Mountain Biking: The Hottest Growing Outdoor Adventure

May 2021

by robyn fogle | photos by holly netz

Imagine it with me...your heart is pounding faster than the wheels spinning beneath you as your mountain bike soars over rocks and pounds the trail. Your eyes are wide as they scan the terrain ahead. Index fingers rest gently on the brake levers as your body crouches with bent knees and elbows, absorbing the shock. Skidding to a stop, you feel dopamine rush to your brain, and a huge smile lights up your face.  

As scary as the experience may seem at first, any fear you initially had about mountain biking swiftly turns into a rush of adrenaline, and the only thought you're left with is - let's do it again!  

Take to the Trails  

The popularity of mountain biking has been growing across the country in recent years, and so too has its prominence in Billings. Pedal United's efforts (our local chapter of the International Mountain Bike Association) have resulted in a plethora of new trails in and around our area, making this sport more accessible than ever.  

Billings boasts several paved, urban trails in and around the city thanks to Billings TrailNet, a local nonprofit that raises funds to help build trails in Billings for both recreational and commuting purposes. Tour de Fleur, one of its largest fundraising events of the year, is happening this month. Ales for Trails in September is another great way to support the building of more trails in our city, connecting our neighborhoods, parks, and businesses. Download trail maps from their website and explore the 60 miles of trails we already have.  

For next-level adventurous types, the Acton Recreation Area is the place to go. Located roughly 30 miles north of Billings, this incredible multi-use, 3,800-acre area features miles of trails that challenge riders of all skill levels - downhill flow trails, cross-country trails, even a family-friendly loop. It's perfect for a day or weekend trip.  

Other popular mountain biking areas in Billings include the "Back 9" at Zimmerman Park, which offers a technical challenge for more advanced riders, while Phipps Park, Swords Park, and Two Moon Park appeal to riders of all levels.  

The recently completed Blue Creek Bike Park also has something for everyone. There's a pump track and jumps and ramps to challenge those looking to hone their skills.  

Discover the Dirt Dogz 

The growing interest in mountain biking has significantly spiked amongst high school and middle school students since the formation of the Billings Dirt Dogz. 

The Dirt Dogz are part of the National Interscholastic Cycling League (NICA) in Montana. NICA currently has leagues operating across 30 states. Montana's Project League was established in 2019, spurred by Sam Schultz's efforts (a 2012 Olympic cross-country mountain biker from Missoula). The organization seeks to develop mountain biking programs for student-athletes across the country with a mission of “Building Strong Minds, Bodies, Character, and Communities through cycling.” There are already nine teams across our state as youth cycling races to become a mainstream interscholastic sport.  

It was Billings local, Rob Johnson, a mountain biking expert and enthusiast, who heard about the Montana NICA league and wanted Billings to have a team. "I felt this community desperately needed one. The kids need an outlet, training, education, peers they can ride with," he says.  

In early 2019 he gathered other like-minded cyclists in Billings and began discussing how to make it happen. James Easton was one of those cyclists who attended the early planning meetings. He laughs as he recalls how he was eventually “voluntold" by Johnson that he should be the Head Coach. Johnson reasoned he was the obvious choice as a high school teacher with experience teaching kids and summers off. Easton stepped up and continues to lead the Dirt Dogz as they head into their third season this summer.  

James Easton was one of those cyclists who attended the early planning meetings. He laughs as he recalls how he was eventually “voluntold" by Johnson that he should be the Head Coach. 

The first season, 2019, had 22 local youth join from area middle and high schools. Last year’s season boasted record growth with 65 youth participating in the league, and more are expected to join this year.  

“The beauty of NICA is it’s all-inclusive,” says Johnson noting that youth of all levels and abilities are welcome. "We have kids that have barely ridden before, and then kids that are just shredders," he explains.  

Join the Team 

The Dirt Dogz season begins July 1st and runs through the first week of October or whenever the season's last race is scheduled. Four annual races are part of the summer program where teams from across the state gather to compete. Participating in the races is entirely optional, though. "That's the beauty of it," says Johnson, "NICA doesn't push 'you gotta race'; they're more interested in getting more kids on bikes." 

"The coolest thing about the team is it's non-competitive in nature," agrees Easton, "so if a kid wants to show up and just ride practices and do that, they don't have to race." The team meets for weekly practices on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, as well as some Sunday rides. 

“Practices are broken down into two overall categories - trail ride or skill development,” explains Easton. Last year the team utilized Pioneer Park for skill development, where they taught skills such as braking, cornering, climbing, shifting, and even basic bike mechanics. Those skills are then put into practice on group trail rides. 

Parent and volunteer coach Ari Greenberg and his son Jake (15) got involved with the Dirt Dogz last year. While Greenberg had already taught Jake mountain biking skills, he says, "Kids can feel intimidated when they're with adults. To learn with a peer is way better than to learn with just adults. Plus, kids tend to be more imaginative; they see fewer limitations. Jake gets to hang out with kids who say 'hey, try this.’” 

As the team continues to grow, more and more volunteer coaches such as Greenberg are needed. "If you like riding bikes, or you're at all interested, we need as many adults as possible to make this thing happen," says Easton, adding "even if it's just being a sweep - you don't even have to coach, you just have to ride." Volunteer coaches can help as much or as little as they're able. 

A growing team.

If you’re ready to give mountain biking a try, the expert staff at local places like The Spoke Shop, The Bike Shop, and The Ride Cyclery can help ensure you purchase the correct size bike. "Being able to demo the bike is huge," says Johnson. Plus, "they're the ones that are going to help you fix and repair your bike in a bind,” adds Easton. 

So, buy a bike in Billings and hit the trails!  Use your body, strengthen your mind, and have some fun!  Because we all know cyclists have better legs.  

Safety Tips from the Experts: 

  1. Equally-weighted, level pedals.  
  2. This means that when you're not pedaling, your feet are side-by-side. 
  3. First fingers always resting on the brake levers.  
  4. Mountain biking includes a lot of braking, so being able to stop quickly is key. 
  5. Eyes scanning the trail ahead.  
  6. Be sure to look up and ahead, not down at the bike.  

Originally printed in the May 2021 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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