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How dangerous is mountain biking? NICA to investigate crash data

The high school NICA league will study injuries for the next two years to better understand the dangers of mountain biking.

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Is high school mountain biking more dangerous than tackle football? The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) has a plan to find some answers.

For 2018, NICA has invited the University of Utah to study crash statistics from the league and to compare injury reports from mountain bike racing to those from other high school sports. The two-year study will examine numbers from the 2018 and 2019 seasons, with the final results being available in 2020 at the earliest.

“Now we can compare apples to apples because there is a lot of data about football and high school sports,” said Austin McInerny, NICA’s executive director. “That’ll be a pretty fascinating day when we really can compare it and debunk some of the myths about the inherent dangers of mountain biking.”

During the first high school mountain bike race of the 2017 National Interscholastic Cycling Association season, a rider from Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado crashed and hit his head. Per NICA guidelines, the team administered NICA’s post-crash concussion protocol. According to the team’s coach, Andrew Feeney, the rider suffered concussion-like symptoms that lasted for months. The team elected to sit the rider for the remainder of the season.

Later in the season, another Fairview rider suffered a head injury during a crash, and also went through NICA’s concussion protocol. That student was able to race after a few weeks of recovery.

Every mountain bike racer crashes — tumbles and falls are endemic to a sport that requires its athletes to pedal over rocks and dirt. Yet nobody knows just how dangerous mountain bike racing is when compared to other sports.

“I get kids coming up to me all the time saying, ‘I got a concussion playing basketball. I got a concussion from football,” said Feeney, who also teaches science. “I would be curious to see what the concussion rates are for those other sports compared to mountain biking.”

McInerny said NICA commissioned the study to overcome the stigma that mountain bike racing is simply too dangerous for high school students. Founded in 2009 in California, NICA has seen rapid growth in recent years. In 2018, the league added Maryland, Oregon, and West Virginia, bringing 21 total states under its organizational wing. More than 14,000 high school children will participate in a NICA race in 2018.

The league operates competition seasons in both the fall and the springtime. This spring, seven NICA leagues will hold competition: Texas, Northern and Southern California, Alabama, North Carolina, New Jersey, and New York.

Despite the growth, McInerny said the league still faces hurdles in new communities and often times its safety concerns that keep schools and parents from letting kids participate in the league.

“Ultimately, we want to be able to tell school districts because a lot of schools right now are saying, ‘No, we are not supportive of a mountain bike team, it’s too dangerous,’” McInerny said. “We need to be able to say, ‘Let’s compare the stats and compare it to football or baseball or whatever.’”

The University of Utah study will examine crash data, injury reports, and incident reports submitted by NICA coaches during the spring and the fall. Each NICA coach keeps a weekly report about the amount of time the students are exposed to the risk of injury each week. In essence, the coaches track how many hours each week their students are riding. Coaches also fill out regular incident reports — the reports are required whenever a rider visits a doctor, loses training time, or misses school due to a crash or training injury. Each report asks questions about the specifics of the injury, as well as how it occurred.

Dr. Stuart Willick, a professor with the University of Utah’s orthopedic center, will oversee the study. He said the study would rely on a four-step method to draw its conclusions about NICA’s safety record. The process will see researchers categorize the injuries and try to understand their causes, before determining whether NICA can enact preventative measures to avoid future problems.

For instance, what if the research determines that injuries are occurring on loose, downhill sections of trail that involve sharp turns?

“One might be able to inform coaches and student-athletes to be more careful on downhill turns with loose dirt,” Dr. Willick said. “Another might be to have racecourse staff or crew to change race courses to avoid the most dangerous turns.”

Dr. Willick said it is challenging to draw definitive conclusions about safety between two different sports — for example high school football versus mountain bike racing — due to the enormous variables between the two sports. Some comparisons can be made, he said. Still, the study could help NICA decrease its injuries by pinpointing areas where injuries regularly occur.

The study represents the latest step that NICA has taken to address rider safety. Since NICA is not affiliated with varsity athletics or USA Cycling, it creates its own rulebook and rider safety guidelines.

NICA’s rulebook has a protocol for head injuries, which requires students who have hit their heads to be cleared by a doctor before returning to practice or competition. All NICA coaches must also take an online course in head injury treatment in youth that is produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


McInerny and other NICA officials believe the rules and safety protocols have helped the league thrive amongst teenaged riders. For many NICA participants, the league represents their first experience with competitive cycling, so the rules and safety precautions govern riders across a wide spectrum.

Feeney says adult riders always ride at the front and rear of NICA-led rides. If a crash occurs, an adult always sees it happen, and can react quickly. Adult riders carry two-way radios for communication, and Feeney tries to have a ratio of six high school riders for every adult rider on a training ride.

Crashes will and do happen. The key to overcoming them, Feeney said, is to simply be prepared.

“We’ve had a couple instances where we had a kid, and we were worried about a potential head injury, so we had to walk them out of the trail. [The safety plan] is so everyone knows where the closest exit trailhead is for whatever the trail might be.”