Chris Stindt, Bike Fed Staff/La Crosse Area MTB Team Director
I started riding a road bike when my son was born. In 2022 he turned 11, and during the past decade our entire family has gotten very into all the bike options to take advantage of the amazing road, gravel and mountain biking available in and around our home in La Crosse. In the past few years, especially, our son has developed a love of mountain biking. Josh Shively, head coach for our National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) team in La Crosse, teaches summer mountain bike courses for elementary school kids, and we jumped on it! The next natural progression was for our son to join the team as a 6th grader.
Obviously, as a mountain biker myself, it was great to see interest from my kids. However, in my family we don’t do anything halfway, so naturally I decided to become a coach, as well. Unfortunately, a midsummer crash left me with a broken collarbone and off the bike for the first 6 weeks of the season, so I took an administrative role and my wife jumped in as a coach. We knew that the team and league have a GRiT (Girls Riding Together) program; she was excited to ride with our son and also support the girls’ initiatives.
The Wisconsin Interscholastic Cycling League was founded in 2013, then became our state NICA chapter, and has grown to include 84 teams with more than 500 parent coaches from communities across the state. Practices can start anytime after July 1st and races start on Labor Day weekend. There are so many teams that only a few race venues are able to hold all of the teams! Over 1,800 student athletes participated in Wisconsin’s NICA teams race in 2022, with 1,600 racing in the State Championships at Trek Trails in Waterloo.
Our 2022 summer practice in La Crosse went great and it was really impressive to see the student athletes and coaches come together twice a week. We were able to connect with friends old and new, and our son and younger daughter developed many connections through the team. Plus, we were all having fun riding our bikes! We had no idea what to expect for the race season, though. It’s entirely optional, but our son has seen me line up enough times that he was all in for racing.
One key aspect of the Wisconsin league is the opportunity to camp at each venue for a low cost on race weekends. This has created an unexpected bonus family camping culture enjoyed by parents and kids alike. The first race of the year was at Telemark in Cable and our team was set up underneath the “Telehenge” cement elevator shafts from the former resort. That first night, the northern lights came out to dance and it was magical. The next day’s race was even more impressive. The start area was lined with hundreds of cheering fans on both sides. The woods were full of spectators: athletes, family, friends, and more, all cheering everyone on.
But the camping experiences are the icing on the cake – sitting around campfires, communal meals, coffee as the sun comes up at oh dark thirty… We are hooked!
One of the other things that makes NICA unique compared to traditional high school ball sports is that there is no bench so all the kids on the team get to race and compete if they want to. Some participants like riding mountain bikes with friends, but don’t want to race. That’s fine, too, just as it’s fine to hang out at the race venue, enjoy a pre-ride on the course Saturday and cheer your heart out on Sunday.
We ended up going to every single race weekend. It was truly a unique experience. A special moment for the La Crosse team happened at the Lowe’s Creek race in Eau Claire. A new team member joined in September and came out to race for the first time. We had a team loaner bike available and you would have thought Santa Claus himself appeared in our team trailer to give it to him; he was that excited. He rode the heck out of it at pre-ride, perhaps a little extra hard for a bike that had been sitting for quite awhile. The next day at his race he snapped the chain less than halfway into the lap. Instead of quitting, he picked up the bike and ran with it. When our team heard of this, they gathered up everyone they could and lined the finishing straight. It was very moving to see them all cheering when he came around the final corner and completed his first race.
We’ll be back in 2023 for more. I’ve moved into a team director role, as our previous head coach finally “retired” after 8 years. We have a new head coach and my wife is becoming an assistant coach. We are a “NICA family” now, and are already making plans for the season. If you haven’t been to a race, odds are good there is one close to your home. I strongly encourage you to check it out. I’ve never encountered a youth sport that is so positive, supporting and just all out fun! If you want to learn more, or find a team close to your home, check out the Wisconsin League page, wisconsinmtb.org.
This story first appeared in the 2023 Bike Fed Ride Guide magazine, written by Chris Stindt. Photos courtesy of Dave Schlabowske and First Expressions Photography. To have the annual magazine mailed to your home each spring, and receive other valuable benefits, we invite you to join or renew with membership.