The Kids are Alright Y’all – Spencer Harding
Words and Photos by Spencer Harding
The Grupetto is a group of riders that have formed at the rear of the race, having either been dropped or having done their job for the team that day.
About a year ago, I was picking Colin Holmes’ brain about what he had in store for El Grupo in the future and he mentioned a youth bikepacking program. He needed not to say more, I was in. This was even before my partner and I decided to move to Tucson. Once we moved down to the desert one of my first orders of business was to sign up to volunteer with El Grupo!
The kids we have in the El Grupo program, they ride their bikes every day, across town, into the mountains, and now even on bikepacking trips. I can’t imagine where I’d be if I had known such a world of possibility in middle school instead of my late 20s. Well, I now have the privilege to pass such knowledge and power onto the next generation of bikepackers.
El Grupo has been around for fourteen years as a youth bicycle organization. Originally focused on short fun rides and even some bike touring, the kids eventually expressed interest in racing and over time that became the primary focus. The kids have practice 5 afternoons a week, ranging from hitting the local dirt jumps to longer endurance rides. It has even spun off a group of younger riders dubbed “GroupITO” and of course our Grupetto (bikepacking) group. The Grupetto part of the program was introduced to me by the head of the program as the kids who didn’t make the El Grupo race team but still wanted to ride bikes. However accurate, I resent the “junior varsity” feel of that genesis, and I’m excited to see this program create its own separate appeal.
This photoset spans two trips that the kids were part of in November and December. Our first trip was an out and back to the semi-abandoned mining town of Ruby in deep southern Arizona. So southern in fact, that almost all of the traffic we encountered were border patrol vehicles. The route was a relatively simple ride on entirely national forest roads, but with a significant 2000 foot climb in the middle.
The kids pack and split up their gear, carry their own water, as well as carry and cook their own food. They do it all. There is almost a cynical joy in watching someone learn to properly pack the awkward bikepacking bags, a time-honed craft.
One of my favorite moments was when one of the kids admitted he had never used a lighter before and couldn’t light his stove. There was something so humbling about realizing that I had no idea who taught me how to use a lighter. When did I even learn that? Where did I learn? We spent a few minutes working on his technique and he even sparked up the campfire for the evening. I feel that the magic of these programs is in these little moments, giving them access to tools or experiences that were just out of reach or not even thought of.
The final trip of the season, my second trip with the group, would be a doozy. Colin had planned for us and the kids to tackle 12 miles of road and about 15 miles of Arizona Trail single track for each of the days. We would be staying at a cabin at the Kentucky Camp, a state historic site that rents cabins on the property as well as an important water resupply for hikers and bikers alike. Mostly that just meant the kids don’t need to pack a tent, a bit of reprieve for the coming challenge. This trip was special for an additional reason, we were being joined by the indomitable Lael Wilcox as a ride chaperon! The mellow road-riding start quickly leads to use walking up steep washes as we turned onto the Arizona Trail proper. Wash after wash, we carefully descended on our loaded bikes to be met with an even more challenging climb on the other side. Overcast skies, a desert rarity, revealed the often sun-muted but vibrant color of the Sonoran grasslands.
Our home for the night at Kentucky Camp was thankfully adorned with a gas stove, much to the children’s excitement, as the evening would dip below freezing. The warm night was filled with laughter and a game of Scattergories. With the huge homework loads and high expectations placed on some of these kids, it is truly wonderful to just allow them to be kids and have unstructured time around a fire.
Our way home was not one bit easier, as we reversed our road riding to the trail so we could continue on the AZT we had left unridden the day before. About four miles from the end of our trip with everyone exhausted and slogging from the tough trail, I heard a yelp of pain. This was followed by loud sobbing. As I got closer, I found one of the kids with a large thorn stuck in her arm and tears running down her cheeks. The tears kept flowing but the sobs quickly turned into laughter as I made her show me the wound for a photo. Once we got her patched up she rode that adrenaline high for the rest of the day all the way back to the van.
There is a list a mile long of people who have helped with this program, though none of it would exist without the persistent work of Colin “Dad” Holmes and all of the coaches, especially Veronique, Diedra, and Lael for chaperoning the trips. Getting these kids rolling would also not have been possible without gear from Revelate Designs, Big Agnes, and Ortlieb with additional support from Transit Cycles and Bikepacking.com.
Follow all the coaches and sponsors above, El Grupetto on instagram for more trip coverage, and please visit El Grupo’s donate page to learn more if you are interested in helping this program continue!