Picture any high school athletic event, like football for example, and images cross the mind of marching bands, cheerleaders, sod-covered fields, and costumed mascots. Now replace all those classic “Friday Night Lights” slices of Americana with cowbells, spandex, singletrack trails, and teams competing with each other instead of against each other, and you have a new kind of high school sport – the Utah High School Cycling League.
Sanctioned high school cycling teams are a recent phenomenon. It all started in 2001 when the first high school cycling league was formed in Northern California. But things didn’t really get moving until 2009, when the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, or NICA, was formed. This governing organization brought mountain biking to high schools in 13 states so far, with a goal to create cycling programs for student-athletes across the country. Their mission: “to provide leadership, services and governance for local leagues to produce quality mountain-bike events, and support every student-athlete in the development of strong body, strong mind and strong character through their efforts on the bike.”
Utah got its own NICA league in 2011. It started when the Utah High School Cycling League’s Executive Director, Lori Harward, and her husband attended the 2010 USA Cycling Coaches Summit. While there, they talked to a Southern California NICA coach and discovered the idea of high school cycling. “We were just so excited. I was like, this is so cool, and we need to bring this here,” Harward said. “So we started down that path and the next thing you know, I’m putting a bid together to become the next NICA league, which we won.”
The Utah High School Cycling League was born, and is now rolling faster than a carbon 29er hard tail. In its inaugural season of competition in 2012, Utah became the largest first-year league in NICA history with 325 registered student athletes riding on 28 teams. In 2013, that number more than doubled to 641 athletes racing on 43 teams. This year, even more teams will hit the singletrack for a total of 50 teams representing 68 high schools at race venues from Soldier Hollow in Midway, to Round Valley in Park City, to the state championships in St. George.
You would think that Utah’s outdoor culture and world-famous mountain bike trails are responsible for this booming growth, and that Utah’s early success stems from having teens already hitting the singletrack in their spare time. Turns out, that’s not the case. According to Harward, around 90% of the student athletes have never experienced cross country racing, and many have never even been on a mountain bike before. “A lot of our kids, our coaches are getting them on the trail for the first time in their lives. Some do have experience getting out with their families, but 90% of them had never done a race.”
So how do you get kids who don’t mountain bike to sign up for a competitive, high school cycling league? Harward says it only takes one or two students to spread the fat tire gospel. “That first year, some coaches literally would have maybe one or two kids show up to their first practice. Those kids had so much fun, they went and told their friends. Next thing you know, there’s four kids. Those four kids are having so much fun they go out and get more friends.”
A prime example is the Ogden High School team. Harward says they had zero students at the first team meeting. By the end of the season, they were Division 2 State Champions. “Another team, Pleasant Grove, two kids came to the first meeting. By the time we were starting races, they were a Division 1 team with 19 racers,” Harward added.
Some student athletes couldn’t have been less interested in organized sports before joining the cycling team. Kylee Shaffer, a junior at Corner Canyon High School in Draper, says she was a dancer and singer before she started racing. “I’m not the typical sports kind of person. I don’t like football or soccer and all of the normal sports.” But it was her father’s urging that got her to consider mountain biking. “I had gone a couple of times, but wasn’t good at it. So I was really hesitant about joining. At first I didn’t really like it, but I’m so glad that I did because now that I’m involved, it’s the best thing ever.”
Turns out Shaffer found her calling. At every race last season, she finished in 5th place, and got 5th overall in her first two years of racing. She says it’s her own competitive nature, coupled with the league’s fun and supportive race environment that made her fall in love with her newly adopted sport. “It’s not like any normal sport because you go to a soccer game and you don’t see competing teams cheer each other on when they score a goal. But you come to the finish line at the races, and people you don’t even know are cheering for you and screaming your name and stuff. So it’s a really cool environment to be in.”
That race day environment is something to behold. Team tents cluster together, sponsor banners flap in the wind, crowds gather to cheer not just their home team, but every team as high school racers get off their saddles and crank their bikes across the cacophony of the finish line. Countless coaches, parents, and volunteers line the course to root for the kids in an unparalleled show of community support.
The spectacle of race day and the amount of growth the league has seen surprises Nate Hansen. He’s a junior racing for Bingham High School in South Jordan, and says he never imagined high school mountain biking would be where it is today. “It seemed like a fringe sport. It seemed like something people valued more as a hobby rather than a high school competitive thing. Especially because most of the top high school sports are all team sports,” Hansen said, adding, “Now that I’m doing it, it kind of surprises me because there are so many people at these races. There’s so much support from the community, especially here in Utah.”
Harward says she witnesses that community support at every NICA event. “When you go to our races, you’ll notice all these tents that are set up together. That’s called our Pit Zone. That’s where each team sets up their tent and they have lunch and team meetings and warm up for the day. And you see they are all set up next to each other. That’s the amazing thing. We value camaraderie above competition. So the spirit of NICA is that everyone is cheered. We support each other and when you go to the races, everyone is ringing their cowbells and cheering everyone on. I love that atmosphere. It’s so different than anything else.”
NICA leagues are not only growing around the United States, but they’re also causing growth of the sport in general, as these kids will likely continue to ride after they graduate. According to Harward, they’re also getting their family members out on the trail as well. “We have family camps that we did last year in Moab and in St. George, where we invited parents to come down and learn skills too. Sixty percent of dads start riding with the kids and forty percent of moms. That’s a NICA statistic from across the nation. So that’s the kind of family involvement we see.”
Along with the races, the league holds several summer camps and clinics for beginner riders or experienced mountain bikers who need to brush up on their skills. The clinics emphasize proper technique and a “healthy approach to riding and racing.” There’s even girls-only camps to get young women the encouragement they need to get on the bike and ride strong.
But aside from all the races, clinics and camps, the central mission of the Utah High School Cycling League is to promote health and fitness to the athletes, which Harward says is the cornerstone of the program. “The focus is on creating strong bodies, strong minds, and strong character in the most inclusive and equal way. And we have a focus on lifelong health and fitness. So we want these kids to have so much fun within our organization that they’re going to ride and stay healthy their entire lives. And that message resonates with us here in Utah. It’s powerful and I think it’s something where we all look around and realize that the obesity crisis that’s facing our country is affecting our kids. A lot of people in my generation, we grew up riding bikes with our friends to school and you just don’t see that anymore. So we really want to give that experience back to the kids. The freedom that we felt.”
It’s that sense of freedom that Shaffer and Hansen now live for, as they both plan on riding their mountain bikes long after they outgrow the NICA league. Many of the student athletes find success in road racing and collegiate-level cycling, and according to NICA, several alumni are currently racing on pro teams at events as big as the Tour of California and the Sea Otter Classic. Hansen says he plans to continue entering races long after he’s finished with school. “Definitely I’ll keep racing. I mean, after the first season of high school, I got involved with a local bike shop that my dad rides for. I’ve started road racing this year. And I’ll race a lot of the local series. So I can see myself racing for a long time.”
As for Shaffer, she has no plans to become a professional cyclist, but intends on participating in mountain biking for the rest of her life. “I just want to be a part of it, forever. It’s so fun and it’s such a good environment to be in. Like when I’m at races, I don’t want to leave. Mountain biking makes me so happy. I don’t necessarily want to go and compete in different countries like all of the pros do, but it’s something I do for my enjoyment. And it really helps me reduce stress and stuff and just get away from everything that is going through my head. When I’m riding, it’s just me and my bike. And no one else is there. It’s awesome.”