KOBRA makes biking fun for kids and the young at heart

KOBRA Kids rider shreds one of the “three humps” on the Wormhole Trail in Carolina North Forest. Photo by Michael Schwalbe.


By Michael Schwalbe

The snake was winning the contest for the kids’ attention. “Is it alive?” one asked the others, who had set their bikes down to squat in a circle around the animal. “I think so,” said another, giving the tiny snake a gentle nudge and watching it move.

Coach Steve, noting the distraction, stepped over to the snake circle. “Cool!” he said, leaning down for a closer look, “let’s be careful not to hurt it.” The snake’s coolness duly affirmed, he called the larger group—about 25 kids and a dozen adults gathered to ride mountain bikes in Carolina North Forest—back to attention, asking each young rider to tell their name, grade in school, and favorite animal.

Young mountain bikers listen to instructions prior to a KOBRA Kids ride. Photo by Michael Schwalbe.

Coach Steve is Steve Rogers, one of the principal organizers of KOBRA, which stands for Kids On Bikes Riding Around and has nothing to do with snakes, except as incidentally encountered objects of fascination. KOBRA got started in 2015 as the all-for-fun mountain biking wing of HammerCross, a local youth cyclocross program.

Although KOBRA still operates under the auspices of HammerCross, it is a distinct program—or set of programs: KOBRA Kids, KOBRA Social, and KOBRA Adventure.

KOBRA Kids is for riders between five and eleven years old—elementary schoolers, mostly. Once a week, from mid-May to early November, riders and coaches (many of whom are parents of riders), gather to ride for about an hour in Carolina North Forest. Riders are grouped by ability level and each group is accompanied by two or more adults. The usual ratio, depending on turnout, is one adult for every two young riders.

With these youngest riders, coaches work on building basic skills and confidence. “But sometimes we’ll just do an exploratory ride,” said Tonya Miltier, KOBRA’s other principal organizer. “We’ll stop and throw rocks in the creek or wade a little bit. We teach kids how to ride their bikes on trails, but we focus a lot on just having fun.”

If historian of science Thomas Kuhn had written about cycling, he might well have cited kids riding around on bikes as a paradigm example of a fun activity. But I think there is more to it, and more still than learning about snakes and creeks.

One big plus is that parents and kids can do it together.

Michael Venutolo-Mantovani, a local freelance writer and avid cyclist, is in his early forties and does the KOBRA Kids rides with his 6-year-old son. “Cycling is something that transcends age groups in a way that a lot of other sports and physical activities can’t,” Venutolo-Mantovani said, “and that’s one thing that makes it special.”

KOBRA coach leads kids on a ride along a smooth trail in Carolina North Forest. Adults ride at the front and back of each group. Photo by Michael Schwalbe.

There is also what Venutolo-Mantovani called the zero intimidation factor. “It’s just a welcoming bunch of adults, a really welcoming bunch of kids, and the riding is such that anyone can do it.”

One young rider, Claudia Baum, who has done KOBRA rides for years and will start high school in the fall, echoed the point about zero intimidation. “There’s kids of different ages and they’re all totally supportive,” she said. “Since there are four or five different groups for KOBRA, you can find where you need to be in skill level, and then move up in the categories as you improve.”

Another plus is that cycling, particularly mountain biking, appeals to kids who aren’t drawn to conventional stick-and-ball sports.

Riding mountain bikes on trails, as I heard from coaches and kids, presents novel challenges that keep things interesting and kids engaged. “In volleyball or softball,” Baum said, “it’s always the same thing—the same rules and everything. But in biking, you really have to adjust to where you are and use your brain more.”

KOBRA Kids rider gets guidance and encouragement from a coach. Photo by Michael Schwalbe.

I asked Rogers and Miltier what makes KOBRA special for them. “I think working with kids is super special,” Miltier said. “To be able to work with them on their bikes and just go out and explore and have fun brings me back again and again—just the partnership with the little ones and their parents, and to see them have a great time out there.”

For Rogers, “This stuff is just about joy, especially with the kids. They’re out there discovering something and having fun on a mountain bike. Their faces radiate a joy that reflects back to us adults who are involved with it—especially with the kids, but with the middle schoolers and high schoolers, too. They appreciate the fact that adults are doing something with them, and that’s special for them, and it keeps me going back.”

When riders age out of KOBRA Kids, there is KOBRA Social for middle schoolers. In addition to weekly rides in Carolina North Forest, this group ventures out to explore other trails in the area. KOBRA Adventure is for high schoolers. This group takes three or four camping trips each season to ride in the mountains. “We hit trails all over the place,” Rogers said. “So the name is ‘Adventure,’ and that’s kind of the concept as well.”

Participation in KOBRA Kids is free. Riders need a mountain bike, a helmet, and water. There is a $75 fee for the Social and Adventure programs. A signed waiver is also required for participants in all KOBRA programs. To learn more, contact Tonya Miltier or Steve Rogers.

Michael Schwalbe is a retired professor of sociology and an unretired cyclist. He has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990.  
This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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