime the kids come back to ride with us and they call my name, I’m always won over. I know it means I connected with that kid,” Headen says.
“We serve kids that are connected with the system, like a police youth program, in temporary housing, or those under protective custody, probation, or other violations. I tell them, ‘Do what you need to do to come back and ride again,” Headen explains.
“We’re here to ride a bicycle,” Headen says back at the kid. He’s also talking about the Mountain Bike Unit (MBU) at large, a crew of patrol volunteers on wheels—donned in bright yellow jerseys with a designated patch—that promotes education and responsible trail use in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA), the largest urban national park in the world.
The Role of the NPS Mountain Bike Unit
Launched in the late ‘80s, the MBU bike patrol program is a joint effort between several of the area’s land managers. Before rolling into fieldwork, MBU volunteers are trained in first aid, CPR, visitor contact skills, and scenario response such as addressing illegal campers or helping an injured hiker.
At the program’s pre-pandemic peak, nearly 200 cyclists worked on behalf of the MBU. “After the pandemic shutdown, as soon as we were given the green light to start onboarding volunteers and have them come back to provide in-person services, the MBUers were one of the first groups we had to get back in the parks,” says Sarah Koenen, volunteer program manager and supervisory ranger for the NPS. Today, 100 riders are active in the unit, giving 100 annual hours of dedicated trail service via two wheels.
The MBU was born from a need for peace and inclusivity amid the growing popularity of off-road biking, explains Stacey Best, MBU coordinator, who oversees the unit and has served patrol for nearly 15 years. Three decades ago, “People were getting enthusiastic about mountain biking on trails in the Santa Monica Mountains. The equestrians and hikers were in shock and scared of seeing this new form of transportation in the mountains—the bikers rode fast—and contacted the rangers. There had to be some rules, so that everyone could get along,” Best explains.
Enter, the MBU patrollers, who set a positive example for visiting riders while ensuring the outdoor space remains in good condition for all trail users. “The impetus of the MBU was to make sure everyone was having a good time in the park. We’re also the eyes and ears on the ground,” Best says.
The MBU teaches visitors interesting facts about the park, hands out maps, provides directions, flags trails that need maintenance, responds to incidents, and alerts law enforcement or medical responders about emergencies. “The MBU volunteers help the public know how to have a safe, enjoyable experience in a way that doesn’t impair the park for future generations,” says Koenen, who manages the entire fleet of volunteer programs.
Youth Adventures: Inviting Kids to Ride Trails
Launched in 1993, the Youth Adventures program is a joint effort facilitated by the MBU patrol volunteers and supported by the Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association (CORBA).
The MBU introduces more than 350 kids each year to mountain biking and the outdoors through this program. While working with kids of all backgrounds, Headen says, “You realize, you have no clue what another person goes through or can’t imagine the challenges that kids have in their life. It’s important to put effort into programs for at-risk youth, for them to know they have someone on their team.”
Headen, 58, dove into assisting the program 15 years ago, a year after starting as a MBU volunteer, in 2006. He grew up in the Alabama foothills, where he rode a bike as a kid and spent time outdoors for fun. In adulthood, his outdoorsy lifestyle offered rejuvenation and fun.
After moving to the West Coast, Headen learned about mountain biking and started riding the trails at Rancho Palos Verdes and Westridge Singletrack, 21 years ago. When a handful of riders invited him to pedal singletrack in the Santa Monica Mountains, Headen was hooked. Every weekend he returned with a pack full of food and spent whole days in the recreation area.
Eventually, Headen crossed paths with the MBUers in their yellow jerseys. “They told me about the MBU, and I thought, ‘I’m out here all the time. Why not join?’ I knew right away I’d be a part of the program,” says Headen. He showed up to MBU and the Youth Adventures program, bringing his two sons—then 3 and 5 years old—along, too. His boys, now in high school and college, still ride today.
Headen says he also thinks it’s important for the kids to have a group leader they can identify with. “I’m Black and if they see someone who looks like them that mountain bikes then those kids—and especially those who have gotten into trouble—can envision themselves doing that: riding a bike,” he explains.
To kick off the morning, Headen and the group leaders check if the kids know how to ride bikes (and teach the ones that have never ridden) then host a bicycle handling clinic. This clinic runs through skills like identifying the front and back brakes, how to shift, sit, and feet placement, as well as safety. The cyclists practice riding and shifting before exploring the park’s singletrack. Rides range from five to 10 miles, tailored to the kids’ age, ability, and goals.
“We give the kids a lesson about the park—from the wildlife to the natural history and interpretive elements—and how to ride as a group, like not stopping too close to one another and giving one another space,” says Matt Morse, who has been a MBU volunteer, Youth Adventures ride leader, and bike maintenance manager for the kids’ bike fleet for nearly 15 years.
How to Support the MBU’s Mission
One of the main messages from the MBU is that mountain bike trails should be welcoming for all people. To help get involved in their mission from your own neighborhood, aim to create an inclusive atmosphere for all people and skill levels at your local trails.
To start making that happen, slow down when you pass others (and know the speed limit regulations in your riding area), says Koenen. Communicate by saying, “bike approaching.” If your trail allows equestrians, make sure you slow down or stop as you approach and ask if it’s okay to pass the horse, making sure the horse can see and hear you speak.
If you want to help support youth as they learn how to ride, treat the ride like a day outside rather than fixating on mileage or an end point. Headen says, “We assess how the kids are doing along the way. There are times we pull over and let the kids have free outside time like picking up rocks or looking at caterpillars. Instead of trying to make it to the destination, we let the kid enjoy that moment.”
In addition to getting involved in the Youth Adventures program and Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association programs, another nonprofit called Trips for Kids has chapters all over the country and you can get involved with sponsorships, starting a program, or volunteering, says CORBA President Steve Messer. Headen also suggests volunteer opportunities and bicycle donations as another way to get involved with the NPS Youth Adventures program.
A handful more nationwide programs that also support youths on bicycles:
- Reach out to one of the nationwide earn-a-bike programs that helps kids ride
- Support All Kids Bike, a movement organized by the Strider Education Foundation to launch Learn-To-Ride programs in kindergarten physical education classes in public schools, free of charge
- Volunteer with a local bike organization for at-risk youth, like Lucky to Ride