Tips for teaching the Cycling merit badge

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. Cycling Merit Badge

Craig McNeil is a 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 McNeil to get his insights on teaching the Cycling merit badge.

What to Ride
High-end bikes can cost thousands of dollars, but Scouts can complete the merit badge — and much more — without spending much money.

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.

Bike Maintenance
Teaching bike maintenance might be the biggest challenge for counselors who are casual cyclists. Some counselors recruit bike-shop mechanics to bring tools and repair stands to a troop meeting.

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.”

Essential Skills
For road biking, Scouts must understand traffic laws, how to use their bikes’ gears effectively and how to communicate with fellow riders. But the most essential skill might be what’s called “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.

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. 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 ( 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.


  1. Mountain biking is one of the most destructive things to have happened to our natural places. You wouldn’t give Scouts a merit badge for motorized off-road dirtbiking and ATVing, would you? Then, why would you even think about giving Scouts a merit badge for Mountain “dirt” biking that is ripping and shredding up the forests and parks.

    Lord Baden-Powell would be turning in his grave, right now. Keep the wheels on the road, where they learn to respect the rules. The woods is full of scofflaw mountain bikers. Scouts shouldn’t get any merit for following suite…Shame on you.

    • You are badly misinformed on what you have been told about mountain biking and the environment. Legal, well designed and maintained mountain bike trails are better for the environment than hiking trails. I have been an avid cyclist for several years, mountain and road, and have put in countless hours building and maintaining the trails in my area. These trails are far better than the highly eroded hiking trails and we won’t even talk about the horse trails. Please educate yourself on the topic before you start bashing the BSA for providing encouragement to help keep our Scouts physically active with a much safer way to earn the Cycling Merit Badge. There are far fewer people injured or killed mountain biking than road biking, especially with all of the electronic distractions for drivers now days.

    • I agree that irresponsible bicyclists can be destructive and have little regard for our natural areas, but mountain biking can be done right when it has the proper community support. Our area (North FL) has many rails-to-trails areas that have been converted to bike trails and they provide safe, off-road places for cyclists to ride. In addition, our community has built trails specific to mountain biking, horseback riding, and hiking to prevent the abuse of our natural surroundings. Around here, mountain biking is a safe alternative to road riding and, as S couters, we take the opportunity to teach and reinforce Leave No Trace values in addition to supporting scouting values when using our natural surroundings.

      • You sound like you’re in my neck of the woods. The trails in Tallahassee are amazing and an ATB can cut minutes off of a commute by switching between pavement and off-road trails. I agree, trail riding done right is safer for the scouts and has less impact on the environment.

    • It is important to teach the scouts how to stay on the trail. Just like Leave No Trace. Plus these trails are highly maintained by mountain bike association. They volunteer many hours working on the trails. The Biking trails are usually narrower than hiking of horse trails thus have less impact. Parks do not let you create your own trail, and most people don’t want to go ripping up forests. They don’t know the lay of the land, where the cliff, or the fallen tree, over grown hole that can eject them from their bike. The enjoyment is the skill development and risk, but not dangerous and reckless. Sorry Treed but you are wrong about mountain biking.

    • they have a merit badge for horsemanship, horses tear up a trail wherever they go, if you ride your mountain bike on established bike trails, then it’s a fine scouting activity backpacking off trails and cutting switchbacks do more damage than any mountain bike. The trail is for EVERYONE

    • Before I was a Scoutmaster I worked at a bike shop. I was a mechanic and an avid mountain biker back in those days. Since then my career has shifted to a more technical field. I’m older and fatter now and have seen several sides to this argument. As a biker I’ve been criticized by hikers and equestrians and as a hiker I’ve been criticized by bikers and equestrians. What I’ve learned over the years is to follow the rules and be considerate of others in whatever outdoor activity you do. As a Scoutmaster I’ve been criticized by other people using the outdoors too, I was told on a trip to Yellowstone NP that my Scouts were destroying the environment and that Scouts should be banned from the park. Unfortunately out of 20 good, considerate mountain bikers, hikers or Scout Troops there’s always going to be a bad one that ruins it for everybody. In my experience mountain biking has a very minimal impact on trails when compared to other users, but mountain biking is not free of inconsiderate people who cause damage because they don’t stay on the trails or follow the rules. The same can be said for any group that uses the trails.

      I think it’s rather presumptuous for you to assume what Lord Baden-Powell would or wouldn’t think of mountain biking. There are rules for on and off the road. As Scouters all of us should follow the rules and teach our Scouts to do the same. The only “shame” that should be on anyone is if they don’t share the outdoors with others.

    • Treed –
      Sadly, your views have been tempered by less-than-courteous riders. Responsible MTB is no more destructive than hiking. There are inconsiderate people in any activity (geocaching, kayaking, etc.), but those who follow LNT will not tear up the environment as you would propose.
      Finally, while there’s no official merit badge (yet?!), Camp Frontier at the Pioneer Scout Reservation in NW Ohio does have an ATV adventure program.

    • Ok, I gotta vent on this one… Our scout camp is one of THE top scout camps in the nation and they do mountain biking – offroad AND ATVing as microtreks during summer camp sessions. Wherever you are getting your information from is very very wrong. Groups like IMBA help to protect and give guidance in making bike trail so that it causes the least amount of destruction, erosion, etc. The way you talk is that the only way we can enjoy the outdoors is NOT to go, really?! OH and by the way, our scout camp hosts a mountain bike race every May that will have a few hundred riders participate. If you go back to those trails after a month or so you would never even know that almost 400 bikes went through there in one day. There I said my peace…

  2. I know for many in our troop $275 would be quite a bit of money to put towards a bicycle. Craig’s List, yard sales and even requests of the church or the community for bicycles is good way to put bicycles into the hands of a scouts.

    Fundraisers can be use to pull together money to buy and fix up the used bikes. This way the boys actually to get real experience upgrading their bikes, while earning the merit badge. Plus they gain since of accomplishment and ownership.

  3. Mountain biking is very popular in my area. We have state parks with trails made specifically for mountain biking. Riders along with park rangers enforce helmet rules, and just about every regular mountain biker is very courteous while on the trails.

  4. I am an experienced bike mechanic with a lot of commuting and lite touring under my belt. I have purchased several pawn shop bikes. While there are some real junkers out there, you can find some pretty good deals as well. Unless you are purchasing from a bike shop, use the Cycling MB inspection check list to go over the bike. Pawn shop and department store bike WILL need some work. Neither hire actual actual mechanics.

    At least for the road end of things, lots of gears aren’t always needed. A troop I worked with in Oklahoma did a cycling high adventure. One of the ASM’s and one of the Scouts used modified single speeds with “flip” wheels (different freewheels on either side of the hub). The Scout completed the MB and the 130 mile high adventure. Of course, afterwards he said that he never wanted to do THAT again. At least not with only one gear.

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