First, a little history.
I've know Jeff for years. I forget how long, really. We first met when he & I were both on the COMBO Board of Directors, him an officer (I think Secretary), me floating about helping where needed. Oddly enough, the only times we've ever ridden together were at Dirt School, him an instructor and patroller, me again floating about helping where needed.
Most of our time together has been spent working through thoughts & ideas on what COMBO could be doing to better support the mountain biking community in Central Ohio. See, if you've ever been to a COMBO Board Meeting, you might seriously wonder how any trails ever got built in the first place. Like many volunteer non-profits, we've all got day jobs and contribute when & where we can. As it's nobody's main gig, we don't exactly have hard-deadlines and bosses breathing down our necks to get stuff done. But getting stuff done is really part of the fun and the mission of the group.
Our paths crossed at a time when the COMBO board was going through a bit of an evolution. We recognized as a group that we needed to change. We needed to draw more members, take on more projects, grow the volunteer base, attract a different kind of rider... beginners and advanced. Simply put, we needed to grow.
Some may be surprised to hear that we regularly discussed diversity & attracting different parts of the mountain biking community. "What we really need around here is a few more middle-aged white males with disposable income & carbon bikes!" I would sarcastically protest in a way that hit a little too close to home for many of us. But how do you focus as much on the rider as you do on the trail? What types of trails and features should we be building? The Red Bull Rampagers want big gap jumps and our novice riders can be intimidated by the smallest rocks. How do we address the interests of those who love to race at the same time as we teach basic, introductory mountain bike riding skills?
We wrestled with these questions. We STILL wrestle with these questions. But we've made some significant progress along the way. See, sometimes it starts as an idea. Just a thought really. A 'what if' combined with a nagging sense that we could be doing more. We should be doing more. And that idea eats away at you. It gets funded with time, energy, sometimes money. And then it takes off. Time is relative on some of these projects. They can happen over a weekend when others years. Literally... years.
Rider Education gets a Champion.
Jeff was particularly interested in rider education. An early supporter of the Dirt School concept to teach introductory mountain biking skills class, Jeff took it upon himself to get certified through IMBA's Instructor Certification Program (ICP). Along with Rick, the Pied Piper of Kids on Bikes in Central Ohio, and Heidi, our Lead Instructor for Dirt School, Jeff and the team began conducting classes and clinics for absolute beginners and those who had maybe ridden a paved path and wanted to give dirt a try.
As these classes progressed & the instructors saw how the riders would light up when they cleared a log or rode with more confidence, little features would start to show up. Mini log-piles and planks became regular features of the courses as Jeff learned more & more about how the students developed skills. And then, he decided that developing riders needed a permanent home to practice their skills. A safe place for families to go & practice the skills they could apply to their trail riding. A fun environment with the right level of challenge for the little ones on striders, the middle schoolers ready to shred and maybe even mom & dad having a little adventure for themselves.
Gnomewood becomes a reality.
Imagine for a second getting a second job. Now imagine that this second job doesn't pay you but you literally pay it. And this second job is brutal, back-breaking labor. That's what Jeff did. Organizing, planning, cajoling, recruiting at every step of the way. I would say from the ground up, but the Gnomewood crew literally went below ground, digging ditches and placing drainage throughout the entire skills park area so it would drain properly. Cutting trees. Milling lumber... yes, Jeff milled the lumber on site for all the decks... you'd be stunned to know how much time he's spent milling lumber. The list of projects and tasks is far too long to list here. It really has become a labor of love and a work of art.
It should be noted that there have been a lot of volunteers at Gnomewood. In no way should their contributions be overlooked. From bridge-builders to artists, many have contributed along the way. But none of it would have happened without Jeff's vision and leadership. One person can make a difference. He didn't even really ask for permission or wait to be asked: he just did it.
The story continues.
So where is all this headed? Well, the next chapter for Gnomewood is about to be written. After a long, grueling project, Jeff is prepared to unleash his vision for rider education to the masses. On October 14, 2017 at 10:00am, Gnomewood sees it's official opening! You'll see pictures & videos of kids of all ages smiling and laughing. You'll see a festive atmosphere celebrating families and those being fit, active & healthy enjoying a sport we all love.
The next chapter of Gnomewood is about the kids spending some time outdoors in the woods. Riding their bikes. Being healthy.
But this chapter isn't complete until we take a moment to thank Jeff for his vision and leadership in bringing Gnomewood to life. It's only through his dedication and passion for rider education that all of what you'll see at Gnomewood is possible.
Please join us on October 14th but don't leave without saying "Thank You" to all the volunteers who have made Gnomewood possible and especially our head Gnome, Jeff.