No Matter Where You’re From: How The UrbanPromise Trailblazers Are Bringing Mountain Biking to Wilmington

December 17, 2023

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Written by: Olivia Nicholls

NICA teams are spread across the country, forming even in urban areas not well known for their access to trails. Urban teams face different challenges than those with ready access to trail systems, but the students who live there deserve the same opportunity to get outside and experience the joys of cycling.

For Coach Marc and Coach Carolyn, launching the UrbanPromise Wilmington Trailblazers team was a way to welcome inner-city students into the outdoors, teach them valuable life skills, and provide a safe space for learning and development. Learn more about their story below!

Like many of us, mountain biking became Marc Comer’s outlet during the shutdown of 2020. Having re-discovered its peace, joy, and fitness benefits, he was eager to share his passion as a volunteer. He wasn’t sure where to start until Marc’s pastor connected him to Carolyn Keefe, the director of the UrbanPromise Wilmington Trekkers outdoor exploration program. When they met, they realized their goals aligned perfectly, and so the UrbanPromise Wilmington Trailblazers were born.

Initially, the idea of creating a mountain bike team for the UrbanPromise students seemed like a monumental task. They weren’t sure where to start. That changed when Marc and Carolyn connected with a local NICA team, Delaware Dirt Destroyers.

“That first year, none of our four athletes, nor I as a coach, had ever mountain biked before,” says Carolyn. “Being a part of the Delaware Dirt Destroyers allowed us to learn how to manage a team, run practices, and learn what we would need to launch our own team.”

With a clear path into NICA available, their next challenge was finding equipment. They couldn’t run the team without providing safe, reliable bikes to interested students, as none of the interested students had their own to use. Between the bikes, helmets, and other necessities, raising the money to purchase everything would have been difficult. Instead, they found the Pathfinders Scholarship, a program that provides a bike, helmet, shoes, accessories, and a kit for eligible student-athletes.

“The Trek NICA Pathfinders scholarship program has been incredibly helpful. We would not have otherwise been able to afford safe mountain bikes. The bikes that Trek has provided to us have been used season-long for practices and competitions.”

With kids lining up for an opportunity to ride, Marc and Carolyn had to recruit coaches to guide them. Luckily, they had little issue recruiting volunteers from their dedicated community.

“During our first season with the Delaware Dirt Destroyers, we had four coaches who were UrbanPromise staff and volunteers. For our second season, we were able to recruit five additional coaches. Many people think they need mountain biking experience to be a coach, but we can use all types of help. Because UrbanPromise has committed to providing transportation to the practice sites, UP staff who are coaches have the additional responsibility of driving student-athletes, loading and unloading bikes, and securing bikes in our storage place.

One of our new volunteer coaches is a former athlete on our team, having just graduated high school. Some coaches had MTB experience and others didn’t; some coaches were UP staff and others were volunteers; but all wanted to help.”

Their first two seasons have been a success, with the initial four students growing to a team of seven. They spend their practices exploring the trails surrounding Wilmington, and their weekends traveling to events to meet and ride with other NICA teams!

After finishing their second season in 2023, Marc and Carolyn are looking to develop the UrbanPromise Wilmington Trailblazers sustainably. Before they do that, they’ve got a few more difficult challenges to overcome.

“Our challenges have grown with our growing team. Trail accessibility is an issue. Our students cannot ride on trails outside of our practices or events. There is some great mountain biking within 5-10 miles of the city of Wilmington by car, but it’s difficult for our students and their bikes to get a ride.

Storage is also a challenge, as we keep all athletes’ bikes in UrbanPromise storage. We outgrew last year’s storage spot in the school basement, so this year bikes are stored in the garage of a local partnering church. For practice and events, we transport all bikes in a van along with the students to the parks. This is limiting to team growth as we only have capacity for so many bikes in the van.”

It’s not been easy, but it’s been well worth it. After only two years, they are already seeing concrete impacts on the students' lives both during and after the program. For their student-athlete turned coach, giving back has been a great way to stay connected, active, and involved in the community.

“It’s beneficial to have someone that is close to the team’s age on our coaching staff. He can help students in ways that older coaches don’t even think about, and our athletes listen to him because they know he’s been in their shoes only last year. I’m grateful that he’s on the coaching staff because it creates a vision that cycling is there for the students after they graduate, and they can continue to be a part of it.”

For Carolyn and Marc, the joy comes from simple things— like sharing in their student-athletes’ experience of the outdoors, growth in self-confidence, and commitment to self-improvement.

“Our kids often recreate at city parks, but it’s a new experience for them to feel very much ‘in the woods’. We marvel at hawks and deer, we stop to identify trees, we snack on wild wineberries, we take breaks from our rides to explore the creek. It’s a lot of fun to share these spaces with the students.”

At the end of the day, they say, it’s about more than mountain biking. The UrbanPromise Wilmington Trailblazers team is focused on developing student-athletes far beyond their time on the trails.

“We strive to equip our students with the skills necessary for academic achievement, life management, personal growth, and servant leadership. We will continue to pour into each student-athlete on our team in these ways.

As with any team, our student-athletes carry their own personal and academic challenges outside of mountain biking. However, biking has been the avenue for building trusting relationships within the team, which have helped our athletes manage their struggles. Biking has improved mental health for some, motivated others to remain academically eligible, and provided a fun and healthy outlet.

We are thrilled to have completed a successful inaugural season, for having ‘trailblazed’ the way for future UrbanPromise Wilmington athletes. We are grateful for the outpouring of support from NICA and Trek, from families and coaches, from donors and volunteers, and from our local MTB community. We are proud of our uniqueness as an urban mountain bike team, and we are proud to call the city of Wilmington our home. We treasure our team’s achievements— the triumphs measured by race times and medals, and the personal growth that will continue to blossom in subtle and powerful ways.

And we’re already looking ahead to next season!”

No matter where they come from, we believe all student-athletes should have the opportunity to experience the world on two wheels. To learn more about the Trek Pathfinders Scholarship, click here! And, to support our mission of getting #MoreKidsOnBikes, regardless of background, consider donating to our Ride Together, Thrive Together campaign!

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