Henry Jones asked for dirt for his sixth birthday.
Jones, now a 17-year-old cyclocross racer, wanted to build a BMX-style track in his yard, but the dusty soil and volcanic rock of his family’s lot outside Bend would not do the trick. So for his sixth birthday and several after, his grandparents had dump trucks full of dirt hauled to him.
“He would be out there all day long with a shovel and the wheelbarrow, moving the dirt and creating berms,” Sarah Douglass, Jones’ mother, said. “He asked for dirt every year. He would build a new jump, or make the berm bigger.”
Douglass and Jones’ father, Lucian Jones, said Henry, now a lanky 6-foot-4, outgrew the backyard course when he was about 12, and the jumps and wooden ramp he built are now overgrown and largely reclaimed by nature. But Jones, who won the men’s 1/2 category at two Cyclocross Crusade Series stops and the Battle at Barlow in Gresham this fall, said those hours on his homemade track are still paying off on the cyclocross course.
“It’s just fun to play around on the bike, and every time you do that, you get better,” said Jones, who rides with Bend Endurance Academy and finished 10th in his age group at the national championships in January.
“Growing up riding and messing around in your backyard is definitely how you learn to love playing around with the bike. That’s definitely a big part of BEA — it’s never been a program that pushes, ‘You need to ride for this amount of time.’ We do lots of skills, practicing. It’s not necessarily the result, but the experience and learning to do it for yourself.”
Despite building his own track, Jones said he competed in formal BMX races just twice as a kid. But Lucian Jones said Henry seemed taken with cyclocross racing when they went to watch friends compete when the national championships were held in Bend in 2010. After competing in his first cross race at the Thrilla Cyclocross Series in Bend in 2012, Henry was hooked.
“There weren’t that many kids in my age group at the time,” said Jones, who was 13 at the time. “And I got second, but I was super excited. I had never really competed before, so I had no high expectations. I don’t know if the result motivated me, but the competition was fun.”
BEA cycling director Bill Warburton said Jones grew into the sport behind fellow BEA riders Lance Haidet and Cameron Beard, who competed for Team USA at the World Cyclocross Championships as juniors.
“(They) were really cranking hard when he was like 12 or 13, and they were 16 and 17,” Warburton explained. “I think Henry was really influenced by those guys, and it took him a little while to figure out how to ride in the group. He’s always been inwardly competitive. He’s not a big, screaming personality out on the bike. He’s quietly one of the faster guys out there, and he always has been. It’s just that this year his level of maturity and strength has really gone up.”
Jones said veteran Oregon riders like Molly Cameron, Josh Kelley and Sean Babcock have made a point of encouraging him and the other young cyclists joining their ranks. Even so, he said it still feels odd to think of his competitors as, well, his competitors.
“All the elite men and women are people I’ve watched for years,” Jones explained. “They’ve always been the professional-looking ones at the start line, and I was used to just being the kid. They’ve been doing it for a lot longer and have a lot more experience than me, so I can’t pretend to be on an equal level. I know I’m just trying my hardest and suffering, and they’re doing their best, too.”
Although Jones is finding success in the men’s ranks (he was second in the Cyclocross Crusade Series standings after winning at Heron Lakes in Portland on Oct. 22, and finished sixth in Bend on Saturday), he trains only part time during the fall. The rest of the time, he runs with the Bend High cross-country team.
“I like the racing, too, even though it’s pretty calm compared to cyclocross,” Jones said. “If I can manage to balance it, and the coaches are OK with it, I might as well take the opportunity to run and get more fit, theoretically.”
But trying to compete in two sports — particularly two endurance sports — can make for some hard trade-offs. Jones originally intended to run in the district cross-country meet at COCC on Saturday, but plans changed after winning his second series race at Heron Lakes.
“He did so well in biking he came by Monday and said, what do you think?” Lisa Nye, the Bend High cross-country coach recounted. “(I told him), absolutely, you’ve got to go bike race. He really understands and is respectful of what it means to do more than one sport at a time.”
Jones said that, when it comes to cross-country, at least, he does have some trouble keeping up with the kids who run full time.
“If he loved running more than biking, he’d be an amazing runner,” Nye said. “He’s very talented, he’s good at it, but it’s another sport for him. It’s his second priority, and I think that’s awesome.”
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