Bikers maneuver through a training course as coaches provide help and encouragement. Photo by Gary Nieter
Bikers maneuver through a training course as coaches provide help and encouragement. Photo by Gary Nieter
The Northeast Indiana Composite (NEIC) Mountain Bike team is a new club that has a simple mission: make sure any kid that wants to ride with the team can.

The team has practices in Winona Lake, Columbia City and Fort Wayne and is open for enrollment for any kids ages K-12 with the mission of fun first. There are no tryouts, racing is optional, and everybody rides, even if they don’t have a bike.

“We follow the same curriculum at all of our practice sites so there’s no confusion when working on a different trail or with different coaches,” Coach Jay Winchester said. “We have up to 30 loaner bikes that the kids can use if they have an older bike or no bike at all.”

Winchester has been biking for a majority of his life, even going as far as to build a BMX track in his neighbor’s yard as a kid. He’s found the process extremely rewarding.

“It’s amazing how fast they learn for starters,” he said. “Sometimes you see a kid fall off a bike and you expect some tears but they’re already back on their bike before I can get there,” he laughed.

Each coach is a volunteer who has undergone a background check as well as a bike skills clinic to make sure they’re able to teach the kids as many skills as possible. Parents that are members of the organization can also ride as a sweeper without getting certified to coach. The sweeper rides in the back of the pack to make sure no riders get lost on the trail.

“We try to find certain spots on the trail so it can be more of a real-world learning experience,” Winchester said. “We’re not doing any book learning or riding in a parking lot.”

Some of the things coaches like Jay teach to the team are fundamentals they’ll use while riding for the rest of their lives, such as always keeping a finger on the break, looking not only up but ahead on the trail and keeping pedals level. These skills are broken up from practice to practice in order to have as much time on the trail as possible.

The practices are held Tuesdays and Wednesday nights from the end of June through the beginning of October. Tuesday practices are held in Fort Wayne, Wednesday’s are split between Columbia City and Winona Lake. Depending on skill level, riders might get to ride up to five miles a practice.

“We don’t usually have high schoolers riding around with third graders, but sometimes it matches up,” Winchester said. “You could have a high school kid who is brand new and a third grader that just lives on a bike.”

One of Winchester’s current goals is to add a third night of practice to be able to dedicate one night a week to each location.

“People in Warsaw don’t always have the time or the funds to drive to Fort Wayne once a week, and it’s the same vice-versa,” Winchester said. “Hopefully next year we’ll have enough regulars to move up to three nights a week, but that’s in the future.”

The main goal though, will always be the kids.

“They get to make friends from different towns that they may not have met otherwise,” Winchester said. “They get to ride with kids their age instead of riding alone. They love to ride and we love to teach them.”

Aside from its practices, the NEIC holds events from time to time, including one this weekend at New Hauth Trailhead in Winona Lake on Sunday morning. All riders K-12 are invited to join the team to ride on the trail. Food will be available while supplies last.

“We’re hoping to get more people involved and riding. At Winona Lake we usually have 15-20 riders on any given practice, 50 kids totally enrolled across the club. We’d always love to have more,” Winchester said.