Culture

11 years of NICA

How one teacher’s idea grew into a national league that develops world champions — and tens of thousands of happy riders.

In 1998, a math teacher named Matt Fritzinger wanted to start a road cycling club at Berkeley High School. Five students showed up — with mountain bikes.

Today, what grew from that afterschool program into a Northern California league and on into the national governing body for high school mountain biking boasts more than 22,500 young riders.

Eleven years after officially forming, The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) exists with a simple mantra: get student-athletes on bikes. It’s working. The scores of young riders are guided by more than 10,000 coaches and volunteers spread across 31 leagues around the country. NICA’s initial milestone of having leagues from coast-to-coast by 2020 was met easily … in 2017. Kids and bikes? It’s a thing.

In an era of digital distraction, NICA has other problems.

“At NICA practice, the kids aren’t on their phones,” says NICA Marketing and Communications Manager Emily McDonald. “Instead, they’re engaged with their friends talking about riding or excited to learn new skills.”

While NICA certainly offers racing — no one is on the bench; everyone participates — it has expanded well beyond the start and finish lines.

“It’s ironic; NICA started as a cross-country race organization,” says Nic Sims, a NICA developmental manager. “But the last couple [of] years, we’ve seen not everyone wants to race; there’s a huge component that just wants to ride.”

Certainly, getting boys and girls onto mountain bikes to race, to ride for fun, to interact with other kids, and to simply grow into responsible, fit adults has far-reaching effects. From self-empowerment up to elite world championship victory, NICA’s power to grow the bodies and minds of kids is immeasurable.

NICA athlete giving a hug
Photo: Courtesy NICA

While NICA’s national umbrella includes support for league development, coach training and guiding the team camps, events and clinics for all its regional leagues, NICA has also instituted programs including GRiT (Girls Riding Together), a Teen Trail Corps (focused on trail advocacy) and NICA Adventure, helping youth experience camaraderie, community, health and outdoor appreciation on the mountain bike.

For volunteer coaches, there’s coach licensing for parents, teachers, and cyclists keen on helping kids develop. Even former NICA graduates have returned as coaches to pass on what they’ve learned in the NICA program.

At the local league level, there’s even more intricacy; in Minnesota, for example, Calvin Jones at Park Tool instituted a program that teaches kids bike mechanic skills. Other NICA programs include working with developmentally challenged athletes, urban area outreach, and trail building.

“There’s just a huge inclusivity aspect,” says McDonald. “Everyone who wants to race gets to race, and everyone is celebrated — first or last. There’s a real sense of community.”

Oh, and the race aspect is still a central theme as NICA builds champions. Its most celebrated graduate was a Marin County kid by the name of Kate Courtney, who learned to ride within the Bay Area NICA program and would grow up to become the 2018 UCI world champion in Switzerland. She’s not the only one, as fellow cross-country pro Haley Batten and EF Education First Cycling road pro Sean Bennett have seen their path forward through NICA. Olympic and Tour de France glory are a reality for NICA student-athletes.

The majority of NICA student-athletes, however, grow into cyclists with a well-rounded sense of self, friendship, encouragement, and stewardship of the places they live and ride.

“After 10 years, we see kids are having fun, enjoying riding, and contributing to the revival of mountain biking,” Sims says. “At any camp, any race, the camaraderie is just incredible to see. At the finish line, it’s always just big hugs.”

Want to support NICA by getting #morekidsonbikes and impacting the future of cycling? Donate today.