Jenn Catron is woken up most mornings by her son, Brian. He's 5 years old, so this is nothing out of the ordinary. His reason, though, is anything but.
"Mommy, are we racing today?"
Brian races bikes, and has since he was 3. He started with a Strider bike, which has no pedals and which a rider propels with their feet. He's worked his way up to bicycle motocross, or BMX. After becoming one of the top 50 Strider bike racers in the USA BMX national rankings and a top-10 finisher at a worldwide event, training wheels were rendered unnecessary.
"We tried him on the bike, and like any other kid, it was difficult for him to pedal," said his father, Cameron, a Baltimore police officer. "So after he rode the Strider for a month or two, he got back on the bike on his own and was riding up and down without any help at all."
Ryan McFarland invented the Strider in 2007 as a way to help his 2-year-old son start riding, and it since has grown in popularity, with over 1 million sold. Competitions began in 2011, and in 2016, the Strider Cup has held 15 events in 12 countries, with 13 more scheduled in 13 additional countries. In addition to toddler classes, many events offer races for riders of all ages with special needs.
"It's something that kids take pride in," said Ted Huettl, events manager for Strider Sports International Inc., based in Rapid City, S.D. "It's something that moms and dads can see development in. The child can keep up with their siblings. It's unlike anything you get with training wheels."
In late July, Brian and Jenn flew to California for the sixth annual Strider Bike World Championship at Pier 35 in San Francisco, where nearly 300 riders, including over 40 international competitors, participated on a winding, nearly 600-foot-long indoor track mapped out with orange traffic cones.
In Jenn's video of one of Brian's heats, eight riders are packed in tight at the starting gate — a real starting gate with an automated release that Jenn said was a treat for the kids. As the whistle blows, the riders, outfitted with helmets, gloves and personalized jerseys just like the pros, scramble onto the track. The sound of encouragement from parents and spectators quickly is drowned out by a booming voice yelling, "Go, Brian, go!" as he scoots into second with a sharp left turn.
"I guess it's that adrenaline rush," Jenn said. "If they have it, we have it, too. I guess you can't really help it."
Brian finished ninth in his age group — "He would have gotten in the top eight, but he got knocked over," Jenn said — to live up to his nickname: "Crazy Legs."
"At first, people were calling him 'Big Helmet' because it was huge on his head," said Jenn, who grew up in Kingsville and homeschools her three children in White Marsh. "Eventually, somebody called him 'Crazy Legs,' and then it kind of stuck after that."
But why "Crazy Legs"?
"Because he's fast and he likes to show off," she said.
Brian gets a chance to show off often, competing regularly in races at USA BMX tracks in Mechanicsville, Hagerstown, Cumberland, Severn and across the country along with his sister, Jenna, 7, and brother, Justin, 9. His mother estimated that Brian has earned over 200 trophies.
Together, the Catron children form a formidable trio. In the Gold Cup North East regional rankings, Brian is ranked third for intermediate boys ages 5 and under; Jenna is second among 7-year-old girls and fourth for cruiser girls ages 10 and under; and Justin is third among 9-year-old intermediate and cruiser boys. They have their father to thank, who introduced them to the sport after growing up racing bikes and jumping off homemade ramps in neighborhoods in Germany and Fort Meade and reading BMX magazines in his spare time.
"I figured one of them would [get into it], but not all three," Cameron said.
Jenn acknowledged that she was hesitant about letting Brian, her youngest, race because of the injury risks. Plus, some races fell on Friday nights, when she typically played softball. But once she saw how Brian's face lit up while on his bike, she relented.
"When we went to the track, he fell in love with it," she said. "Once he started doing it and loving it and you see how much fun they're having, how can you tell them no?"
As with most sports, it's come with its share of bumps and bruises. Brian has a scar on his head and shoulder from accidents, and has gone to the emergency room twice. They even called a dentist after one particularly bad fall at a skate park because they feared he would lose a few teeth. It was a false alarm.
"When I was a kid, I would do stuff I wouldn't even think of now because I wouldn't want to get hurt," Cameron said. "Most boys are the same way: They don't think about the consequences of falling and getting hurt."
"We're not going to heal like they will," Jenn added.
Despite a few mishaps, Brian remains fearless. At one race on a Supercross track, which has a starting hill roughly double the height of a normal track, several children were too scared to leave the starting gate. After watching a few older racers practice, Brian was one of the first riders down the track.
His father said Brian even relishes training exercises, which include work with a medicine ball and dumbbells. He even does sprints on his Strider with a parachute attached to the back.
"He tries to do what he sees all the big, strong people do," Cameron said.