Wilton-based Outdoor Sports Center has started a Youth Cycling Team for Fairfield County, encouraging kids ages 9-18 to participate in the sport of cycling. The new team is organized by the CT Cycling Advancement Program (CCAP), which helps kids access mountain-, road-, and cyclo-cross races throughout the state.

The amazing way Outdoor Sports Center (OSC) got involved was by responding to a request from a customer, Monika Stokes, a mom who asked OSC to get behind a team for kids because her own 10-year-old son, Ben, loves the sport.

“I’ve always biked recreationally, and started taking him mountain biking with me and he really enjoyed it. He likes to be in the woods. When they’re little they climb over rocks and on rocks, and then he started riding over them. As he got bigger and stronger, and found out about CT Cycling, I signed him up for a program and he really liked it. He wants to continue with the sport and I’m encouraging him. He just loves it,” Stokes says, adding that it’s something she’s excited about because they can also enjoy it together.

“Monika is a longtime customer and friend of ours, and she came to us and said her son was really getting into mountain biking, and told us about a league of mountain biking teams in CT that’s starting regional teams. She said she’d love if we supported the Fairfield County regional youth team and we said, ‘Absolutely!’” explains Will Maxwell, one of the store’s owners.

It’s a relatively newly organized sports league in CT; CCAP launched in 2013 and the interest is surging, especially in the youth division. There are eight races in CT that are part of the CCAP Cyclo-cross series this season, and all have junior-specific events; that wasn’t the case in the past, when kids who raced did so against adults.

“We’re definitely starting to see an increase in kids joining the sport. We work in the schools to launch bike clubs in high schools, and we also work with Parks & Rec departments to run summer programs. Then we have our regional teams, which is what the Fairfield County Outdoor Sports Center Youth Cycle team is. Think of it like a travel soccer team,” Franzen explains.

There are three seasons for the sport:  road races and mountain biking in the spring and summer, and cyclo-cross–which is short-track racing combining road race and mountain biking–in the fall. Cyclists compete for team awards as well as individual ones.

Cyclo-cross racers compete on several laps around a short track course that may featuring different surfaces:  pavement, wooded trails, grass, steep hills and more. There are obstacles to navigate, usually by dismounting and carry the bike over. Franzen describes what it’s like:  “It’s very exciting and fun to watch, especially with the juniors. They have to hop off their bikes and jump over a barrier, and get back on. Sometimes they have to run up stairs, they have to ride through sand, it’s all kinds of really cool stuff, and it’s very exciting.It has grown into a huge sport worldwide.”

The team practices on Wednesday afternoons at Cranbury Park, and there are a couple more openings to bring its current membership of 7 members up to the max of 12 kids.

“They range from kids who are competent bikers who are just getting into the racing side of it, to kids that are really competitive. It’s an opportunity for kids who love mountain biking to do it more and evolve in a sport that is a little less mainstream but now just as fun, organized and competitive,” Maxwell says.

It is a sport that may not have as strong a following in terms of numbers of kids who active compete, but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in enthusiasm.

“To have another option for kids who may not connect with soccer or lacrosse or something like that, so that they’re not bored and they have something, fun and competitive and healthy to do; and maybe they learn a thing or two along the way and grow as people, it’s a great resource to have a team like this,” Maxwell says.

One other reason to think about getting a child involved? It’s an activity for all ages, says the coach of the team, Karen Franzen.

“It’s a lifetime sport. I don’t know many people playing football, soccer and baseball at 70, but I know a lot who ride bikes. It’s something that gives you a lifetime of skills and that you’ll enjoy most of your life. It’s fun, it’s a great workout. They learn skills in a way that they don’t really know that they’re learning, because they’re having a good time. It’s beyond bike-handling skill; they’ll learn to set goals, and to work together to achieve those goals,” she says.

Maxwell adds that it’s something OSC is really thrilled to see–having a customer be so passionate about a sport and that there’s another form of outdoor adventure that is taking off and gaining a following.

“We’re all really excited about it here. It’s very fulfilling to know that there’s excitement out there–especially Monika’s follow-through to really get organized. It’s something that we’ve wanted to do but difficult to happen without motivation from the parents. It’s really hard to get a team like this started, with logistics and coordination. Monika did a tremendous amount in moving this forward. And I think we’re building something that will last a long time,” he says.

From his point of view, the idea for this team goes hand in hand with the enthusiasm Wilton has shown for the outdoors, most recently with the Norwalk River Valley Trail (NRVT).

“We have an amazing amount of really interesting open spaces and parks to explore. With this trail, the benefits are great. Our town forest is also a great asset as far as mountain biking goes,” Maxwell says, adding that the store also leads group bike rides there every Wednesday night. “As the trail grows, it gives a lot more possibilities.”

To find out more about getting a child involved with the Outdoor Sports Center CCAP cycle team, contact the coach, Karen Franzen via email, or stop by Cranbury Park this Saturday, Sept. 19 at 4-5 p.m. when the team will be practicing. For more information about competitive cycling, visit the CCAP website, or visit the Outdoor Sports Center bike shop. Outdoor Sports Center is located at 80 Danbury Rd..