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How to get your kids into mountain biking

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January 2020 Issue
Marios Gavalas and is 16-year-old daughter Maya share how they went from riding through puddles to completing multi-day rides together.


Marios: I grew up in England in the 1980s when mountain biking had hardly been invented. Drop handlebars, 10-speed gears and Reynolds 531 tubing were the things. My stepfather, still a keen biker in his 70s, nurtured in me a love of the sport. And now, a father myself, I am continuing the family tradition and sharing mountain biking with my own children.

Maya: I love riding bikes. My need for speed and adrenalin emerged at an early age – skiing in the French Alps for a season when I was four. Since riding horses and competing in judo, my fitness and balance have advanced. In the last three years, I have become more involved in biking.

Riding history

Marios: We live near Motueka, so we’re lucky to have a wide range of tracks close by. As with introducing kids to any activity, the first priority was to have fun. We started small, but it was also important to allow Maya to take risks. There’s nothing like a few grazes, a bit of blood and a few tears to learn the consequences of a fall.

Maya: My earliest memory of being on a bike was when I was about five, pedalling as fast as I could through large puddles outside our house.

By the time I was on a bigger bike with grip shifters, we were doing Grade 2 tracks at the Kaiteriteri mountain bike park. Riding the ups trained me to anticipate gear changes and develop fitness. Well-sculpted corners, an even riding surface and gentle gradients allowed me to naturally find balance points and weight shifting.

When I started college, most of the other riders were boys and they were not particularly inclusive. They were also more into the downhill side of things. I was then asked if wanted to join an all-girls team for a three-hour adventure race. In a masterstroke of parental management, I accepted, and with this decision came the need for a decent bike.

The bikes

Marios: I spent hours researching about components and frame geometry, and which bike was the best bang for buck. I then relayed all of this back to Maya in simpler terms.

Maya: We decided upon a Merida 120, my first full-suspension bike with a dropper post. After two years and several thousand kilometres, I physically grew out of the bike and bought a 160mm travel enduro bike, which I paid for myself. This green machine allows me to compete in Enduro events like the Nelson Mountain Bike Club’s Shred Like a Girl.

Since getting the bike, I learned about maintenance – replacing derailleur hangers and brake callipers, removing chains and cleaning. Now, knowing more about bikes, I would like to build myself or dad a bike.

The rides

Marios: Maya was doing outdoor education in Year 10 and learning navigation. I work as an adventure guide, so outdoor skills are a part of my life and reading maps was one of the skills we could develop together. Analysing weather maps and packing were shared decisions in choosing our rides.

I rode the Heaphy the year it reopened for mountain biking and I had also tramped it. So I was familiar with the requirements, dangers and difficulties. We agreed to do this together and for a treat, I offered a flight back to Takaka, but part of the deal was we had to finish the ride in Karamea which added an extra 16km of road riding to the trip. We settled on doing the ride in three days – this left us with margins and no need to hurry. During the first big high of winter last year, Maya skipped school and we set off.

I carried the bike spares, lunches and my own personal gear. Maya took a 25-litre backpack. We fastened our sleeping bags to our handlebars.

The pep talk included the need to carry her own personal gear (no free rides in my book), to focus, and most importantly, not to fall. The backcountry is not the place to test your limits of speed.

Maya: I had built up my fitness for the all-girl adventure race by riding the Rameka Track and Dun Mountain Trail. We also did some road biking.

But before riding the Heaphy, dad said we had to do a training run that was similar to the climb to Perry Saddle. We found that riding from the bottom of Graham Valley Road to Flora car park was almost exactly the same distance and vertical metres. Everything went well until about halfway up when I started to tire. By two-thirds of the way up, I was thinking ‘Dad, I hate you!’. But once at the top, all was forgiven.

The Heaphy was great. The ride to Perry Saddle Hut was a big day, but it was an awesome feeling to reach it. The next day was good fun biking across Gouland Downs and spotting takahē. The descent to the Lewis River on a smooth flowing track was the highlight.

Cycling the final 16km to catch our flight from Karamea was the lowlight, but finishing the Heaphy gave me a great sense of achievement.

After riding the Heaphy, we decided to ride the Old Ghost Road. We did it in two days, staying the night at Ghost Lake Hut. The highlight of this ride was standing on ‘MY Rock’ on Lyell Ridge. It has the most amazing view. The lowlight was definitely the ride to Solemn Saddle.

We are now planning more multi-day rides together.

Our relationship

Marios: I have now come to the limit of what I can teach Maya. Although we will always ride together, she is on her own journey now.

Maya: Over the years, I have learnt that yes, dads can be tough and make you do things that you really would not do if you didn’t have to. But they make you do it to help you get the best out of yourself. I am grateful for the mountain biking experiences dad has given me because now I can beat him on the downhill AND on the uphill.