Top-ranked Vernon Hills mountain biker, 12, has Olympic dreams
BY KATLYN SMITH email@example.com | @Katlyn_eSmith October 14, 2013 6:50PM
“He’s the one always bugging me to go out and ride,” Loren Darling said of his son Will. “He’s very motivated." Courtesy of the Darling family
Updated: November 16, 2013 6:12AM
As one of the country’s best mountain bikers for his age, Will Darling has a home-field disadvantage, so to speak, in Vernon Hills.
The flat landscape could pose a challenge for the 12-year-old’s strict training.
But Will gets creative: biking on sledding hills near Century Park and another near Interstate 94. He pedals up and down the steep inclines as many as 20 times in one trip.
It’s that drive that has propelled him to the top of USA Cycling’s rankings for cross-country bikers.
The Hawthorn Middle School South student is currently third in the nation in his age group.
In the July national championships, he went up against a field of bikers hailing from the high altitudes and rugged terrains of Colorado and Utah. But Will tore through the punishing course in Macungie, Pennsylvania, and outpaced most of the field.
He finished an impressive sixth, just shy of a trip to the podium for a medal.
It was a sharp contrast from nationals last year, when he came in at 25.
“I’ve very proud of him and how far he’s come,” his dad and fellow mountain biker Loren Darling said. “I’m just amazed.”
Will credits a tougher regimen.
Each week, he puts in at least a dozen hours on the bike. Every Thursday night, he and his dad hit the Des Plaines River Trail for a 30-plus-mile ride hosted by their outfitter, Activator Cycles in Lake Bluff.
A little snow on the ground? No matter. They use an indoor machine during the winter.
Will got his start at the tender age of 5. He traveled with his dad to one race and joined a pint-sized version where every participant is automatically declared a “winner.”
Will quickly found them “boring.”
“I’m going to do the races you’re doing,” he told his dad at the time.
Now they are both regulars on the Wisconsin Off Road Series, a grueling circuit of 12 races over woods, streams and hills from May to early October.
Father and son have suffered some gnarly spills.
“I think we’ve both hit our fair share of trees,” Loren Darling said. “My theory is if you don’t wipeout at least once and a while, you’re probably not going as fast as you could.”
But even with “nasty scrapes,” Will gets back on the bike to finish a race.
“I’ll get over it,” Will said. “And after that, it will still seem really fun.”
He doesn’t need much encouragement to practice from his dad.
“He’s the one always bugging me to go out and ride,” Darling said. “He’s very motivated. Hopefully he gets some of it from me.”
Will does seem to have inherited some of his never-quit attitude from his dad.
“You can’t give up. That’s part of racing. You fall down and you get back up,” Darling said. “The most important thing is to get back on your feet and get back pedaling as fast as you can. You don’t waste anytime because while you’re laying down there, nursing your injuries, all the other people that you may have passed are now passing you.”
He’s such an avid biker that he often fixes kids’ bikes in the family’s neighborhood. He hopes more youngsters take up a sport that can instill a healthy lifestyle at an early age.
He pointed to a movement in Wisconsin to form mountain biking teams in high schools.
“This is something I love because it’s something we can do together,” Darling said.
Will already has his sights on beating his time at next summer’s nationals. And he plans to race in the Olympics. Cross-country is the only mountain biking event at the games.
“I hope I can reach that someday,” Will said.