In a matter of weeks, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) will have a new executive at the helm to guide the fast-growing and influential youth cycling organization.
NICA officials hope this new leader helps the organization spread into communities that are typically overlooked by organized cycling. They want the new leader to boost the organization’s female participation. And they want a new leader who can broaden NICA’s appeal to young cyclists who don’t want to race.
“[The next leader] has to have a passion not only for cycling to some degree, but they don’t have to be a real pro-cyclist type,” said Austin McInerny, the organization’s outgoing president. “We want someone who’s passionate about kids, community, and what bicycling can do to engage all of those members.”
The desire to grow outside of its traditional competitive environment represents a dramatic shift in the organization’s focus. Founded a decade ago after the success of its precursor, the NorCal High School Mountain Bike League, NICA has spread quickly across the country with organized teams and regular races for junior and senior high school students. Today, the organization has 30 individual leagues in 27 states.
In 2018, 18,500 students participated in a NICA event.
Yet growing outside of organized racing presents a new challenge for an organization that specializes in competition. In recent years NICA has launched several programs aimed at this goal. NICA works with bike manufacturer Salsa on a bikepacking program.
“We’re calling it adventure programming. Those will be opportunities for kids to come together, go on big bike rides, learn navigation, learn first aid,” McInerny said. “They’ll learn other aspects of cycling that have nothing to do with chasing a podium result.”
NICA also recently launched a trail advocacy program, called Teen Trail Corps, which teaches kids about advocacy and stewardship. The goal of the program, McInerny said, is to teach kids how to work with local government officials to advocate for trails.
The push to grow outside of its traditional racing communities also presents a challenge. According to its 2018 participation figures, 80 percent of NICA participants are male. NICA hopes to grow its female participation by 10 percent in the next five years. To grow its female participation, NICA started the Girls Riding Together program (GRiT). It also works with the female youth cycling program Little Bellas.
“GRiT is about doing clinics that get not only younger girls into the space but also attracting more adult women to be coaches at teams,” said McInerny. “Especially teenage girls, if we don’t get them by the time they’re 14, on a bike and comfortable with it the likelihood of them doing it just plummets.”
NICA’s biggest challenge may be in growing outside of its traditional cycling communities. It’s no secret that mountain bike racing presents an expensive proposition for high school kids, who must purchase a bicycle, clothing, and gear to race. In the April print issue of VeloNews magazine we wrote about NICA’s successful efforts to launch a team in Richmond, California, a largely inner-city community just north of Berkeley. NICA provided scholarships and bicycles for riders to help cover the cost of participation.
“We want to really to truly figure out what an inclusive cycling community looks like. It’s not a particularly diverse crowd,” said Vanessa Hauswald, executive director of the NorCal Cycling League, citing the crowd at Sea Otter, where she was at the time. “We’d like to be part of that change.”
NICA has a program, called Pathways, which creates partnerships with local groups, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, to bring cycling these communities.
NICA’s existing programs are aimed at the program’s growth goals. A new leader, however, will need to supply the energy and resources to help the organization grow.
Hauswald is one of the people on NICA’s hiring committee and expects the new leader to think beyond NICA’s highly successful staples. The organization has currently identified four finalists for the position who were selected from a field of 65 applicants. The organization currently has 23 full-time employees.
“We need someone who is creative,” said Hauswald. “How do we bring mountain biking or off-road riding to urban areas, rather than trying to bring urban populations to mountain biking?”
By the start of May, Hauswald hopes her committee will have hired a new leader who will begin the transition in earnest with help from McInerny, who will remain involved with NICA’s advisory board.
“I wanted it to be a smooth transition,” McInerny said. “I didn’t just walk out on the job. I’ve been living and breathing this for 15 years.”