Hannah Finchamp can still remember the excitement she felt before each NICA team practice.
“It was this jittery feeling of, ‘Yes! I get to go ride my bike today!’” she says. Finchamp, racing for Seal Orange Off-Road, won The Mid South and is not alone in counting her years with NICA as a formative experience in her career. The fun, supportive environment of high school racing offers space for riders to experiment and learn. And some like Finchamp carry those lessons forward to elite racing.
Kate Courtney, the 2018 world champion, is one of them. From a young age, Courtney rode the Marin trails with her dad, first on the back of a tandem, then on a bike of her own.
“I didn’t know about competitive mountain biking at all until high school,” Courtney says. While racing for Branson High School, she discovered her competitive drive. “It’s a big jump to national and international racing, but high school racing was a great starting point for me.”
Even for riders who come to NICA with racing experience, there are valuable lessons on offer. Haley Batten, an under-23 rider with Specialized, grew up riding mountain bikes with her family in Park City, Utah. At an early age, she started racing.
“When I was younger, I really believed it was like, ‘you’re on your own, and if you are going to make it, it’s about you alone,’” she says.
While racing with NICA, Batten discovered how powerful team support could be.
“The people, the community, they really make cycling the incredible experience it is,” says Batten. “Any result you see, it’s not just the athlete, it’s everybody behind it, too.”
For girls especially, NICA provides a uniquely welcoming environment. For a team to score points during the season, the roster must include at least one girl.
“That meant the boys on my team were heavily invested in my success — they needed me,” says Courtney.
Unlike many other race organizations out there, NICA offers equal opportunities for girls to race.
“You feel empowered,” says Finchamp. “Because okay, I’m equal to the men and I’m receiving the same treatment.”
Depending on where she lives, a young rider might not have an easy time finding other girls interested in mountain biking. For Liv Cycling’s Savilia Blunk, NICA proved a revelation. Blunk is from the small town of Inverness in Northern California and she started riding with her two older brothers. Her story is a common one among women mountain bikers, many of whom follow their brothers or fathers into the sport.
Through NICA, Blunk discovered a whole new community of riders.
“I really didn’t know there were other girls who raced and wanted to do this, too,” Blunk says. Racing with the same group of girls week in and week out proved inspiring. “Having those women to push me in every race and seeing each other improve was really cool,” she says.
Unlike traditional varsity sports, no one gets cut from a NICA team. That means there’s room to experiment and learn new skills.
“Students are celebrated and encouraged to push their own personal limits,” Courtney says.
For Blunk, the supportive atmosphere helped her get past pre-race nerves and take tactical risks out on course that taught her useful lessons about racing, even when they didn’t work out.
“NICA was a very low-stress, super friendly environment,” Blunk says. “Mistakes were going to be made — and that was totally okay.”
On the starting line, there is a range of abilities among NICA riders.
“It’s hard to nail down exactly what people are gaining, because everyone is gaining something different,” says Finchamp, adding that NICA’s approach fosters a lifelong love of the sport. “There aren’t a lot of forever football players, but there are a lot of forever mountain bikers.”
While she improved her cycling skills, Batten feels she also learned how to strike a balance among her obligations at school, her training, and her social life.
“Whether your goal is to win a varsity race or just finish your first event, there is an opportunity to go beyond what you thought you were capable of,” says Courtney. “I hope that the NICA leagues continue to produce racers, but more importantly, I hope that they produce lifelong cyclists.”
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