Wheels in Motion

January 29, 2015

If students have been asking to start a mountain biking team at your school, you are not alone. With more than 3,000 registered high school student-athletes participating, the sport has seen a 57 percent increase in sign-ups over the past year.

That growth is being spearheaded primarily by the efforts of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), which was formed five years ago and currently oversees high school cycling in 14 states. (The Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance takes charge in Washington). The sport has not been officially sanctioned by any state high school athletic association, and NICA Executive Director Austin McInerny says it is prospering more through grass-roots efforts.

"Even without association involvement, we've grown the sport organically," says McInerny. "California, for example, now has close to 800 riders competing across the state."

Scott Craft, Athletic Director and Head Cycling Coach at Rim of the World High School in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., appreciates the opportunity cycling gives students. "Some kids just don't fit into traditional sports," he says. "Cycling doesn't require them to be super athletic, which means everyone has the chance to learn the sport and get better."

Courses are on official mountain bike trails and can vary in distance. Riders score points based on their finish, similar to a cross country race, with events divided into freshmen, sophomore, junior varsity, and varsity levels. Younger athletes who place among top finishers one year may skip to a higher level the next.

"One of the best things about cycling is that everyone is a starter, even if they're racing for the junior varsity team," Craft says. "In other sports, you might be on the squad, but you never see the field. In cycling, everyone rides the same course and no one is on the sidelines."

Along with growing the sport, McInerny is working to dispel concerns about risks. "We stress to our coaches that safety must be a number-one priority," he says. "All head coaches are required to be certified in wilderness first aid, concussion management, and CPR. They also need to accrue 80 hours of field work by leading team rides and skill clinics, as well as nine professional development units, which can be earned by taking our courses. Coaches then teach their athletes the skills needed to be safe on the course, such as how to brake, exit the bike safely, and take a fall."

If a school decides to start a team, the NICA provides it with some funding and sets up deals with manufacturers so squads can rent or purchase bikes at a discount. The association also helps to organize the races by providing personnel such as course marshals and ensuring safety protocols are being met. The season typically takes place in the spring.

Some schools treat the squads as club teams while others grant varsity status to their riders. "When I started our team six years ago, I was not the athletic director, and I pushed for our student-athletes to receive the same recognition as those on traditional teams," says Craft, who took over as Athletic Director last year. "Three years ago, the school's then-athletic director made us a varsity program. The designation meant a lot to the team members."

With his squad firmly established now, Craft works hard to keep it funded and competing for titles. A local bike shop provides discounted equipment for riders to purchase, and the team brings in money by selling jersey space to sponsors and holding several fundraisers throughout the year. There are no facility costs as the athletes practice on community bike trails, which they ride their bikes to.

"We've had nothing but positive feedback from the fans who have come to see our races," says Craft. "They're impressed by how hard the student-athletes compete. I believe strongly that the more athletic opportunities we can provide to students, the more success they'll have at our school."
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