Building community through mentoring the next generation
By Kurt Gensheimer
Of all the professional mountain bike racers in the gravity scene around the west coast, there may be nobody more significant in shaping the talent of young riders more than Mark Weir. Although Weir has stepped back a bit from racing in the last few years, he still plays a vital role in helping develop some of America’s best talent, including recent winner of the Trans-Provence and the TDS Enduro, Marco Osborne.
But just like his unorthodox approach to training – like when he climbed more than 1,000,000 feet in a year on a Santa Cruz VP Free downhill bike, making him unbeatable at races like the Downieville Classic – Weir also has an unorthodox style of mentoring young riders. Although his business card says “Tough Guy,” Weir has a unique charm, like when he shines his signature smile even when he’s winding up to punch you. It’s a no-bullshit approach that’s very refreshing in a world overrun with political correctness, and it seems to attract the right talent to Weir’s doorstep.
“The biggest thing I try and impress upon the young guys coming up is building community around them,” said Weir. “It’s not about ‘you’ or ‘me’, it’s about ‘us’. I was successful in racing, building relationships and life in general because I focus on the ‘us’ aspect. I want to make sure there are still some kids left in this world who understand that concept.”
This mindset of being present in the local community has been a driving force behind Weir’s style of mentoring youth. With the help of his community, in the early 2000s Weir built an enormous pump track at his home in Novato and invited kids he liked to stay and train with him and his wife Suzie. As the word about Weir’s world spread, more people turned up at his door. Before he knew it, he had a community of young, incredibly talented riders looking for direction; names like Richard Lancaster, Duncan Riffle, Ben Cruz, Sam Hill, Nathan Rennie, Henry O’Donnell, the Ravina brothers, and of course, Marco Osborne.
“It was the process of digging dirt together in the backyard, road tripping to events, going on huge rides and pushing each other beyond what we think we could do that bonded us as a community,” said Weir. “I saw a lot of myself in these kids, and I wanted to be the person that helped them get to the next level in their riding, and more importantly, as human beings.”
During this period through the 2000s, Weir was at his prime as a racer and had a large annual budget to travel with thanks to supporters like CamelBak, FOX, WTB, EAS and Jericho/Intense. He invited the kids along to race with him, all on his budget. Long before organized high school mountain biking took off, Weir was a crucial source of developing America’s finest downhill racing talent. And when Marco Osborne first started racing in 2012, Weir let him borrow his own bike along with all his spare parts.
“Mark has been supportive since the very beginning and is pretty much the reason where I am right now,” said Osborne. “He’s been more than a good friend, he’s been a mentor and coach. He tells me to just be myself, have fun, don’t go in over my head and don’t fall into being someone I’m not. Mark’s always looking out for the younger generation, and he can still occasionally beat us up the climb, which of course makes him smile.”
Standing Above the Noise
Now in his early 40s with a seven-year-old son of his own, Weir doesn’t race and travel like he used to. Besides, Weir said, the game has completely changed. The explosion in social media has made it much more difficult for young riders aspiring to be professional to find support and stand out.
“Because of social media, everything is so much more watered down these days. As an athlete, it’s much harder to stand above the noise with so much meaningless junk and distractions flying around. The culture has changed, and it seems people are more out for themselves instead of focusing on building a community around them.”
Before the explosion of social media, there was only a handful of print and online outlets people could get product information, race results and feature stories from. Weir knew that structure well and managed to get not only himself, but also the kids he mentored, into each and every one of those outlets. As proof, Weir dropped a massive binder on my lap loaded with print ads and magazine articles of him that he would give to sponsors every year.
“This is just 2004,” Weir said. “But nobody puts binders together anymore. Now it’s just Instagram photos, likes and video edits that vaporize after a day.”
This vapor has an irritating effect on Weir, especially when it happens on a ride.
“I’ll be out on a good rip with some younger guys and every time we stop for a break, they’re pulling out their phones. It makes me want to pull out my phone, but I don’t want to pull out my phone. I hate my phone. It drives me crazy. I yell at them to put their damn phones away and look at each other. Talk to each other. Communicate with each other. We can’t lose this most elemental form of being a human.”
Marco Osborne is living in this new reality of social media, and might be one of the most talented riders that Weir has helped bring up through the ranks. Because Osborne is making a name for himself in a new era, Weir imparts his life experiences to help Osborne stand above the noise.
“I told Marco that he has to be focused to the point of almost being selfish,” said Weir. “To be at the top of the game is demanding both physically and emotionally. Most can take one or the other, but few can take both. Marco is one of those guys who can.”
Despite the changing social culture, Weir’s life experiences and race wisdom still have relevance to a young racer like Osborne.
“Until you win a big event like Trans-Provence or TDS, you’re just another anonymous racer in the field,” said Weir. “But once you get up on that top step, it gives you an opportunity to speak and stand above the noise. If you’re genuine, have a unique personality and keep winning, you’ll gain a following. Otherwise, you’ll just sink back into the fodder. It’s pretty hard to ‘lifestyle’ when the money stops coming in, so the pretenders go do something else or get a nine-to-five job.”
Weir has also noticed that society’s addiction to social media seems to be eroding the aspect of community he’s been impressing on all the youth he’s mentored over the years.
“I see a lot of younger folks living van life, but what about house life?” asked Weir. “What about investing in your community? Build a pump track. Build some trails. Invite the neighborhood kids over. Give people a reason to come to where you live. Social media is not where you live. Social media is vapor. Your community is real.”
And nothing was more real than when Weir’s house partially burnt down two days after Christmas in 2009. It took two weeks of work to clean up the mess, but the community Weir helped build showed up in force and carried the family through a very difficult time.
Recently, Weir has been involved with the Semper Fi Fund and Team Semper Fi, an organization focused on helping wounded members of all branches of the US Armed Forces recover physically and mentally through sport. Sam Tickle is the Associate Director of Team Semper Fi, and met Weir in 2010.
“I thought I knew what mountain biking was until I rode with Mark,” said Tickle. “He totally changed my perspective on what the sport was all about, and I was instantly hooked. I told Mark I wanted to ride more, and the next thing I knew, Mark had a brand new Cannondale for me.”
Tickle traveled to Weir’s residence in Novato to build the bike and go for a ride before heading back home. Tickle ended up staying a week.
“Mark and I were instant best friends,” said Tickle. “Mark would lap me multiple times climbing a giant mountain, but he didn’t care. All he cared about was getting me out and riding bikes.”
After that week in Novato with Weir, mountain biking became a central part of Tickle’s life. Tickle then started the Outdoor Program for Team Semper Fi, and the first person he wrote to for support was Weir.
“I sent Mark this long mountain bike skills clinic proposal for injured service members, and all I got was a three-word response that said, ‘duder, let’s rip.’”
The first skills clinic was held in 2016 at “The Ranch” in Novato, a large private tract of land owned by a friend of Weir. The response from the service members was overwhelming.
“The guys were instantly drawn to Mark because of his ability to empathize and understand people’s situations in a genuine manner,” said Tickle. “Mark greatly respects the sacrifices service members have made, and he gives back in action, not words. He’s always present and hands on.”
Tickle’s mountain bike program has grown exponentially since its debut last year and Weir has played a central role in this growth. A lot of the program’s participants are new to mountain biking and Tickle points out, “They don’t know the legacy Mark has built over his career; they just see him as a good person and a leader who has impeccable character and doesn’t judge anyone. He just wants to see more people having fun on bikes.”
And getting more people on bikes is what it’s all about.