Mountain bike culture in Northeast Indiana: How all ages are getting into the sport

Visitors to Fort Wayne might know the city for its award-winning children’s zoo, but just beyond the zoo’s borders, in the woods and fields of Franke Park, another form of family-friendly outdoor entertainment is picking up speed: Mountain biking.

Ramon Vasquez is the Head Coach of a local youth mountain bike league in Fort Wayne called the Northeast Indiana Composite (NEIC) Trailblazers. Going into their second year in 2020 and doubling their membership from six to about 15 this summer, the team teaches students across Northeast Indiana the basics of mountain biking in a fun, safe environment.

For youth and adults alike, mountain biking is something the whole family can enjoy even during COVID-19, Vasquez says, and for those craving healthy outdoor entertainment—or a break from the constant drudgery of the daily news—there’s always the trails.

“It’s very peaceful in the woods,” he says.

The NEIC Trailblazers team has grown to about 16 members this year.

In addition to Franke Park, which has about 9 miles of mountain bike trails, Northeast Indiana riders can visit Morsches Park in Columbia City, which has about 8 miles of trails, or Winona Lake, which has about 10 miles.

Vasquez believes mountain bike culture has the potential to grow in Fort Wayne, too, particularly if more youth get involved in the sport.

In the last decade, Northeast Indiana has become known for its bike and trail culture. The regional trails system stretches more than 100 miles long and brings cyclists of all ages together for recreation, group rides, and race training. While mountain biking isn’t quite as popular as road or trail cycling yet, many residents enjoy the sport, either riding with official clubs and racing leagues, casual groups, or on their own.

Cyclists of all ages ride with Team NeighborLink.

Three Rivers Velo Sport (3RVS) is the city’s largest cycling club, which has a smaller, off-road component in addition to its other programs.

Founded in 1969, 3RVS is a volunteer-run nonprofit that organizes group rides, activities, and trail maintenance. Vasquez’s NEIC Trailblazers joined the club this year to help more youth get plugged into local bike culture and start cycling for life.

Beyond 3RVS, groups like Team NeighborLink are encouraging mountain biking in Northeast Indiana, too, says Director Andrew Hoffman.

Team NeighborLink members compete in races and ride casually.

Team NeighborLink is a fundraising group of athletes who participate in various sports to support NeighborLink’s home repair projects. In the past, they've hosted mountain bike events, like Hot Laps races and Kids on Bikes youth cycling programs—both of which are put on hold in 2020 as the virus complicates large gatherings.

Even so, individuals and smaller groups are still hitting the trails on their own time, Hoffman says. He sees Team NeighborLink as being somewhere in between a casual riding group and a competitive race league.

“We do a lot of races, but also just ride and build collaborative communities,” he says.

Team NeighborLink's Kids on Bikes program helps youth get into mountain biking.

Another, more casual mountain biking group in Fort Wayne is Girls Who Shred, started by Caitlin Gossman.

While working her first job in Fort Wayne after graduate school in 2015, Gossman found herself coming home each night and watching TV for long hours, so she decided to take up mountain biking as a hobby. After doing some research, she purchased her first mountain bike and started teaching herself skills on the trails.

“A few months later, I realized I really liked this sport,” Gossman says. “Along with being a great form of fitness, it gets you out into nature. It builds camaraderie, and it’s really confidence-building.”

Catherine Hill rides with Girls Who Shred.

As she grew her skills, she upgraded her equipment and joined a local Facebook group called Franke Park MTB where she got connected with other Northeast Indiana riders. But she discovered that it was hard to find women to ride with; most of her fellow mountain bikers were men.

So Gossman started Girls Who Shred as a separate group on Facebook and began rallying other women to ride with her. In the past few years, she’s grown the group to about 10 members who ride together on a bi-weekly basis just for fun.

Girls Who Shred is a Facebook group of female mountain bikers who ride together bi-weekly.

In addition to using Northeast Indiana's trails, the group travels to trails in nearby states, like Michigan, too. Some members have even started competing in races on their own. Many nights, after their bi-weekly rides, the group will hang out at a local pub or brewery.

“It’s just a social group for women to have fun and to ride at your own risk,” Gossman says.

After riding, Girls Who Shred often hang out at a local pub or brewery for drinks.

While Girls Who Shred is mostly ages 25 and up, everyone is welcome. During COVID-19, they’ve been venturing out in smaller numbers, but starting in July, Gossman is picking up her regular bi-weekly rides again.

Vasquez’s NEIC Trailblazers are kicking off their season on schedule in July, too. While his team rides in smaller groups throughout the year, their official season runs July through October.

As part of the Indiana chapter of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), they haven’t been affected by the pandemic yet, but some of their national league’s early races are getting postponed, Vasquez says.

His team doesn’t start competing until September, so only time will tell how COVID-19 will impact races then. Regardless, racing really isn’t the point of NICA, Vasquez points out.

“NICA’s number one goal is to keep everybody safe,” he explains. “It’s not a race league, so the main point is to get kids on bikes and have fun.”

The NEIC Trailblazers ride in groups.

Since he started the NEIC Trailblazers in 2018, his wife and 16-year-old daughter, Kyra, have joined him in the sport. Kyra had never mountain biked before, but she picked up the basics at their weekly practices, with a few cuts and bruises along the way.

“It’s hard at first, but worth it in the end,” she says.

Members of the NEIC Trailblazers take to the trails.

Along with youth, parents are getting into mountain biking through NICA, too, says Jake Fitzmaurice, Team Manager for the NEIC Trailblazers and NICA Coach Supporter.

Each season, the NEIC Trailblazers seek volunteers to be “ride leaders” and “sweeps” (followers) for the group during their weekly practices, so no one gets left behind. All volunteers go through a full background check with NICA to ensure safety.

“We need as many volunteers as we can get,” Fitzmaurice says. “If you’re going to be dropping your kids off and picking them up anyway, why not ride along with us? It’s a pretty unique sport in the fact that you can practice with the team.”

Parents and adult leaders chaperone rides for the NEIC Trailblazers.

While Indiana’s youth mountain bike scene, as a whole, is still growing, vibrant cultures already exist in nearby states, like Michigan and Wisconsin, Vasquez says. Last year, Michigan’s league invited Fort Wayne’s NEIC Trailblazers to compete in their races, and the Trailblazers ended up taking home four medals in competitions against 200-300 other riders.

“That was really cool,” Vasquez says. The NEIC Trailblazers competed in Michigan for the first time last year.

As a coach, he hopes to see more youth get into mountain biking in Indiana, which could be aided by more schools and colleges offering mountain biking as a sport.

For students who want to start biking, but don’t have the resources to purchase equipment, NICA offers discounts, sponsorships, and other tools to make it more affordable. And for those who start young, mountain biking can have lifelong benefits.

Students gain confidence as they conquer fears and overcome challenges, Vasquez says. NICA’s mission is building strong minds, bodies, characters, and communities through cycling, and watching his students progress throughout the season, this mission holds true.

“It does make them stronger being out there,” he says. “Early in the year, there are obstacles they can't make it over. Then you see the confidence they gain from being able to accomplish things that they couldn’t do. It’s amazing to see the progression they make and how good they get.”
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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.