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updated: 10/3/2013 5:42 AM

Young mountain bikers ranked 2nd, 3rd in nation

But rivals best friend off the course

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  • Mountain bike riders Will Darling, 11, of Vernon Hills, front, and Nate Knowles, 12, of Batavia, were introduced to the sport by their fathers. USA Cycling ranks Nate second and Will third in their age group in the cross-country mountain biking category.

       Mountain bike riders Will Darling, 11, of Vernon Hills, front, and Nate Knowles, 12, of Batavia, were introduced to the sport by their fathers. USA Cycling ranks Nate second and Will third in their age group in the cross-country mountain biking category.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Will Darling, 12, of Vernon Hills makes quick work of a short climb through trails at Raceway Woods in Carpentersville. Will and his best friend, Nate Knowles, 12, of Batavia, are ranked by USA Cycling among the best cross-country mountain bikers in the nation.

       Will Darling, 12, of Vernon Hills makes quick work of a short climb through trails at Raceway Woods in Carpentersville. Will and his best friend, Nate Knowles, 12, of Batavia, are ranked by USA Cycling among the best cross-country mountain bikers in the nation.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Mountain bike riders Nate Knowles, 12, of Batavia, in the lead, and Will Darling, 11, of Vernon Hills tear up the trails at Raceway Woods in Carpentersville. The two best friends are ranked among the top cross-country mountain bikers in the country by USA Cycling.

       Mountain bike riders Nate Knowles, 12, of Batavia, in the lead, and Will Darling, 11, of Vernon Hills tear up the trails at Raceway Woods in Carpentersville. The two best friends are ranked among the top cross-country mountain bikers in the country by USA Cycling.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Nate Knowles, 12, of Batavia, pictured here riding the single track at Raceway Woods in Carpentersville, and his best friend Will Darling, 11, of Vernon Hills, say they never argue, except during long car rides.

       Nate Knowles, 12, of Batavia, pictured here riding the single track at Raceway Woods in Carpentersville, and his best friend Will Darling, 11, of Vernon Hills, say they never argue, except during long car rides.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Nate Knowles

      Nate Knowles

  • Will Darling

      Will Darling

  • Mountain bike riders Will Darling, 11, of Vernon Hills, front, and Nate Knowles, 12, of Batavia, were introduced to the sport by their fathers. USA Cycling ranks Nate second and Will third in their age group in the cross-country mountain biking category.

       Mountain bike riders Will Darling, 11, of Vernon Hills, front, and Nate Knowles, 12, of Batavia, were introduced to the sport by their fathers. USA Cycling ranks Nate second and Will third in their age group in the cross-country mountain biking category.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Standout mountain bikers

 

Nathan "Nate" Knowles and William "Will" Darling may be the best of friends, but that hasn't stopped the pair from becoming fierce competitors on the national mountain biking circuit.

Nate, 12, of Batavia, and Will, 11, of Vernon Hills, are ranked the second- and third-best cross-country mountain bikers, respectively, in their age group by USA Cycling.

Both competed in the mountain biking nationals in July in Pennsylvania -- a high point for Will, who finished 6th, but a low one for Nate, who crashed and placed 11th.

The way it all played out reflects the dynamics of their friendship.

While Nate took off like a bullet, Will stayed a bit behind, fast but steady. After Nate crashed while trying to pass someone prematurely, Will whizzed by and encouraged his friend to keep going and draft off him.

"We'll give each other inspiration," Will said.

But Nate just couldn't keep up. "I lost my breath, I felt like I was I powerless. I told him to go," he said.

Cross-country, the only form of mountain biking in the Olympics, consists of all-terrain, off-road races with climbs and descents on grass, dirt and rocks. Sometimes, trails are so narrow that only one bike at a time can get through.

The boys have been mountain biking since about age 5, mostly in the Wisconsin Off Road Series along with their fathers, Loren Darling and Matt Knowles.

They never get mad at each other, they said. Well, except when they get sick of each other during long car rides.

Both want to make it to the Olympics. Nate also wants to open a bike shop like his dad, who owns All Spoked Up in Batavia. Will wants to become a pro; he and his father are sponsored by Activator Cycles in Lake Bluff.

It takes a lot of training to stay at the top, the boys said.

"What I've learned is to listen to my dad because he knows a lot. Like strategy and stuff," Nate said. "When I don't listen to him, I kind of don't do very good."

Will said it's harder for him to get advice from his dad because he rides a geared bike, while his dad rides a single speed.

Nate rides a hardtail bike, meaning it has no rear suspension. Will has been hooked on softtail since riding his dad's at nationals this year.

"The course was really rocky, it was so much better than the hardtail," Will said.

"On a softtail you have more cushioning, but on a hardtail you can climb hills faster," Nate added.

Loren Darling said he knew his son had a talent for mountain biking at age 5, when he wanted to race with his dad on a very tough course.

"He badgered me into entering him, which I did, thinking there was no way he would finish," Darling said. "He wiped out a few times and even hit a tree. He cried, but each time got back up, kept pedalling and finished the race."

Nate's first ride alongside his father also was memorable.

"In a lapse of judgment, I bunny-hopped a fallen tree on the trail, and before I could stop and slow him down, he tried the same thing," Matt Knowles said.

"The end result was an amazing crash that sent him flying through the air and landing in the brush laughing hysterically, saying he wanted to do it again. Funny, scary, and leaving me in wonder how he could actually try that and almost succeed."

Will is so motivated to train that his father has to hold him back.

"I don't want him to get burned out too early in his career. He is always bugging me to go ride or do a race somewhere," Loren Darling said. "He is the one now who encourages me to get on my bike and race."

Nate is always up for a ride, too, but also is focused on other things.

"Nate's work ethic is actually that of most normal 12-year-olds. He mostly wants to play with his friends and enjoy being a kid," Matt Knowles said.

"I challenge him to increase his level of competition, that is all. The rest will either evolve or it won't. No pressure."

The best part of racing isn't winning, but doing well against tough competitors, Nate and Will said.

"This year's nationals was my best race, even if I placed 6th," Will said. "Most races I race people from Wisconsin, and this race I was racing people from Colorado and everyone from every state."

Nate said his best race was the 29-mile Iceman Cometh Challenge last year in Michigan.

"I got 32nd but I was racing 18-year-olds," he said. "It was my first real long race so I thought I did a pretty good job. I was happy."

Both boys also play basketball -- Nate for his school, Will for the local park district.

So what is it about mountain biking they love so much? The boys exchange a look and answer in a rapid back-and-forth exchange reminiscent of two competitors going head to head on the course.

"When you start, you get the adrenaline and it's a really fun rush," Nate said.

"You can't go on the bench. You have no break," Will said.

"There is no halftime or anything," Nate said.

"You have to eat (energy) gels while on your bike, and you have to drink. If not, you'll get dehydrated and run out of energy," Will said. "But if you have too much, you'll feel sick."

"It's really challenging," Nate said.

• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to standouts@dailyherald.com or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.

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