2021 COY MTB Dirty Squirrels

Meet 2021 MTB Club of the Year: DIRTy Squirrels

By: Jim Rusnak  March 28, 2022

If you’re a mountain bike racer in the Chicago area looking for a solid, consistently excellent club for support and to help you develop your competitive skills, look no further than DIRTy Squirrels Racing out of Palatine, Ill.

In its short, four years of existence, the DIRTy Squirrels have received recognition from USA Cycling as its Best New Club in 2018, Best Mountain Bike Club in 2019, and have just found themselves on top again, regaining the title of Best Mountain Bike Club of 2021.

“We’re very proud of the award,” club vice-president Daniel Kolar said. “We know that there’s many, many very capable teams out there that put in their applications. We scratch our heads at the end of the year just to make sure we put all the activities and accomplishments we’ve done on paper, so we can submit it, and I think it’s a testament to the fine job [club founders] Andres [Gutierrez] and Charlotte [Erickson] have always done focusing on all the right things—the training, the helping people, the camaraderie. Just focusing on those core values of the team. It serves us well.”

Gutierrez, now president and head coach, and Erickson, secretary and treasurer, founded the club in 2018. The husband-and-wife duo were racing for another club at the time, and Gutierrez was a bicycle mechanic working with pro athletes. With Gutierrez’s experience as a mechanic and connection to the bicycle industry, he and Erickson were able to line up sponsors to start a team of their own.

The team picked the name DIRTy Squirrels in part due to their obvious connection to dirt-based activities – the club also boasts motocross, cyclocross and BMX teams. The inspiration for the rest of the name came from Gutierrez watching two squirrels play in the mud in his front yard.

“Everybody loves the name,” Gutierrez said.

The team has now grown to nine riders and rides, trains and competes in various locations throughout Illinois.

“We started the team with the idea of giving people the opportunity to race,” Gutierrez said. “We are focused on racing. We are not a social club. If people want to race, they are welcome. If you don’t want to race, and you just want to hang out—of course you can ride with us, but it is not the focus for us.”

“The primary thing we focus on is really about developing confidence and skills,” Erickson said. “We don’t want all the experts, necessarily. We want people who want to get better—who want to race and have fun doing it. We like to do a lot of things outside of racing—outside of biking, even. I’d say we’re a pretty close group of friends, too.”

Since its inception, the DIRTy Squirrels have made it a priority to support the racing scene in the state of Illinois. One of their main goals has been for each member to win the Illinois state title each year in whichever category they’re competing.

All but one Squirrel has won a state title in their category at least once in their careers. Some even have double and triple titles.

Kolar won the Category 3, 55-and-over state title last season.

“Our championship races are primarily around rivers,” Kolar said. “Believe it or not, you manage to squeak out some pretty interesting terrain, even here in flat Illinois.”

Another big goal and challenge for the team over the last two years was just keeping the group together. With a reduced race schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gutierrez said it was tough to keep the Squirrels motivated. A lot of their big plans had been pushed back in that time, including a seven-day mountain bike race in Gutierrez’s native Columbia.

“It was so easy just to not get together and train because of the low volume of races and activities, so the fact that the team kept a very high level of communication going out there to everybody is really an accomplishment,” Kolar said. “It’s a lot of work. Whether you’re officially on the team, or one of the many people who just ride with us, just keeping that family of people together is probably our best accomplishment.”

The club is unique in that it has a multicultural vibe. The Squirrels boast riders from not just the U.S. and Columbia, but from Venezuela, Romania and Puerto Rico.

Erickson recently had a baby and wasn’t able to ride with the group as much this past season. The laughter was one of the things she missed the most.

“There’s just so much laughing,” Erickson said. “So much fun banter back and forth between everyone. I think that’s really special.”

Kolar and Erickson were in complete agreement when asked the reason for the club’s success over the years. Both chimed in at the same time, “Him.”

Meaning, of course, Gutierrez.

“I am the rock in the shoe that you can’t get rid of,” Gutierrez said with a laugh.

But Kolar and Erickson meant that sincerely.

“Andres knows what it’s like to compete at a very high level,” Kolar said. “He brings that experience. He brings that discipline. He brings that expectation, and really brings that attention to detail.

“When we do go to the races, we go as a group. We’re prepared. We look like a team, act like a team, support each other as a team. If we’re going on a ride somewhere—even if it’s just a training ride—we know why we’re there. Are we going to train? Are we going to have fun? Are we going to do skills? We do it in a fun, family atmosphere, but Andres is definitely the driving force of the team.”

And of course, as with any other competitive team, the DIRTy Squirrels were also quick to point to their sponsors—which Gutierrez was instrumental in obtaining—for the team’s success.