Story by Vicky Sama, JAM Fund Media Coordinator
Photo above courtesy Sergio Garabito Photography
It was a wet, fall afternoon when 13-year-old Aiden Mapel and JAM elite team rider Scott Smith rode their cyclocross bikes to Robinson State Park in Agwam, Massachusetts. Smith was riding slightly ahead and stopped to wait for Mapel where the trail turns a corner.
“I heard something and looked back and he’s lying in the woods with his bike somewhere else,” Smith said. “And I was like, ‘Aiden, what are you doing?’”
“It was super slippery with the wet leaves covering the ground,” Mapel said. “I hit a root and I went into a tree. That was a short ride.”
Mapel scratched his face but was otherwise okay. He shook it off and the two rode to Smith’s parent’s house nearby.
“I was worried because his parents were busy and he fell on his face and I was thinking I’m going to be in so much trouble,” Smith said. “But his parents were really understanding and said, ‘Oh, it happens.’”
Despite that fall, Mapel knows how to handle his bike. He’s been riding since he was two years old. When he was three, he started racing BMX and is three-time state BMX champion in his age category. Four years ago he started racing cyclocross. Last year, he dropped BMX to focus on road and cross, and showed up on the start line at 26 races, winning Sucker Brook Cross and Keene Pumpkincross.
“He left BMX behind, as sad as that is,” said his dad Chris.
“But he had a successful cross season,” added his mom Cindy.
Last year, Mapel received a $250 grant from the JAM Fund.
“I used the money to buy a Giro helmet and for race fees,” he said.
Mapel is one of about 25 young cyclists who have received a grant since the JAM Fund started its grant awards program five years ago. His enthusiasm for the sport and his commitment to the cross community made him a shoe-in to win one.
“Aiden has been a part of the Northampton Cycling Club youth program, races BMX as well as cross and volunteers at club events,” said JAM Fund Co-Founder and Coach Al Donahue. “He and his dad have always helped out with events, which is really important in my eyes.”
Mapel is in the 8th grade at Southwick Regional. On half-days, he rides his bike to school about three miles from home. During the spring, he runs with the track team, competing in the 100 and 200-meter sprints and long jump. In summer, he races his road bike and lifts weights at the gym. In the fall, he races cyclocross. In winter, he races skis in downhill and giant slalom. And in between, he volunteers at numerous events including leading the junior cyclocross clinics at Look Park. Oh, and he keeps up with his studies.
“Every day after school I’d come home and do homework,” Mapel said. “Usually around five when dad got home, we’d go on ride or ride rollers until it was dark.”
Now with more daylight, he runs and rides.
“I’ll run five days a week and sometimes Saturday, and ride my bike like three or four days,” he said.
“He’s young and shy but motivated to train, which is weird for a young kid to want to train so much,” Smith said. “When I was his age, I was riding around for fun not thinking about bike racing. If he sticks with this trajectory and having this much fun, I don’t see why he wouldn’t be riding for JAM in the future.”
Smith has become a mentor to Mapel. They live only a few miles apart in neighboring towns and have been on some fun rides together, like the time Smith invited Mapel to a hill climb challenge on Route 66—a playful inter-team competition between U23 Cyclocross National Champion Ellen Noble and JAM/NCC/Vittoria development team rider Chris Niesen. It was dubbed the Ellen v. Cheddar Hill Climb. And it was really cold and miserable.
“I invited him to come along and he didn’t have a rain jacket,” Smith said. “So I lent him one of mine. It was really cold and gross and raining, and he never complained once. He drove to the hill in the van and we hung out and watched the race and rode our bikes home.”
“This is the perfect example of how we want the program to create community,” Donahue said. “I know both Scott and Aiden get a lot out of riding together.”
Mapel’s goals this year are to improve his race fitness and compete at next January's Cross Nationals in Hartford, Connecticut, which is only 20 minutes from his house. He also plans to volunteer and ride the July 16 Grand Fundo. That’s where the JAM Fund will announce its next crop of grant recipients.
“We want to help out kids 10 to 16 years old who just love the sport and want to try races for fun,” Donahue said. “If they want to race and be a part of the community by volunteering at a few events, then that’s all they need to apply. More is expected from grant applicants 17 and up. From this group we are looking for a bigger commitment to training and volunteering with their primary focus on cross."
Cyclists aged 10 to 25 interested in a JAM Fund Grant may apply at http://www.jamcycling.org/what-is-a-jam-grant/.
And don’t forget to register for the July 16 Grand Fundo.