BUTTE — Bear Stillwagon took at look at his pine-scented surroundings at Thompson Park--a "gem for Butte" as he refers to the countless miles of trails that branch off the historic Milwaukee Railroad--and said "Why would you not want to be on your bike out here?"
The coach of the Copper Sprockets, a youth mountain biking club that serves Butte and Anaconda, certainly has a picturesque area at his disposal for training both casual riders and the next generation of competitive mountain bikers.
"It's for all levels," said Stillwagon. "We just have fun riding a bike. If you want to race, that's fine. If you don't want to race, it's fine. It's just about enjoying the bike and loving being out here on a beautiful day like this."
The team was formed in 2019 after Sam Schultz, a former Olympic mountain biker from Missoula, was approached by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) about the possibility of bringing a youth mountain biking program to Montana.
"It kind of steamrolled from there," Stillwagon said. "It was real easy to make happen. Everybody was excited about it. NICA made it easy for our team to succeed."
The Copper Sprockets, who began their season on July 1, compete in cross country-style races that usually last about an hour and cover about five miles of trail.
Caden Tippett, a 13-year-old who will be competing in the upcoming Butte 50, has been a member of the Copper Sprockets since its inception. Building the requisite strength and endurance was a challenge but once she began succeeding in races, she was hooked.
"It was really hard at first, but then I got better and it kind of clicked," Tippett said. "I ended up placing in the races and I realized that I really liked it."
The secret to excelling at racing is straightforward, but of course easier said than done.
"You just go as fast as you can and as hard as you can and try to podium," she said.
Benjamin McAdams, also 13, discovered the Copper Sprockets through a Facebook ad and quickly developed a passion for the sport.
"I thought it looked interesting," he said. "So I tried it and fell in love with it."
Mountain biking can be a grueling sport, from enduring searing climbs to navigating fast, technical downhill trails. Each member of the Copper Sprockets has their own reason for embracing the grind. For Tippett, it's the exuberance that comes from completing a race.
"The finish line, crossing the finish line," she said. "That is the best feeling in the world."