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High school MTB leagues rebuild U.S. cycling’s base

High School mountain bike leagues are pumping thousands of kids into the U.S. cycling scene. What impact has it had on bicycle racing?

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Sean Bennett still replays scenes from his first bicycle race.

It was 2010 and Bennett sat aboard his hardtail mountain bike with 26-inch wheels on the dusty starting line at Ford Ord, near Monterey, California. Just 14 years old, Bennett had recently abandoned baggy shorts for the awkward embrace of snug Lycra racewear. He wore a pair of cycling shoes that were two sizes too big, purchased by his parents who assured him he would someday grow into the footwear. Bennet sat at the back of the group, unsure of what to expect.

When the gun went off, Bennett sprinted to the top of the first hill, turned around, and saw an enormous gap to the other riders. He sped away down the trail and did not look back.

“It’s still a really special memory to me — I mean, how many people win their first bike race,” Bennett says. “I remember pretty much loving cycling from that moment on.”

Bennett is now 22 years old and one of the stars of the Hagens Berman Axeon pro cycling team. In May he finished a close second to Toms Skujins during stage 3 of the Amgen Tour of California. Several weeks later Bennett won a stage of the Giro Ciclistico d’Italia, the so-called “Baby Giro” race for the world’s top espoir riders. It’s not a question of whether Bennett will graduate to pro cycling’s upper echelon, but when.

Bennett traces his trajectory back to that starting line in Fort Ord. The race Bennett won was organized by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, and Bennett wore the colors of his high school, El Cerito High. In the ensuing years, Bennett became an integral member of El Cerito’s NICA team, winning races at the junior varsity and varsity level. He battled against future cycling star Neilson Powless and raced his bicycle across Northern California.

Bennett says he stuck with NICA racing more for social reasons than performance-based goals. Winning was fun, however, spending time with his friends kept him coming back to the bicycle every day. He developed a community of friends to ride with, and after a few years, cycling simply became part of his everyday life. Nobody else from his school became a professional cyclist, but Bennett says most of his friends from NICA still ride.

“Everyone who went through the program — it had a huge impact on their life,” Bennett says. “NICA is the reason I got into the sport, no doubt in my mind.”

Sean Bennett’s budding professional career represents one small chapter in the story of NICA’s success. Since its inception in 2009, NICA has introduced tens of thousands of American teenagers to the sport. The program famously sprouted from the Berkeley High School mountain biking club in the mid-2000s into a nationwide program with staggering numbers. For 2017 NICA counted 14,381 total racers — up nearly 35 percent from its 2016 participation numbers. The program boasted 6,453 coaches and 777 teams operating across 22 different statewide chapters. Since 2009 its participation has grown at a steady clip of between 30 to 40 percent each year.

“We are growing insanely fast,” says Austin McInerny, NICA’s executive director. “At no other time in American history has youth cycling been so poised to explode.”

NICA’s growth has begun to have a broader impact on the overall landscape of American cycling. Bicycle manufacturers now design low-cost racing bikes to cater to the growing number of NICA riders. Junior and U23 racing categories in some regions now swell with NICA riders and its alumni. The program has graduated thousands of riders into the collegiate and amateur racing ranks, and dozens into the cycling industry.

A handful of NICA athletes, Bennett included, are even headed toward the professional ranks.

“People are getting access to these skills which makes you a better rider,” says Haley Batten, a 2017 NICA graduate and member of the Clif Bar racing team. “It makes it so much easier to continue the journey into the professional ranks.”

How is NICA reshaping the landscape of American cycling? VeloNews reached out to riders, coaches, league directors, and others to gather several snapshots of the NICA effect.

Sean Bennett
Sean Bennett began racing in a NICA league, and now lines up at races like the Tour of California. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

The return to racing

Growth in junior mountain biking participation is not guaranteed when a NICA chapter begins. Don Edberg, director for Wisconsin’s off-road series, says participation numbers in the junior 15-18 age group has been flat since Wisconsin’s NICA league started in 2012.

Some national events have seen growth. In the mid-2000s, California’s Sea Otter Classic attracted anywhere from 100 to 150 junior riders for its cross-country race each year. By 2015 that number had grown to 209. In 2017 Sea Otter boasted 213 total junior racers.

Participation at USA Cycling’s national mountain bike championships, by contrast, has fluctuated. Since 2010 the national championships attracted the most juniors in 2012, the fewest in 2013.

NICA’s biggest participatory success story comes from Utah. A decade ago Utah’s Intermountain Cup mountain bike racing series was in decline, due to shrinking numbers in the cross-country fields. The seven-race series was established in 1990, and holds races on iconic trails across the state, from St. George to Snowbird.

In 2012 Utah launched a chapter of NICA with 325 athletes and 28 teams. The league saw immediate growth, and the following year more than 650 kids participated. The growth has continued. Last season total participation surpassed 3,000 total racers, and the league had split into three different regional leagues to accommodate the swelling ranks.

Team Clif Bar rider Haley Batten started in the Utah league in 2013 and saw a huge surge in popularity amongst her peers. The growth brought the overall awareness of mountain biking to those kids who didn’t race, she says.

“You saw the number of people who wanted to go outdoors and get on trail systems grow,” Batten says. “It’s not just growing competition, it’s growing the whole community.”

NICA’s success in Utah has breathed new life into the Intermountain Cup, says the league’s managing partner, Joel Rackham. The league that was once on life-support is now thriving.

“Our racing series is growing again, and the primary growth is coming in the junior divisions,” Rackham says. “It was a series that was almost dead and last year we were the top racing series in the West.”

For the 2015 season Rackham said the Intermountain Cup races averaged 160 total participants; for 2017 that number was 450. And today, 42 percent of the Intermountain Cup’s total participation is in the junior 15-18 age group level, he says.

Utah’s round of USA Cycling’s Pro cross-country tour, the Soldier Hollow Pro XCT, has also seen a dramatic increase in junior participation. MJ Turner, the race director and president of Summit Bike Club, says over 70 percent of the total participation in 2018 was in the junior division.

“The growth is there and it’s absolutely in the junior division,” Turner says.

The expansion in junior participation has led to the creation of development programs to help riders improve. Rouleur Devo was launched in 2015 in Sandy, Utah; Cycling is a donation-based team in Salt Lake City. Rackham launched his own program, called Impact Devo, to also work with young riders.

“NICA is like high school soccer and these teams are more like the club-team model,” Rackham says. “You’re seeing these programs grow and I think it is the result of NICA introducing them to the sport.”

Haley Batten
Haley Batten got her start in Utah’s NICA league. She now rides on the Clif Bar Pro Team. Photo courtesy Malcolm Fearon/Clif Bar Pro Team

Bikes made for teens

Across the U.S. mountain biking industry, manufacturers have begun to design and market racing bikes specifically for NICA athletes. The bikes are often hard-tail race machines at a lower price point, usually in the $500 to $1,000 range. The bikes are designed to help kids begin racing without a major investment by their families.

An early partner of NICA, Trek unveiled its latest NICA-inspired bicycle in July 2018. The new Trek Marlin hardtail is made from aluminum and features entry-level Shimano components and a RockShox fork. It is priced at between $450 to $750.

“We often refer to bikes as ‘good NICA bikes,’ and that means delivering a lot of performance and value,” says Travis Ott, mountain bike brand manager at Trek. “No laid-back, comfy geometry. It’s a race-able hardtail that is fast.”

Manufacturers also partner with NICA league chapters to offer discounts to riders. For example, San Diego-based Haro Bicycles gives between 25-30 percent discount to registered NICA riders. Utah’s NICA riders receive a 40 percent discount on Diamondback bicycles, and Pivot Cycles offers another sizable discount to riders from the Utah and Arizona leagues.

Learning to love trails

Virginia launched its own independent high school mountain bike league in 2010 and joined NICA four years later. Perhaps no high school is as dedicated to cycling as the Miller School of Albermarle, a collegiate preparatory boarding school located in Charlottesville, Virginia. The school supports a thriving endurance community and has both a NICA team and a USA Cycling road development program.

The school sits on 1,600 acres of wooded hills near the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the terrain makes the region perfect for mountain biking. The school now supports a trail building class where students learn how to create and manage off-road trails for riding. The goal of the trail building is to create new training grounds for the cycling team and to teach students the value of open space and proper trail construction and maintenance.

Thus far, Miller School students have built 15 miles of trails, with another 15 proposed for the future. The school even imported rocks to build technical features onto the trails.

“Every trail was built by a student,” says Andrea Dvorak, the cycling team’s head coach. “We’re seeing trails pop up everywhere in the region for kids.”

Miller School
At the Miller School, high school mountain bikers get their hands dirty and build trails on school property. Photo courtesy Miller School

Grooming future stars

Could NICA help the United States develop more Olympic cyclists? Perhaps. An integral part of USA Cycling’s Olympic development process involves identifying young talent and then exposing them to the rigors of European racing. Every year the program supports between eight and 12 talented junior and U23 development riders and sends them to Canada and Europe to race the top riders on the World Cup.

Of those development riders, maybe one or two graduate to the professional ranks.

Marc Gullickson, director of USA Cycling’s mountain bike development program, scans results from the U.S. national championships and other national-level events for young, strong athletes to invite into the program. Gullickson says he also peruses NICA state championship results for top performers.

“Chances are if they’re that good I already know about them,” he says. “A lot of my leads are coming from word-of-mouth.”

It’s no secret that cross-country mountain biking requires equal parts skill and strength, and rewards those riders who dedicate themselves to the sport for years. Navigating a rocky, technical slope on a race bike requires years of practice and intense focus. The riders who rise to the Olympic level are often those with talent and years spent racing.

NICA’s ability to start riders young is beginning to pay off. America’s top elite female rider, Kate Courtney, raced for a NICA program in Marin County, California. Four of the strongest U23 women in the country are also NICA graduates: Haley Batten, Hannah Finchamp, Gwendalyn Gibson, and Kelsey Urban. Finchamp, who grew up racing in Southern California’s league, says she sees a swelling group of strong female riders coming through the California, Utah, and Colorado leagues.

“I think the next generation of stars is definitely going to come through [NICA],” Finchamp says. “There are a lot of girls racing, and they’re not stopping racing after school — they want to continue past college and onto the national scene.”

Gullickson says he’s seen a shift in the sheer number of talented cyclists coming across his radar. A decade ago USA Cycling might have two or three junior riders on its radar — now that is up to eight or nine.

“NICA has widened the net,” Gullickson says. “The strongest NICA riders tend to win their high school races and then they’re looking for other opportunities, and they end up racing USAC events and they get in touch with me. That’s how they get sucked into the program.”

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