Today’s Youth and the Social Multiplier Theory – Video

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Kyle Strait

From below, I can see Coach Kyle standing atop the Reef Drop with his troop of campers. Above them is a short, technical rock garden peppered with granite chunks the size of old TV sets. Next to them is a short diving board takeoff, separated from its dirt wedge landing by eight feet of vertical rock.

“Whooo whooo!” echoes from the woods, followed by, “Drrrrropping!”

Reef Drop

The kids look first to Kyle, then up the trail. In an instant, a chain of three young riders appears from around the bend. Amid hoots from the peanut gallery, they rattle through the rocks, glide off the diving board, and enjoy a split second of airborne silence before landing to the cheers of Kyle and their fellow campers.

Welcome to Cliff Drops 101: teacher Kyle Strait presiding. The school? Ayr Academy Mountain Bike Summer Camp. The classroom? Northfield, New Hampshire’s legendary Highland Mountain Bike Park.

As each rider hikes back up the slope for another go-around, they look to Kyle for a nod of approval. High fives are dealt—along with a few sage words of wisdom regarding speed, technique and style. Kyle appears to be at ease. He’s in his element and so are his campers. One would never guess that these kids are already pushing their ability to levels they didn’t know they possessed when they arrived at orientation two days prior.

Each summer, some 200+ kids make the pilgrimage to Highland from as far away as Brazil, Japan, and Sweden. Lured by celebrity coaches — including mainstream professionals the likes of Tyler McCaul, Geoff Gulevich, Greg Watts, Adam Hauck, Carson Storch, Reed Boggs, and Mike Montgomery — and video reels depicting world-class terrain, thirteen- to eighteen-year-old riders of all abilities attend one (or all) of four week-long sessions of Ayr Academy.

Greg Watts

I’ve been afforded a unique perspective on the camps over the history of the Academy, having worked as one of the resident photographers. The most intriguing thing about the camps is the campers’ level of progression. Each year, as a new wave of campers cycles through, it is apparent that their skills and abilities are progressing at a mind-numbing rate. How is it that each successive year produces a better crop of kids than the year before?

Tombstone

After a long day of coaching and shooting last year, Kyle and I had an opportunity to sit down and theorize what might propel such a steep arc in these young mountain bikers’ abilities.

“Whatever you see… you think that’s the norm,” Kyle explained. Essentially, we surmised that these young riders’ ability to drop a cliff like the Reef Drop, an obstacle that represented the pinnacle of most seasoned riders’ skill just a few years prior, was a product of exposure. There is, in essence, a multiplier effect in play. Once these kids see something done on a bike — once their young minds bear witness to the physics, style, and body language — that becomes their baseline reality. “Kyle launched off that,” they think. “I can do it.”

Kyle, still a young buck himself, could relate, “when I was growing up I saw guys doing tailwhips on BMX bikes and thought, okay, that’s what I’ll do on my mountain bike. And then I could do tailwhips and at that time a tailwhip in a comp, that was big! Now half these kids can do them.”

Kyle Teaching

Though anecdotal, I can attest to the validity of this theory. Each camper is given the opportunity to follow one of their heroes down the mountain or through the jump parks. Much like the mirroring that occurs when two people converse, it is soon apparent that there is a synchronization taking form. Kyle rounds a berm and finesses his way over a series of table tops. The parade of kids trails in hot pursuit following his line, syncing with precision and mimicking his every move.

Power Hr

“The kids, as I watched them grow up, they always thought that the stuff they saw Cam Zink and I doing in the NWD vids and at contests was the norm. Like ‘OK, that’s what you do.’ From our side, we were thinking “Oh my god this is gnarly! I’m only ever going to do this one time!’”

Observe. Mimic. Learn. This is the power of our multiplier effect. That, and some smart coaching.

“You get kids in a group together, keep the reins on them, keep it smart and set them up to succeed, set them up in the camp atmosphere to succeed. And you get their buddies pushing them along with me pushing them.”

The Ayr Academy is an intensive program. It’s not uncommon for kids to spend eight to ten hours on a bike under their own volition. Actually, the only thing more amazing than the learning curve has to be the amount of energy a fifteen-year-old’s power plant can produce. That, and the inordinate amount of food they consume!

The daily Ayr routine begins with campers waking for an early breakfast followed by a quick morning stretch and warm-up. Then it’s downhill laps until midday, a massive lunch, more laps, a long dirt jumping session in the afternoon, and another massive meal, ending with a few hours of dirt jumping or park riding in the HTC (Highland’s indoor training center) before a frenetic game of dodgeball… every day, for six days!

Jamie Goldman

Introduce a sponge-like brain to an intensive program and the most innovative mountain bike terrain, and the advantages our youth have when learning to ride at an elite level become even more glaring.

“It’s nice when we are coaching to basically have every drop to work with. From curb cuts, knee high, to chest to overhead and on.”

Modern mountain biking parks like Highland have evolved to host the entire spectrum of terrain. Highland’s gamut starts at a section of trails designed for toddler-sized strider bikes and ranges across a graduated scale of terrain that peaks at the slopestyle park, where riders can test their metal on Freebird, a moto jump over a thirty-foot gap to a looming dirt mound landing.

Kaidan and Kyle
“He helped me to look ahead more on technical rocky sections and not to look down and focus on one thing.” – Kaidan

Kyle and I waxed poetic for some time regarding the barriers we faced only ten years ago in the sport — albeit on polar ends of the skill spectrum. This led to the identification of another influence on today’s youth riders: specialization.

“Dudes like Semenuk, or Rheeder, those guys are serious. When I started [riding] slopestyle was just a side thing. Before Brett had really started riding he had ridden an XC mountain bike a few times, he found out about NWD and decided he wanted to be a slopestyle rider… That was his goal. Professional slopestyle rider. Having never raced.”

Evidence supports Kyle’s rationale. Both Rheeder and Semenuk have excelled and dominated the slopestyle segment as FMB, X Games and Crankworx champions. Mountain biking has evolved to a point where the average youth’s experience in the sport typically forms around dedication to a subculture within the greater riding culture. Gone are the days of XC riders learning to dirt jump before slowly transferring to the downhill slopes. Today, many of the campers are focused exclusively on jumping or downhill. This narrow focus seems to lend itself well to the rapid progression we witness at the Academy.

Kyle’s relationship with camper Kaidan Ingersoll is a perfect example of that progression. At the ripe ol’ age of twelve, Kaidan is one of the youngest kids in the Ayr Academy. He worked his way up through camps designed for young riders over the past four years, and entered the Ayr program with a solid handle on the fundamentals and ready for advanced mentoring. In a single day of riding with Kyle, we watched as Kaidan had multiple breakthroughs. The largest milestone was successfully parroting Kyle’s style and finesse off the monumental fifteen-foot down and twenty-foot out Tombstone Drop. Later that evening, with confidence bolstered, Kaidan hit Highland’s most iconic feature, Freebird—a thirty-foot moto-x scale gap, at age twelve!

All in all, it appears that the youth have a huge leg up when it comes to “learning to ride a bike.” And while Kyle and I may have cracked the code based on conjecture, I urge you to take a look at today’s cycling youth and find a better argument for why they’ve so quickly become such amazing riders. Better yet, follow their line down the slopes and see for yourself.

Lift

Kyle is one of my favorite riders. We had fun riding, jumping and talking about fishing on the chairlift ride. – Kaidan

Roost

Words by: Ryan Thibault
Photos by: Ryan Thibault, Dave Smutok and Mike Kirtley
Video by: Philip Welsh