My 11-year-old son sailed through the woods on his bicycle, kicking up a bit of dirt when he took a turn at the bottom of a slope.
"I don't know why, but I'm lovin' this!" he shouted back.
Gee. I wonder why? Speed, dirt, trees flying past.
In general, kids bike less for transportation and fun than they did a generation ago. But mountain biking - or more accurately termed here in the Midwest, off-road biking - is growing as a niche.
"People are seeing that this is a good family activity," said Gary Sjoquist, an avid mountain biker who promotes bicycling of all kinds in his job as an advocate at Quality Bike Parts.
With 65 miles of trail and an active off-road cycling association, mountain biking is already fairly popular in the state. The sport got a boost last weekend with the official opening of 30 miles of mountain bike trails in Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, an abandoned mine site in Brainerd.
It will get a higher profile among teenagers in the fall 2012, with the start of a high school cycling league, following a successful model in California, where more kids ride mountain bikes than play football in some communities.
Colorado, Texas and Washington also are starting leagues, and Sjoquist is recruiting teams to participate in four demonstration races this summer.
I've never ridden my fat-tire Trek off pavement, unless you count rolling it across the lawn. And I wasn't up for doing wheelies in the mud, but Sjoquist assured me that anyone with a basic level of fitness can ride.
"A lot of the stereotypes are fueled by Mountain Dew ads, where you see people flying through air. Mountain biking can be done at slow speeds," he said.
When I asked where I should take my two elementary school age sons, he steered us toward Salem Hills Park in Inver Grove Heights, a relatively flat course without obstacles. It's rated as easy to moderate in the trail guide of the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists website, which lists 18 courses in the Twin Cities.
PICKING UP SPEED
As we parked by the Inver Grove Heights water tower, I spotted a man unloading a red Specialized bike from an SUV and asked him if he could point us toward the trail head.
He was wearing Lycra, clip-on shoes and a CamelBack water bottle. We were wearing ratty T-shirts, cargo shorts and sneakers. I braced for attitude, but like the other riders we encountered, he was friendly and happy to help newbies. While we stopped at the portable biffy, he even waited at the trail head so he could explain the trail map.
The city of Inver Grove Heights worked with volunteers from Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists to build the 4.3-mile trail in 2003, and like most courses, it consists of several stacked loops of increasing length and difficulty. We started with a 0.7-mile starter loop through the woods.
Even that seemed a challenge as we rolled down the dirt trail. The 9-year-old went first, followed by the 11-year-old and then me. I braked and felt my wheels skid out on a turn. Dirt has a lot less traction than asphalt. We bumped over tree roots and rocks.
The 11-year-old was leery. His one other mountain bike ride was last year on a double black diamond course at Lebanon Hills Regional Park with a friend who likes to jump piles of logs. My son came back triumphant that he had survived the eight-mile ordeal, but he was bruised from the tumbles.
Meanwhile, my 9-year-old had taken off through into the woods, and with all the tight curves we lost sight of him.
"He's tearing it up," said the 11-year-old, with a sigh. "Mr. Competitive."
Seconds later, we caught up with Mr. Competitive stalled in the middle of a hill.
"I hate gears!" the 9-year-old yelled, as he got off the saddle and pushed his bike up the slope.
After a while, the 9-year-old got the hang of shifting into a low gear before the middle of the hill, and the 11-year-old and I gained more confidence.
Then, we really started to have fun, pedaling along the narrow dirt track that twisted and turned through the hardwood forest. After finishing the first loop, we continued to bike the rest of the trail, which took us just less than hour. We rolled over boardwalk bridges and coasted past a lake. We bumped
Then, we burst into a rolling meadow dotted with balls of purple clover, butterfly milkweed and small white daisies. It's part of the Harmon Park Reserve, former farmland that Inver Grove Heights is restoring as prairie. Knee-high grasses swished against the spokes, creating the only noise other than bird song. Patches of blackberry bushes hung close enough to grab, but the berries were still green.
The trail looped back and occasionally widened into a banked curve for those who want to take the corner fast and ride the berm. I must have been distracted by the scenery because suddenly I was heading downhill and picking up speed. I hit a mound of red dirt and then another. I wanted to slow down but was scared that if I squeezed the brakes, I would fly over the handlebars. So, I just careened down the path and tried to keep the wheel straight.
I caught up with the 9-year-old at the bottom.
"I liked those speed bump things!" he said with a grin.
We pedaled past shoulder-high stands of young oak and hickory where the park is reforesting and then through spruce and pine trees where needles and cones carpeted the trail.
"I'm glad we got into some different scenery," said the 11-year-old. "I was getting really bored with that prairie."
After nearly 40 minutes, I worried that we had gotten lost and were riding in circles. With all the loops, it was difficult to keep track of where we were. We climbed a switchback on a small hill, and I was relieved to spot the water tower peeking over the trees. Next time, I will print a map and bring it.
The trail is a favorite with St. Paul dad Matt Johnson, who bikes there often with his sons Cole, 8 and Jack, 10. An avid rider, Johnson took his boys on off-road trails when they were still in training wheels.
"It requires some pushing, but it's possible," he laughed.
Over the years, they've improved their skills, and now they can handle the more technically challenging courses, such as the difficult loop at Lebanon Hills, where they can ride over a teeter-totter, through rocks and over log jumps.
"I think my kids like going downhill," he said, when I asked what his kids liked about mountain biking. "I think they enjoy the courses that truly wind through the woods. Part of the appeal is just truly getting in the dirt and winding through obstacles you don't get to do when you ride to school or ride the paved trail through the local park."
Johnson hasn't given up riding on pavement with his kids, and we won't, either. But both my boys are clamoring for another off-road ride.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5295.
What: Mountain biking
Where: Salem Hills Park and Harmon Reserve Trail, 1642 Upper 55th St., Inver Grove Heights
Information: ci.inver-grove-heights.mn.us or 651-554-3440
Hours: Sunrise to sunset
Target audience: Anyone riding a fat-tired bike with gears
Crowd pleaser: Riding in the woods
Avoid: Ticks. Check thoroughly.
Tip: Go as slow as you want.
MOUNTAIN BIKE TRAILS
Here are five additional suggestions for mountain biking with kids. Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists, morcmtb.org, offers detailed descriptions and often maps for 18 trails in the Twin Cities. The website is also a great place to get current trail conditions. In general, avoid riding a trail for 24 hours after a heavy rain so you don't create ruts and repair work for trail maintenance volunteers. And never ride off the marked mountain bike trail. You can also look for trails at sites like trails.com or singletracks.com.
Lake Elmo Park Reserve has eight miles of unpaved trail open to horses, walkers and mountain bikes. The wide, flat trail is perfect for beginners who don't want a narrow, single track, sharp curves or bumps. Bring swimsuits, and after you pedal, hit the man-made swim pond, which is open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. This trail is not described in the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclist online guide. For information call 651-430-8370 or check www.co.washington.mn.us.
Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan has some of the most technically difficult trails in the metro area, but it also has a nearly mile-long beginner loop through pine trees and meadows off the southwest corner of the parking lot on Johnny Cake Road. And, the park is expanding the beginner trail this summer.
Battle Creek Regional Park in St. Paul/Maplewood is hilly terrain, but if you've got your shifting figured out and aren't afraid of a climb, you'll like the park's great single and double tracks. The park offers Ramsey County's only legal mountain bike trails.
The Minnesota River Bottoms Trail in Bloomington runs among giant cottonwoods in the floodplain. The long, flat trail is perfect for beginners, but its often flooded, so check current conditions.
Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Savage was one of the first metro-area parks to have a mountain bike trail. The original course has been reworked to include easy, moderate and advanced loops.
For some families, mountain biking isn't complete without competition.
Mountain bikers take over the ski slopes every Thursday at Buck Hill for races sponsored by Penn Cycle. The weekly summer events have a festival vibe, with food, drink, music and door prizes. Beginner ($5) and advanced classes ($10) are followed by a free kids race. Buck Hill, 15400 Buck Hill Road, Burnsville. Registration starts at 5 p.m.; races start at 6:30 p.m. June 23 and 30; July 7, 14, 21 and 28 and Aug. 4. 952-888-1427 or penncycle.com.
The Minnesota Mountain Bike Series consists of 11 races at courses across the state through summer and into September. Adults compete in "classes," depending on skill and endurance. Kids age 14 and younger ride in the Kids Comp class on trails four to five miles long. Children 10 and older also can compete with adults, starting with the Citizen class on a 10-mile course. Teens 14 and older are eligible to ride with adults in the more competitive sport class. Beginners are welcome and can get tips on racing and help adjusting things like saddles and air pressure. A race is scheduled today at Afton Alps, and the next is on June 26 in Red Wing. For more information check mnmtbseries.com.
The National Interscholastic Cycling Association offers information about high school leagues at minnesotamtb.org.