Hugs and high fives: A day inside a NICA race
We recently attended the Granby Ranch Roundup, the third race of the 2019 Colorado High School Cycling League series, to capture the scene of high school mountain bike racing. Here’s what we saw:
The sun sits low over Colorado’s Front Range to the east and the crisp fall air blows through the golden aspen trees dotting the hillside. It’s just past 8 a.m. at Granby Ranch on a Saturday in September, and several hundred high school students from Colorado’s chapter of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) have come here to race along the ski resort’s web of singletrack.
Peyton Wilkerson, 16, a junior at Estes Park High School, shivers in his warmup outfit as he stands alongside a thin ribbon of dusty trail. In a few minutes, the first race of the day—Freshmen Girls—will pedal by. Wilkerson is there to cheer riders he knows from across the Colorado league.
Earlier this year Wilkerson was third-fastest junior at USA Cycling’s national mountain bike championships. That result hints that he may someday compete as a pro, or race against Europeans in international competition.
“Nationals was the biggest race of my life,” Wilkerson says. “The day before I was so nervous I just stayed in bed all day. I laid out my kit and had everything ready to go.”
But visions of pro contracts and World Cup starts are far from Wilkerson’s mind here in Granby. Wilkerson has several hours before the Varsity Boys division starts, and he is one of the favorites to win. Rather than sit in his hotel room, however, he’d rather support his friends.
“I like to cheer for them on the uphills because they can hear what you’re saying,” Wilkerson explains. “It’s nice to race high school because it’s less serious. It brings everyone together, and everyone will cheer for you, no matter what place you’re in.”
“She’s gotten insanely fast”
Isabel Naschold wipes the dirt from her face as she steps off her bicycle and gives a triumphant hug to her mother, Christine Porter. Naschold was the fastest Junior Varsity girl today. She gestures with her hands, replaying scenes from her winning ride.
“My starting position was pretty much in last place so I sprinted at the start all the way to the top,” Naschold says. “I was totally winded and I really regretted it… I just love how you feel during a race and how you feel afterward.”
Porter and her daughter drove down from their home in Laramie, Wyoming, for the weekend’s races, staying in the family’s camper at the bottom of the hill. Bike racing is a part of the family’s life, Porter says, and every year they travel to Moab or Fruita for Spring Break. Isabel started riding a bicycle at age two.
Now, at 14, Isabel has blossomed into a talented racer.
“Isabel won the local Enduro race and even took a [Strava] QOM from Georgia Gould,” Porter says. “Last year you could tell she was growing. This year’s she’s gotten insanely fast.”
“It was very tiring”
Cate Logan and Nola Stewart rode together for the entire Freshman Girls race, pedaling up the long climb from the Granby Ranch base area before plummeting down the singletrack to the finish. As the dust settles on the race, the two girls, both of whom are freshmen at Golden High School, stand together and replay scenes from the event.
“It was fun. It was very tiring but I was smooth, even though there were technical sections,” Logan says. “There wasn’t any pressure to go fast.”
How did they finish? Neither girl can say (Logan was sixth, Stewart was seventh). In fact, the end result seems unimportant to either girl, both of whom are 14. What was most important was the flowing trail and the cheers they received from other riders when they rode through the finish area.
Another element of the race that stood out was how courteous the other riders were, even when the bunch hit the singletrack.
“When you try to pass, you just say, ‘Hey, can I pass?’ and they let you go around,” Stewart says. “Nobody tries to block you because, well, it’s not worth it. It’s a friendly environment.”
This season marks the first time either girl has raced a bicycle, however both grew up riding in and around Golden, and on the Apex and North Table Mountain trail systems. Now, both girls regularly pedal on those trails together, alongside their teammates, after school.
“I might as well just sprint to the finish”
League races always boast a theme, and the Granby event’s focus is, for some reason, on disco music. As the Freshmen Boys speed around the track, a loudspeaker at the base area blares out ‘Disco Inferno.’ A group of parents, some clad in leopard-print outfits, others wearing platform boots, gather near the base area as ‘The Hustle’ plays. The group of parents dances in unison to the blaring disco tunes.
Caleb Haack seems oblivious to the coordinated dance routine, as he dismounts his bicycle and high-fives his teammates on the Steamboat Springs High School team. Hack, 14, has just won the Freshmen Boys race by a wide margin. Victory was hardly guaranteed, however, as Haack tells the story of his race.
“I started front row and tried to pull away and went way too hard on the downhill and crashed in those tight switchbacks,” he says. “I was like, ‘I gotta keep going,’ but my seat was twisted. I tried to straighten it but I couldn’t. So, I was like, ‘I might as well just sprint to the finish.'”
The sprint turned into a two-lap burst of speed, and Haack finished solo, nearly two minutes ahead of his nearest competitor. Hack says he’s surprised by the win—but maybe everyone else should have seen it coming. Haack races on Nordic skis in the winter, and rides his bike throughout the summer in one of the world’s premiere mountain biking destinations.
“I love shredding hard,” he says.
“It keeps you humble”
A quick glance at the Varsity Girls division reveals some of the top mountain bike racers in the country. Series points leader Sofia Forney recently won the cross-country and short-track races at junior nationals. Maddie Munro of Boulder High was sixth at the UCI world junior mountain bike championships in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec.
While the high school races often promote a laid-back vibe, the presence of such fast riders in the girls division can be intimidating.
“Last week, I was nervous and threw up before the race,” says Regan Long of Niwot High School, as she warms up for the race. “I wasn’t too nervous at [U.S. nationals] but for some reason I get more nervous for these races.”
Ada Urist, the defending Colorado state champion from Fairview High School, understands the nerves.
“People think it’s just for fun but you have national champions here. Everyone got a lot faster from last year,” Urist says. “It keeps you humble because it’s so competitive.”
Urist is among the best riders in the bunch, and as the Varsity Girls speed onto the track, she slots into second place, a minute or so down on Munro. On the final lap Urist slows down and is caught and passed by Forney. But third place isn’t bad, especially given the circumstances of Urist’s race weekend.
On the day before the race, Urist struck a rock while pre-riding the course and cracked her carbon fiber rim. The wheel was destroyed, and Urist’s mom had to drive back to their home in Boulder and back to pick up another wheel. It was a four-hour round trip.
Like other high school seniors, Urist is waiting to hear back from colleges to know what her 2020 plans hold. There is a decent chance, however, that she will continue to race her mountain bike at home and abroad. This year, she qualified to race the UCI world championships in Mont-Sainte-Anne for the U.S. national team. She finished 35th in her first worlds, and was amazed by the technical and rocky track.
“It was such a cool experience to see what it takes,” Urist says. “It was cool to see that some of the younger American elites had raced NICA, too.”
“I had to push through”
The Boys Varsity division sprints out of the starting gate and up the climb. As the race strings out on a band of singletrack, two riders surge to the front. It’s Peyton Wilkerson and Lasse Konecky, the series leader. The pair speed across the track in a two-man drag race for three of four laps.
On the final lap, Wilkerson rides through the start/finish by himself. He races up the dusty ridge and disappears over the backside of the mountain, then returns 15 minute later by himself, crossing the finish line alone.
“The first two laps I took it easy because I wanted a few guys with me, and then I ramped it up on the third lap,” Wilkerson says. “Then on lap four I started putting it down and I went all-out.”
With his win, Wilkerson assumes the series lead from Konecky, who finishes second. Both boys high five each other on the finish line, and replay scenes from their respective rides along the course.
One by one, more boys finish, many of them coated in dirt and dust, the result of various crashes. Boys crowd around the finish, many clad in ultra-large sunglasses made to mimic the neon shades first popularized in the early 1990’s.
After rolling across the line, Liam Clevenger from Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy slumps on the grass and grimaces.
“I went out way too fast and hit a tree on the starting lap,” he says. “There’s no way to dial it back unless you go easy, so I pushed through. Hitting the tree freaked me out so it was really hard to settle in today.”
Where did Clevenger finish? He doesn’t know, and to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. While some high school riders, like Wilkerson and Urist, may battle for the win, the majority of riders here in Granby Ranch are more focused on the thrill of the race, and the enjoyment of the day. Sure, the race produces a winner. It also produces dozens of stories and smiles.
Other boys crowd around Clevenger to hear him tell the tale of crashing into a tree. He was going fast and it was crazy, he says. That’s awesome. Someone says the Granby course is the most technical on the high school circuit, and other boys agree. It was gnarly. It was intense. The boys recount the scenes from their own race, before a slapping high five in the afternoon sun.