A group of dedicated young bike enthusiasts braved the elements, March 13, washing mud and muck off of mountain bikes behind Gravel City Adventure & Supply Co.

The cyclists are members of the Coyote Composite, a National Interscholastic Cycling Association youth mountain bike team centered in Emporia for grades 6 - 12. The goal of the team is to learn bike skills, build friendships and help grow the sport in a supportive and inclusive environment.

While NICA was founded in 2009, the Kansas league was just formed this year.

Coyote Composite team captain Ryan Balkenhol said the team and league as a whole is already experiencing an incredible amount of growth.

“We currently have over 20 kids registered and about 12 come out to participate on the team, so for a first year, I think that’s really good,” he said. “One thing we’ve seen that’s really positive is that the kids that did commit to joining is their energy has been really high. They have a really positive outlook, their focus, their eagerness to learn — it’s just amazing.”

Balkenhol said last week’s fundraiser was raising money to buy team jerseys for Coyote Composite. The team is preparing for its first event.

For Balkenhol, who has been riding bikes since he was a kid, it’s exciting to share that passion with a new generation. Especially since it’s not just about racing a mountain bike.

“The overall approach is not just to teach a kid how to go race,” he said. “Really, the more important takeaway is we’re teaching kids lifelong skills. We’re giving them something that they can use for the rest of their life.”

The NICA program is built around learning empathy, humility, flexibility and resiliency. Student-athletes learn how bike maintenance, learn about being part of a team, trail cleanliness and maintenance and giving back to their communities.

And, the program is inclusive.

“There’s no benches, so every child will ride no matter what,” Balkenhol said. “That’s the neat thing about the platform in which they do their events is if a student-athlete wants to come out and be a part of a team, not every child or student-athlete is going to want to race.

“We’re gonna give them the opportunity to get out there and be a part of a team that they’re still much more so doing it on their own, if they don’t wanna do the events, there’s no pressure to do the event.”

The program also empowers girls with the GRiT — or Girls Ride Together — program, giving young women a chance to feel more empowered on a bike.

“They can get out there and work with female coaches and give them a chance to build their skills with women that have a background and the confidence to teach these other young ladies that they don’t have to be scared about working on their bikes or getting out there and crushing those goals, just because maybe there’s not as many girls out there doing it,” Balkenhol said. “The door is really wide open, but it starts here and it starts here with what we’re doing and what we’re teaching them.”

Other than Balkenhol, Coyote Composite’s coaching team includes Tina Khan, Isaac Cushenbery, Max Piper, Sarah Underwood and Angela Spellman. Coaches attend a NICA Leadership Summit to learn the skills needed to be a certified coach as well as safety certifications such as first aid and CPR.

Balkenhol said everyone involved in the coaching team is committed to making the experience as safe as possible.

And, they are also committed to making cycling accessible to everyone. All that is needed to join is a flat bar mountain bike with flat pedals, but if a family can’t afford a mountain bike for their child Balkenhol said they shouldn’t let that be a barrier to joining.

Gravel City and High Gear Cyclery have teamed up for Coyote Composite and Balkenhol said High Gear’s Handlebars of Hope has committed to helping connect bikes with children who need them.

Families who cannot afford a yearly $300 registration fee can also inquire about scholarship opportunities.

“I would really like to make a point if a child wants to be a part of this, please don’t let that barrier and that fee be the issue why you can’t join,” he said. “There’s been a lot of generous donations that has built up a scholarship fund, and if a child wants to join, we’re gonna find them a bike, and we’re gonna find a way to get them a scholarship so they can be a part of this.”

Coyote Composite’s regular season runs January — June, but Balkenhol said they are exploring out-of-season activities to keep team members and their families engaged throughout the year.

Coyote Composite is centered in Emporia, but living in Emporia is not a prerequisite to joining. Anyone interested learning more about the team can follow @EmporiaNICA on Facebook and send a message.

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