‘It’s a big hootenanny in the woods with a bunch of high schoolers.’
Mountain biking is climbing the ranks of cool high school sports. Thanks to a boost from the NICA (National Interscholastic Cycling Association), the sport has been growing up to 30 percent a year since 2009.
There are now nearly 3,000 student-athletes across 10 leagues and approximately 1,000 licensed coaches, according to NICA Executive Director Austin McInerny. Inspired by the inaugural NorCal High School Cycling League, which started 13 years ago with roots at Berkeley High in California, NICA programs in mountain-bike friendly states like Utah, Colorado, Minnesota, and Arizona have launched into the spotlight.
“The snowball was small in the beginning, but it has rolled down the slope—and grown!” says McInerny. “Many of our alumni have gone on to find great success in collegiate cycling and in the pro ranks—and the word has gotten around that our programs are effective.”
The NICA program intends to be coast to coast by 2020, and with help from viral projects like Single Track High, the goal is not out of reach.
Mountain biking’s “cool” factor comes in the form of travel and connections with other riders, coaches, and even, err, parents. “How many sports are there where parents can be camping and riding their bikes with kids?” says Kate Rau, who oversees the Colorado League, which now boasts 39 teams. “It’s a big hootenanny in the woods with a bunch of high schoolers.”
It’s true that few other high school sports are conducted outside of the school campus. McInerny says one of the best aspects is that teenagers get to travel to exciting race venues and train in local parks. According to Rau, the fun destinations and close community of the sport are only amplified by a league-wide push for mentoring by coaches, many of whom raced in the early days and have a deep passion for passing on mountain biking to the next generation.
There’s also something independent about mountain biking that McInerny says appeals to young adults at a pivotal age. “Many kids rode bikes when they were much younger, and having the option to ride on a team while in school brings back some of those experiences of early freedom and self-power.”
On the practical side, cycling is a lifetime sport. “There are many 70-year-olds still riding, but I don’t see many 30-year-olds playing football, baseball, or track & field,” he says.
Girls are also finding an outlet in the non-traditional sport of mountain biking.
“Many teams hold early-season skills clinics taught by female coaches that are encouraging to new riders,” says McInerny, who co-coaches a California team with his wife. “By creating space for young girls to experiment on the bike and not fear being judged by others, including their male peers, the girls feel welcome and celebrate their new-found skills.”
It doesn’t hurt that the league’s scoring system encourages co-ed teams.
Rau, who advocated for girls mountain biking way before its time, simply sees the sport as a healthy alternative to activities generally associated with high school. “Culture has a perception that teenagers are automatically bad. I want to catch the kids who are going to be derailed and throw them something that they will be passionate about,” she says.
For now, at least, the subculture of mountain biking seems to be racing into the mainstream.