Riding into a love of the outdoors with GR Dirt Dawgs

Members of the GR Dirt Dawgs hit the trails to learn mountain biking, an appreciation for nature, and how to take care of local trails. From ages two to 15, the nonprofit is spreading the love of mountain biking to all ages.
Why do 250 kids gather on dirt bikes in parks and trails around Grand Rapids throughout the year? To learn not only the importance of living an active and healthy lifestyle, but also about trail stewardship and loving the great outdoors. And, of course, to have fun. The GR Dirt Dawgs, a 501c3 mountain bike organization focused on inspiring kids to have adventures outdoors, uses mountain biking to help build self-esteem and an appreciation for nature.

Currently in their fifth year, their membership has grown from about 70 to 250, and their members are anywhere from two-years-old to 15.

Danielle MustoThe group's founder, Danielle Musto, didn't discover mountain biking until she was 23. "It completely changed my life," she says. A band geek who never meshed well with sports, Musto dreaded gym class as a kid. But when she discovered mountain biking, she says it gave her confidence and self-esteem, and she soon found herself wishing she had participated in the sport when she was younger. As an adult, Musto raced professionally and while working for the Grand Rapids Bicycle Company, she would overhear kids biking together. Watching them interact, she decided she wanted to start a kids team.

Sue Sikkema has two kids that have been in the Dirt Dawgs since day one. Since both of their parents are mountain bikers, Sikkema thought the Dirt Dawgs would be a great way to introduce Adia, 12, and Grayson, nine, to the sport. It was also the only group of its kind in the area. "They both love it," she says. Grayson especially has become really passionate about the group.

During each practice, the "teams" (groups of about 10 kids) start out by learning a different lesson. This could be how to take a curve, ride on single track trails, or just how to handle their bike. Then, they are set loose. "Most of them learn naturally by just going out and doing it," says Musto. "...so we don't spend a lot of time on lessons. They just go out and have fun."

Kids divide up by age group before hitting the trail. Even though the groups are called "teams," there is no competition and no pressure. This is one of the reasons Musto, who didn't love sports, quickly took to riding mountain bikes. "It appeals to everyone," she says. "They allow you to explore, go farther, and go places you couldn't go without them. You don't have to be the star to have fun and feel good about what you're doing. It's just a great way to exercise and have fun."

Besides the skills it takes to mountain bike, Sikkema loves all the other lessons the group teaches her kids. "It's also about taking care of the trails," she says, "and how important it is to know they can't just ride them."

Teaching this respect for the trails, also known as Trail Stewardship, is one of the main goals of the Dirt Dawgs. "It's about working on the trails, not just riding them," says Musto. "Leave no trace."

While West Michigan has the West Michigan Mountain Biking Alliance to help keep the bike trails clear, clean, and create new pathways, Musto teaches the kids that it's important to pitch in. "I used to go out and ride and not even think about who was fixing the trails, and I didn't do it myself," she says. Today, however, the GR Dirt Dawgs have a dedicated night in which they go out with kids, parents, and tools and help clean and clear the trails.

They also learn trail etiquette. This includes not riding too close, moving to the side if there are riders behind you, and just being respectful of other riders.

Musto hopes that, even if the kids don't pursue mountain biking as they get older, these lessons help them maintain a love of the outdoors and exercise throughout their lives. "When you start enjoying nature and being active at an early age, it carries on. I make healthy choices because I know the hard work I put in cycling, and I hope they learn the same respect for their bodies," she says.

While mountain biking isn't for everyone, the lessons they learn often apply to other aspects of their lives. Musto encourages the older kids to start working as coaches and she is working on building a junior coaching program. "It's really cool to see the older kids come when they don't have practice just to help. The kids tend to like the junior coaches more than anyone," she says.

Given that all the coaches in the group are volunteers, the experience shows kids the importance of volunteering and contributing to their communities. "The younger coaches see the older ones dedicating their time and they learn the importance of giving back to the cycling community," says Musto.

Sikkema's kids aren't the only ones who love the Dirt Dawgs. The group has high retention rate and Musto says that 90 percent of the families that started four years ago are still in the program. "It's really fun to watch the kids grow up," says Musto. "We have kids that started on Striders and are now pedaling through the woods." She also loves the sense of community within the group. "The families ride together, bring picnics and eat together, and just hang out while the kids play."

Sikkema's kids enjoy trying something new in a new environment and while she knows they might not stick with mountain biking, right now they are enjoying the lessons, the friendships, and the riding. "It's their favorite night of the week!"


Interested in getting in on the fun? Dirt Dawgs will host their annual fundraiser and mountain bike and running race for kids ages two to 15, Dawg Days of Summer, at Cannonsburg ski area on August 4.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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