AT FIRST GLANCE, the Cycling merit badge seems like one of those merit badges that just about any Scouter could teach (assuming he or she is registered as a merit badge counselor). After all, you really never forget how to ride a bike. But a counselor who’s an avid cyclist can make the badge more than just logging miles and checking off requirements; he or she can introduce Scouts to a sport they can pursue for a lifetime.
Brian Burnham is a good example. An assistant Scoutmaster with Troop 845 in Chapel Hill, N.C., he has led Scouts on four cross-country bike trips since 2005. One of his Scouts went on to compete in triathlons and won the youth division of the first half-Ironman distance race (70.3 miles) he entered.
Craig McNeil is another good example. An early proponent of adding a mountain-biking component to the Cycling merit badge, McNeil, who lives in Littleton, Colo., has introduced hundreds of Scouts to the sport at Timberline District camporees.
Scouting talked with Burnham and McNeil to get their insights on teaching the Cycling merit badge.
What to Ride
High-end bikes can cost thousands of dollars, but Burnham says Scouts can complete the merit badge — and much more — without spending much money. “I’ve ridden across the U.S. four times on a bike that cost me $275,” he says. “I just give her some TLC after every tour, and then she’s ready to roll again the next time.”
Basic maintenance is even more important with bikes that go off-road. “Any kind of grit that gets into the bearings will affect the longevity of the bike if you don’t take care of it,” McNeil says.
McNeil, who rides a full-suspension bike that’s a few years old, says good used bikes (that aren’t too expensive) are easy to come by at local bike shops and through websites like Craigslist. “People who are serious riders tend to feel like they need to be the early adopters in getting the latest and greatest,” he says.
Teaching bike maintenance might be the biggest challenge for counselors who are casual cyclists. Burnham has recruited bike-shop mechanics to bring tools and repair stands to a troop meeting. “They give a 45-minute academic overview of what we’re going to do; then, the Scouts dig in,” he says. “Each one fully breaks down his own bike and rebuilds it by changing tubes, setting up brakes and working on the drivetrain.”
McNeil recommends doing the same thing. He also emphasizes the importance of being able to change a tire. “When you’re out, you’re going to get flat tires,” he says. “It’s more likely to happen in the woods than on the road.”
For road biking, Scouts must understand traffic laws, how to use their bikes’ gears effectively and how to communicate with fellow riders. But Burnham says the most essential skill might be what he calls “car management.” For example, a rider can discourage a car from passing him in a blind curve by drifting away from the shoulder. Then, when it’s safe to pass and the car moves across the center line, he can drift back to the shoulder to allow extra passing room. “It’s a little weird for young cyclists to do that, but it’s kind of cool to watch,” he says.
Burnham recommends a classroom session on road safety, followed by a one-hour ride, followed by an after-ride safety discussion. “I repeat this process for a number of our 10-mile rides and also for our 50-mile ride,” he says.
In the world of mountain biking, essential skills are balance, dexterity and focus. McNeil recommends spending time in a parking lot working on “skills and drills.” For example, you could create a slalom course out of traffic cones or build a small obstacle with 2-by-8 boards that riders must bunny-hop over. He also likes to have riders pick up water bottles from the ground or limbo under a rope hanging loosely across their path.
Skills and drills can continue once you get on the trail. McNeil suggests finding spots to practice water-bottle pickups or climbing hills in your lowest gear without stopping.
Where to Ride
Road cyclists can ride just about anywhere except controlled-access highways, but some routes are better than others. “With inexperienced Scouts, you’ll want to have big shoulders and low traffic volumes,” Burnham says. He suggests using Google Maps in bike mode or asking an experienced cyclist to design some routes based on your Scouts’ skill level.
For mountain-biking trails, McNeil recommends starting with the International Mountain Bicycling Association website (imba.com) or simply doing a Web search for trails in your area. “I don’t care where you live — Kentucky, Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma — there are plenty of places you can go and get elevation gains,” he says.
As with road biking, there are also places to avoid off-road. “You can find some really mild and easy stuff, and you can find other stuff that’s downright gnarly,” McNeil says. “We try to avoid that at all costs.”
Of course, Scouts can graduate to gnarly trails as they develop better skills, just as they can progress from 50-mile rides to cross-country trips. And the fun doesn’t have to end once they earn the merit badge. Several of Burnham’s cross-country riders like to schedule impromptu rides via Facebook. “It has become a social thing for them,” he says. “Instead of just sitting around, they go out and ride.”