Youth biking series puts teen on path to state championship

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What started as a quick way to get to his favorite fishing hole has propelled Drew Blackstone to his first Maine state championship.

Blackstone grew up in Winthrop, where he’d bike with friends and ride to Wilson Pond to go fishing.  Now a senior in high school, Blackstone just finished the Maine High School Mountain Bike Series as overall Class A champion.

He swept the four-race series biking for Kents Hill School and won the championship race at Bond Brook Recreation Area in Augusta on Oct. 22.

Blackstone’s season did not end there. His success continued outside of Maine, winning the Northern New England Series and the final championship race at Highland Mountain Bike Park in New Hampshire.

“It all came together this year,” said the 17-year-old from Monmouth. 

Blackstone has been aiming for the championship since junior high, when his dad, Dana, discovered the community bicycle program “Healthy Kids, Happy Kids” in Yarmouth.

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The program, known as HK2, holds a series of mountain bike races every summer. 

“After competing in the Healthy Kids races, I knew I wanted to be part of the high school series,” Blackstone said. 

Those who are involved in the sport say community programs such as HK2 are a great way to introduce kids to mountain biking.

“Some sort of formalized youth program with reliable weekly rides is key,” said Chris Riley, president of the Central Maine chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association. 

Riley said that talks are ongoing about ways to involve more youth. 

“There are a number of people in Maine thinking, ‘How do we get more kids involved in this sport?'” Riley said.

Riley said that the racing success of both Blackstone and Maranacook High School’s Gabe Fein could help bring more young riders together.

“Their involvement is exactly what we want,” Riley said. “These kids, whose parents on some level are involved, have started out with the sport and were shaky riders. You watch them grow and then they get a little better and a little better and then they go to that next level.”

“They are the real deal now,” he said. “They are really good, quality riders and they are advocates for the sport — what a perfect thing.”

Riley is quick to point out that mountain bike trails and race courses that Blackstone, Fein and many others ride on don’t build themselves. A large part of Riley’s responsibility as CeMeNEMBA president is to organize volunteer trail maintenance crews. 

Blackstone and Fein stand out in that arena as well, Riley said.

“Drew has progressed in a number of ways,” he said. “He has become not only a pretty prolific rider and a heavy-hitter competitor, but he has also gotten involved in the other side of the sport of trail maintenance and trail building.

“From my perspective, that is really cool to see,” he said. “Drew is not just single-mindedly racing. He is also willing to put in a little bit of time and energy to help maintain the resource.

“Interestingly enough, Gabe (Fein) is one of the other ones who has been involved in that side of it as well,” Riley said.

Only a few Maine high schools have mountain bike teams. Kents Hill, Gould Academy and 17-time defending state champions Camden Hills High School.

Fein races as an independent for Maranacook and Blackstone raced as an independent for Monmouth Academy until joining coach Todd Wheelden and the Kents Hill team for his senior year. 

Any high school student can race in the high school series as an independent, he said.

“I hope other kids at other high schools see that and realize that this is something they can get involved in,” Riley said. 

“Getting into racing is not hard,” Greg Dolbec said. “Whatever bike you have, you show up to the race and have a good time.”

Dolbec said part of Camden Hills’ success at winning team championships is that mountain biking is part of the small town’s “culture.”

Dolbec uses the town’s youth series on Ragged Mountain as an example of that culture.

What started as three sets of parents riding around the parking lot with their young children at the Camden Snow Bowl a few years ago has grown into a weekly organized gathering of up to 50 kids on bikes.

“Last summer, we had 30 to 35 kids,” Dolbec said about the youth series. “This summer, we have 40 to 50 kids every Monday.” 

“We have 2- to 3-year-olds on strider bikes at the pump track to 5- and 6-year-olds out on the trails to kids 14 and 15 riding to the top of the mountain, which is a very difficult climb, very challenging, very technical,” Dolbec said. 

“We have a whole smorgasbord of kids participating,” he said.

Blackstone will continue to ride over the winter. He will race his fat bike over snow-covered trails and commute to class on his road bike.

He has logged more than 3,200 miles on his bike so far this year.

When diminishing daylight limits his training options, Blackstone will be on his trainer.

“I really don’t like the trainer,” he said. “I try to stay outside as much as possible,” Blackstone said about the device that allows him to ride his bike indoors while staying stationary. 

Training, in general, is not Blackstone’s cup of tea. Whether it’s riding indoors, working out in the gym or hammering the dreaded intervals, Blackstone would rather stick to the basic.  

“I was doing a lot of intervals and that took a lot of the fun out of it — I was starting to burn out,” Blackstone said about the relatively short, full-on training sprints that increase an athlete’s speed, power and endurance.

“I just ride,” Blackstone said. “I just race for fun and really enjoy it.”

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