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When Olaf Beckmann helped found the St. Helena Thunderbirds mountain biking club in 2015 with his son, Stefan Beckmann, it was simply out of enjoyment for the sport.

The older Beckmann had developed a passion for biking during his younger days. Stefan caught the bug, as well, and introduced the sport to some of his friends.

That first year of the club, they had only a handful of riders, most with limited experience. Olaf playfully described them as “the Bad News Bears.”

But since then, the program has grown exponentially. Now in their fourth year of existence, the Thunderbirds boast the largest roster they’ve ever had. They have around 18 high school and middle school aged riders, nearly twice what they had the year before. Many had no background with the sport, but wanted to give something new a try.

That was Olaf’s singular goal when he started the club. He simply wanted to introduce something different that kids would enjoy that wouldn’t come with the added pressure that high school sports tend to put on athletes. He was also hesitant about poaching kids away from the already shrinking athletic pool in the area because of the impact it could have on other, more established sports.

“Cycling has to bring something to the table for it to exist,” Olaf said recently. “It can’t just be another sport. It has to be different enough, and I’m not trying to make it different. It just is.”

The surge in numbers this season and the growth of the program have been legitimizing, but have also forced Olaf to become more serious about his involvement with the club. From their humble beginnings of going on simple rides at Las Posadas in Angwin, they now ride trails throughout the valley. Thanks to a handful of local sponsors who helped purchase mountain bikes for all members of the team, the Thunderbirds also travel all over the state for five seasonal meets as part of competition in the NorCal High School Cycling League, a branch of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).

The club is not sponsored by St. Helena High School, mainly because the school didn’t want to deal with the issue of liability insurance.

But that’s all right with Olaf. He even somewhat prefers to keep it independent, as do the riders. Every time he’s proposed the idea of becoming affiliated with the high school, the team members say they have no interest.

“It’s different enough, and wacky enough, that I think it brought something,” Olaf said.

They’ve had three meets so far this season with only two remaining. But their next race will actually be one of their closest to home, at Six Sigma winery in Lake County on April 27. After that, they will have only one meet before the State Championship Meet arrives in May.

This new scale is not a bad thing in Olaf’s eyes, but it’s also not something he thought he’d have to address this early in the club’s lifetime.

But even with the largest team they’ve ever had, and facing the prospect of adding even more riders next year, Beckmann has kept the club what it was he meant it to be – an outlet for freedom and fun that tries to place as little pressure as possible on the young riders, while providing them an avenue to get and stay fit.

“It’s a strange combination between the silliness, the weirdness, the atmosphere, the fun, and then the really hard work,” he said.

Members of the Thunderbirds agree.

“A lot of the kids at school have some much to do,” said Will Grace, a junior at St. Helena who was one of the first members of the team.

He pointed out that sports like baseball or football require practice every day after school, which was a commitment he didn’t want to make with an already full schedule.

“With mountain biking, we go out three days a week and just have fun,” he said. “It’s a good workout; you’re breathing hard and sweating. You definitely put the work in, but it’s not like you’re miserable. You’re having fun doing it.”

Grace is one of the more established members of the team and has helped spread the word around school. Olaf does not recruit because he wants the program to have a grassroots feel to it. This approach has given the members of the team a sense of ownership, to where they feel the team is what it is because of them.

This culture that’s been created within the program has even drawn out kids who have never been into organized sports like junior Riley Bothof.

“First year mountain biking, I love it. I’m definitely going to do it next year,” he said. “It’s perfect. It’s exactly what someone wants that doesn’t need to have 100-percent muscle and try super hard and work out after school. It’s a perfect, just go-out-and-have-fun kind of sport.”

Bothof and other riders say they enjoy the freedom they feel on rides most of all. Couple that with the meets – which Olaf compares to Bay to Breakers in that they have thousands of riders from 100-plus teams in the NorCal league running around and having a blast – and you have a sport that any kid could fall in love with.

“My son had no voice before he even started his race,” Olaf said of their last meet, “because he lost it just running and screaming all over the place.”

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