The hashtag #CrossIsComing has 88.1k tags and for a good reason – it’s fun, family orientated and accessible. While cyclocross continues to boom, one category in particular is soaring with growth – quite literally: the juniors category. Chicago is home to one of the largest junior scenes around.
Chicago hosts one of the longest-running and largest amateur series in the country, the Chicago Cross Cup [CCC]. The CCC began in 2004 and has been gaining in notoriety and size since it began. On average, the CCC hosts eleven races, with around 700 people racing at each event.
Overall, there are 14 racing categories built into the CC race day schedule and the junior category is one of them. I remember one cold and grey race day as my toes became numb from the sidelines overhearing a chorus of laughter. Looking over, I saw a very large group of juniors cheering, laughing and jumping up and down in such enthusiasm I myself could not help but smile. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and it spilled out into the crowd. It’s a good reminder to competitive adults and the youthful spirit of the CCC Junior’s Squad is showing no signs of slowing down, thanks in part to the many parents and volunteers that coach and shuttle the kids to and from practices and races.
The Pony Shop runs an extensively large program out of the North Shore, and a respective mention to Blackstone Bicycle Works and West Town Bikes whom both field junior CX teams on the South and West sides.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Lou Kuhn – owner of the Pony Shop located in Evanston. Lou is the founder of the Pony Shop and one of the visionaries of the junior CX team. Lou’s history runs deep within the Chicago cycling community as he has been peddling for 26 years – you ask any avid cyclist racer or not – and they know the Pony Shop. His commitment has never wavered in part to his continued love for the bicycle, and for the cycling community.
Q: What makes the Junior’s Program (ideology) and formula stand out?
Lou Kuhn: Our head coach, Paul Swinand, has really created an inclusive program that allows kids of all ability levels and ages to have fun while improving their skills. There are multiple weekly practices that are challenging and a lot of fun. This really keeps the kids engaged without being overwhelmed by competition.
Q: How did the program start?
A: I started it with Paul after a simple conversation about what we would need to grow the program and make it better. That started with small things like kits, and tents. After years it has grown to having multiple coaches, a team manager who does tent set up and break down and mechanics at races.
Q: How many juniors do you have currently and what are the age ranges?
A: We have around 45 active kids in the program. Many flex in and out depending on sports that they do in school or clubs. The kids range from 7-18.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge in leading the Junior Squad?
A: Besides remembering everyone’s name… being a positive influence out on the race course. The kids pick up on adults competitive behavior and it’s important to be humble and show them good sportsmanship at all times.
Q: With this special young squad – what does ‘success’ mean to you, the parents, and the juniors?
A: We have never put a goal out there, like “win nationals,” “be the biggest program,” or anything like that. Success for me is getting more kids involved, regardless of their talent level. Again I have to credit Paul and the other coaches for keeping the kids engaged. A junior who is 14 now and mid pack, may be the one who is 18 and getting a pro-contract. They all have different growth spurts and times when they will excel.
Q: How does it feel to see a junior leave the junior squad and move up?
A: It’s very rewarding. We are just about now at that point where our kids are not only moving up but succeeding against the adults. Peter Swinand for instance started off racing a 20” bike and now rides my old 58cm’s and is the current state champ in the 3’s.
Q: What is your proudest moment thus far with running this program?
A: When the kids all get together and cheer for others, high five the adults, wait at the finish line to see their teammates finish, those are all the highlights.
Q: In your opinion, what does the cyclocross world need more of?
A: We need more support for young professionals who are trying to make their way in the sport. We proudly help to run a UCI level team and have expanded to supporting four racers this year. There is a lack of funding and programs for top level cyclists to grow into at this point. With cross’s continued growth I’m surprised we haven’t been able to find that financial support for the young racers.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the Pony Shop.
A: This is actually our 50th anniversary this year! I am super proud to be a part of the Chicago cross scene. It’s by far the most fun part of cycling for me, and seeing it grow – knowing we’re a small part of that is just the best.