Race Today become a Life-long Bicyclist Tomorrow

“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!

3 thoughts on “Race Today become a Life-long Bicyclist Tomorrow

  1. …and why is it only mtn. biking used to attract young bikers to the “5 core principles”? There is an experience called road biking. Some road bike training can be started right out the school (in WI, anyway). The road kids can “visit” while biking as a group, and go fast and far.

  2. In my experience the local velco club riders and racers are seldom transportation/everyday riders, but I know transportation riders that have gone on to enjoy the sport of cycling. Getting kids on bicycles every day of their lives is more important than diving out of town to ride a bike in the dirt… IMHO

  3. Hi all. Great article! I’m the Director of the SoCal High School Cycling League. The second league (after the initial NorCal League) in the chain of progression under NICA (in fact, both NorCal and SoCal predated NICA and NICA spun out of the success of the two original leagues). We are entering our 4th season here in SoCal.

    One of the things to think about is the paradigm we’re working on shifting. Don’t think of our programs so much as an extension of existing cycling programs into high schools. Think of it like “this is a high school sport” and cross-country mountain biking is the mechanism. NICA is not “against” any form of cycling! It’s simply that we’ve worked out a model where cross-country mountain biking works best for many reasons. We are NOT trying to take experienced riders/racers and give them a high school program to compete in. The beauty of the program is that experienced riders and racers now have a way to leverage their experiences into recognition amongst their high school peers while at the same time MANY new students are FINDING cycling through the program.

    The typical first year rider starts the year in tennis shoes, gym shorts, and a school back pack. These are NEW cyclists. We have found that cross-country mountain biking works extremely well for these new riders. Limited chance of interaction with traffic means the riders and coaches can concentrate more fully on building skills and confidence. Aggregate speeds are generally lower than other disciplines so the risk is mitigated. If you are going to buy ONE bike to practice on, ride to school on, and just go adventuring on — a cross-country mountain bike works well! The courses are designed to be challenging yet fun — we want the kids to work hard but, at the end of the race, say “Wow! I can do this, it was hard but I loved it and I want to come back!” Experienced riders/racers simply ride the courses faster.

    We have programs in SoCal that have 10, 20, 30+ riders. And each year now, a new group of freshmen is entering these programs that is larger than the group of seniors who graduated. Clubs are developing pieced together donated “club” bikes that new riders can use to “try out” the sport. The thought of having to manage a full-featured club with multiple cycling disciplines is just a little bit too much to ask these coaches.

    All that said; “junior” fields at existing (non-high school league races) in SoCal are growing by leaps and bounds because many kids find the sport through our programs then branch out either “off season” or on non-league race weekends and try out cyclocross, road racing, downhilling, velodrome racing, etcetera. It’s an exciting thing to be a part of and exciting thing to watch happening. And all the while, clubs are encouraged to get involved in things “off the wheels.” Because of this, we’re starting to develop a whole generation of riders to whom trail maintenance is just “something you do.” We have had many of our student-athletes complete trail work projects for their Eagle Scout projects and many clubs get involved in dedicated trail work with existing IMBA affiliate clubs.

    Sorry for the rant but I just can’t say enough about how exciting and powerful the program is. Just remember back to high school and remember putting on that school jersey (for whatever sport) and living through that team experience. We’re busy at work making cycling an acceptable activity in that same context.

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