As Colin Dunlap and his parents watched racers slide down icy hillsides and endure sub-freezing temperatures during last year's Cyclocross Nationals in Bend, he could tell his dad was unimpressed.
"He wasn't that into it," says Dunlap, who was a high-school freshman at the time. Colin himself wasn't too sure about the sport, either.
Most junior cyclists come to the sport because their parents participate, either competitively or as die-hard recreational riders. But Dunlap's parents don't ride. "My dad was a baseball player," he says. Compared to the typical team athletics organized for kids, junior cycling is still a fringe sport, and isn't widely supported, even in Bike Town, USA.
Bill Warburton, however, is on a mission to change that. As the cycling director of the Bend Endurance Academy, Warburton recruited ten young athletes earlier this year, including Dunlap, to compete in one of cycling's toughest disciplines: cyclocross. He has amassed a stockpile of equipment, much of it used, and holds regular training sessions after school.
On race days, Warburton hauls a 15-passenger van full of athletes, and a trailer he has packed with bikes, tools, pit wheels, tables, a tent, bike stands and all the other paraphernalia he needs to support almost a dozen athletes at the course. In addition to the ten academy riders, he offers race-day help to other junior cyclists from Bend. "We have a really nice presence at the races," says Warburton, "We try to help everyone else as much as we can. My goal is to get all the junior cyclists in Bend on the same page."
Warburton's dedication has paid off with Bend Endurance Academy riders scoring numerous state championships last Saturday in Salem. On a "pretty mucky" course featuring a steep, muddy descent with a slippery, off-camber turn at the bottom, Dunlap cleaned up, winning the state championship in his age group (15-16), the individual high school championship (representing Summit) and the overall Oregon Junior Cyclocross Series title.
"Colin started with the academy last year, and he tried both cycling and Nordic skiing from scratch," said Warburton. "He set the goal for this year's nationals last February, and he's done everything possible to achieve that goal. He started traveling in March - doing road and mountain bike races - he trained all summer, and once the 'cross season started, he found himself on the podium."
Dunlap, who purchased a used cyclocross bike at the beginning of the season, is quick to credit the support he receives from his Academy coach and teammates for his success. "I could do it on my own, but I don't think I would do nearly as well," he says.
Jill Ballantyne, whose 10-year-old son, Jett, won the state championship in his age group on Saturday agrees. "When I try to get him to do things, it's different, he resists more," says Ballantyne, herself a competitive cyclist. "For the kids, when it's not their parents pushing them, it's more fun for them."
Ballantyne, a single mother of two who is undergoing chemotherapy treatments, feels so strongly about the academy that she drops Jett off to ride in the van with the team and then drives to the race with her daughter to cheer him on.
"Riding in the van is a big social scene," says Warburton. "They get to talk about the race and their social lives."
"It can be fun," he says, "It can be very interesting to say the least, cooped up for six hours together."
Ballantyne, who would love to see more girls participate, thinks the camaraderie of the team has been invaluable. "It has definitely helped Jett to train with the older kids," she says.
Jett, who is four-foot nine, learned how to race 'cross this season on his mother's bike, which was originally fitted to her five-foot-five-inch frame. "Jett's been winning races because of his skill work," says Warburton. "He's learned how to pick up his bike - which is twice as big as he is - and go over barriers and up the stairs."
In addition to Dunlap and Ballantyne, there are other young guns from Bend who have been posting impressive results. At the state championships, Annika Johannesen won the Women's 17-18 title, Lance Haidet won the Men's 13-14 race, and a handful of other local juniors earned podium spots. Warburton and team are now focused on Nationals. "We have several who have legitimate shots at being [in the] top ten in their age group," he says, "and then a few more who could do better than that."
As for Dunlap, his parents are now 'cross fans, too.
"Cycling keeps you pretty straight," laughs Dunlap, "If you go out and get wasted, you're not gonna do well the next day."
Warburton says he's encouraged Dunlap to be a leader on the team and, "help the younger kids understand they can be successful."
"Colin's been really good about that," says Warburton.