“Whether it is led by someone in this room or not, it is going to happen.” “It” is a mountain biking league for Wisconsin high school-aged racers. The speaker is Matt Fritzinger, the founder of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). He and NICA Associate Director Tyler Dibble led a presentation in Madison with the aim of forming new high school mountain bike clubs. After about 90 minutes I was pretty convinced that their goal is more inevitable than the obstacles are insurmountable.
I grew up without a natural athletic fit in high school. I did not excel at any individual or team sport, although I enjoyed football. My gridiron dreams ended when, instead of bulking up for my sophomore season at left guard, I came to two-a-day practices 20 pounds lighter than my freshman weight. Recovery from a broken collarbone and genetics left me as a diesel motor on a sub-compact frame. Can you think of a sport where a kid could excel at 120 pounds with the legs that could churn for extended periods? Fast-forward 20 years and here I am, still scrawny, and making the best of it in road races and time trials. What I wouldn’t give to go back and race for my high school…
Among the 30 or so people in attendance the above story was repeated about half a dozen times. Racers and bicycle advocates have found the sport and hobby of our dreams without the benefit of an organized introduction in high school. NICA plans to change that for the next generation of riders. NICA has the experience, infrastructure, and (not inconsequentially) the insurance. What they need is one person to take the lead.
Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin Board member, Ric Damm, summed up the state of youth mountain bike racing in Wisconsin perfectly. To paraphrase him “Someone will eventually organize this.” Ric runs races and coaches the Ripon College team along with his day job at the college, raising a family and advocating for better bicycling. Ric, like many of us, have a busy, full life. In order for competitive mountain biking to take off, we need to identify that next generation leader. Wisconsin’s first mountain bike race league will come together soon after NICA finds that one parent, community leader or enthusiastic racer.
NICA has the experience of working with grassroots to build clubs and leagues. In Colorado, for example, they have grown to 300 high school racers in two years. Colorado and Wisconsin parallel each other in key ways which leads me to believe Wisconsin high schools will have mountain bike teams soon. Wisconsin and Colorado have similar sized populations with similar demographics. Wisconsin and Colorado have established trails on suitable terrain. Each state has an adult race series. Colorado has high school race series in nearby states and Wisconsin has potential rival teams up and running with NICA in Minnesota.
So, why should bicycle advocates care about high school kids racing instead of just riding:
- High school racers will become lifetime riders. Even if they never race again the joy of riding will stick with those kids.
- Parents, alumnus, politicians and locals with school pride will become more receptive to a more bicycle-friendly Wisconsin.
- High school racing breeds a generation of riders accustomed to following rules on their bikes. Go off course, get a DNF. Ride with disregard for other road users, get a ticket.
- NICA trains mentors, some of whom will be new to biking. Just think of the soccer parents you know who went from clueless to coach. Moms and dads will do what it takes to help their children excel on a bike.
- NICA will not turn away a potential racer. In fact it sounds like they will bend over backwards to help kids who need scholarships for race fees.
- There will be a special focus on girls and a goal of parity with the boys. Taking account of the room last night, Wisconsin is close to parity now or at least the interest level is similar among men and women.
Take that all in and add NICA‘s “5 core principles” (Inclusive, Equal, Strong Body, Strong Mind, Strong Character) and now imagine pitching the creation of another school team to a local principal or board. You have the backing of NICA’s experience, NICA’s insurance, kids who want to ride and parents who want happy kids. If it sounds daunting that is only because you haven’t heard Matt or Tyler yet.
Could you be the one who helps move competitive high school mountain biking forward in Wisconsin? NICA and the Bike Fed are waiting to hear from you!