Celeste Montero was off to a blazing start.
At a JV mountain bike race at Acworth’s heavily forested Allatoona Creek Park last year, Montero, then a junior at North Forsyth, had worked herself into third place. That all changed in an instant when her bike’s chain came loose.
She got off and tried to fix it, but she didn’t know how. Just when all hope seemed lost, another racer saw her and stopped to help. Montero was perplexed: Why would a competitor stop for someone she didn’t even know in the middle of a race?
“That meant the world to me that she stopped her own race just to help me put my chain back on so that I could continue riding,” she said. “We both took off, and I just remember going up to her after the race and giving her the biggest hug.”
Montero and that good Samaritan, Muriel Hanback, are now friends, and although Montero is a varsity rider now, she still makes sure to cheer Hanback on when they meet. More than anything, friendships like that one are what Montero treasures most about mountain biking, a sport that some middle and high schoolers in Forsyth are now discovering thanks to a new team established in the county last year.
Starting the county’s program was due in large part to the efforts of Celeste’s parents, Dolores and Eddie, who now serve as team director and head coach, respectively. Dolores discovered the sport at a triathlon event, and Eddie rode back in the 1990s. They decided to give it a go, and Celeste signed up as well, though not of her own volition.
“My mom signed me up for it,” Celeste said. “She kind of came home one day and was like, ‘Oh, by the way, practice is on Thursday, I just signed you up for the mountain bike team.’ I was really nervous and a little bit upset. I was like, ‘Wait, what?’”
Thankfully, Celeste enjoyed her time at her first practice, even though she endured a nasty cut on her leg. Getting to practices was complicated at first. Since there was no Forsyth team, they had to travel to Gainesville to attend practices. It wasn’t long before the Monteros found others that were in the same situation, and they launched the team along with Paul Schmidt.
A year later, that number has jumped up to 55, with students from Lambert, West Forsyth and Forsyth Central all joining. North Forsyth now has its own team, which has both middle and high schoolers, and that has the most riders, with 35. That necessitated forming a separate squad due to rules of the Georgia Interscholastic Cycling League.
Dolores attributes that kind of growth to social media presence and word of mouth advertising. Because of the large range of skill levels on the entire Forsyth County team, there are a total of 30 coaches to work with all of the riders.
“At practice, it just keeps everything organized so you don't have a kid that's really fast riding with someone who's just getting started,” coach Dustin Heard said. “You want each kid to push themselves and train the way they need to train.”
One of the biggest advantages that mountain biking has as compared to traditional varsity sports has to do with participation. There’s no such thing as a benchwarmer, and that’s something that the team takes tremendous pride in.
“With mountain biking, all the kids are part of the team,” Dolores Montero said. “We have one student who's in sixth grade who would always ask me, “‘Am I part of the team?’ and I was like, ‘Absolutely, buddy. You're part of the team on day one.’”
On Saturday, Celeste returned to the site of her favorite mountain biking memory and came away with a fourth-place finish. Hers and other performances put the Forsyth teams at second in the state, and while the success is always nice, she hopes more great memories are in store.
“It's not just strong body -- it's strong mind and strong character,” Celeste Montero said. “They really push for you to not be just focused on your race, but on the people that are racing with you -- the people around you, the people on your team and the people on the other team.
“It's not just about going out there and winning. It's about having fun and meeting new people and making new friends.”