Iowa City program turns youth into competitive cyclists

Club serves as physical outlet, motivation for completing goals, organizer says

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March 29, 2014 | 3:40 am

An off road cycling club designed to expose youth to competitive and organized biking is growing in popularity.

The Youth Off Road Riders club runs through the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County, a human services agency that supports child development. As its third season begins, the small club has doubled in size from seven to about 14 male and female riders that compete in mountain biking and cyclocross races around Iowa. Additional youth participate in organized leisure rides.

"There's not a lot of youth in the sport, and there's not a lot of African Americans in the sport," said Tony Branch, a program coordinator at Neighborhood Centers. "We support both."

Branch, who is a competitive cyclist, said children expressed interest upon seeing him arrive at work by bike. His roles is to provide positive activities for kids, and recognizing the need to combat childhood obesity, it sparked the idea for the club, he said.

"Naturally, a lot of the kids had some curiosity about it," he said. "'How far are you going?' I'd say, 'I commute 11 miles to work.' 'Oh, I don't think I can do it.' So, I decided to take that opportunity and run with it."

Initially, he wanted the children to ride a 50-mile day on the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, but it has evolved. Branch said they have eight mountain bike races and seven cyclocross races lined up this year, and weekly leisure rides on local trails beginning in June.

Branch thinks the club can serve as a positive physical outlet and can provide children general tools for motivation and reaching goals for other areas of their lives, such as school.

The club's first parents meeting of the year was earlier this month, and indoor training will get underway by March 1, Branch said. When the weather is nicer, they will train at Sugar Bottom Recreation Area in Solon. Children don't have to use Neighborhood Centers to join, he said.

Those interested can contact Branch at the Pheasant Ridge Neighborhood Center, at 319-354-2886, or by email at yorr@ncjc.org. Having a bike is helpful, but not necessary, he said.

On March 7 from 6 to 9 p.m., the Youth Off Road Riders will be holding an event to raise awareness and money at the Trueblood Recreation Area, 4213 SE Sand Road in Iowa City. The event will feature hand-built bikes from University of Iowa Professor Steve McGuire’s design class in the School of Art and Art History. There's also a silent auction for local goods and services.

Robin Armstrong, a community development associate at Neighborhood Centers, is helping organize the event. She said the goal is to raise money to get more children on bikes and involved in the program.

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