Mountain biking takes off as fastest growing high school sport
By Dave Robinson
For many of us our fondest memories of riding date back to when we were a pack of kids exploring our local trails on our Schwinns. It didn’t matter if we were on five or ten speeds or even the legendary Stingray — we were finally free of parental guidance and able to find our own path wherever there was dirt.
Things are so very different now with helicopter parents and computers vying for every free moment; today free time in the wilderness seems to be a vanishing commodity. More screen time would seem to suggest less physical exercise outdoors and the Center for Disease Control confirms that adolescent obesity rates have quadrupled in the last thirty years. At a time when all these challenges seem to be coming to a head we are seeing one sport offer to take our youth back to those heady days on bikes.
Imagine a sport that isn’t bounded by convention, where having the best equipment or best appointed facility doesn’t determine one’s finish order. The quickest athletes on the bike aren’t predisposed by their physical size or social strata but by their dedication to building skill and fitness. At a time when inequity dominates the headlines mountain biking has become the fastest growing sport in high schools while leveling the playing field among young athletes.
In our teen years we are far more capable of developing new skills and a focused, coached approach allows kids to not only build skills but also self-confidence. Enter the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) which develops interscholastic mountain biking programs for student-athletes across the United States. Founded in Marin in 2009 NICA has provided leadership and governance to local leagues and coaches and has since grown its operations to support riders in twelve states.
Liam Ruff is a recent graduate of the NICA Nevada Union Miners mountain biking team and gives a first hand sense of how mountain biking enhances his well-being and that of his peers. “It keeps us physically fit, gives us natural stress relief and an escape from school and other responsibilities, and also provides a group of like-minded people to interact with who love bikes and the sport of cycling in general.”
Perhaps one of the more troubling changes in how we spend our leisure time now is the amount of time we spend in front of screens. Our phones and computers have become the easiest route to distraction and entertainment. But what has happened to our original source of entertainment, wilderness?
Visits to National Parks are declining and consumption of electronic media by children is growing. In his book Last Child in the Woods author Richard Louv coined a new term: “nature deficit disorder.” He has tied many of our youth’s modern day challenges to a lack of wilderness engagement, issues as broad ranging as ADHD and depression to obesity and myopia due to lack of resulting chemical signals to prevent elongation of the eye during the growth phase. Louv described the resulting benefits of treating nature deficit disorder as, “everything from a positive effect on the attention span to stress reduction to creativity, cognitive development, and their sense of wonder and connection to the earth.”
Mountain biking provides an opportunity very early in life for individuals to recognize the power in their voice and their actions. “By being part of a team and a larger mountain bike and trail user community I have realized that our actions as users do influence how the public and land managers view mountain bikers and what decisions are made related to trails in the future,” Ruff explains. He adds, “It has also given me a sense of how valuable trails really are — especially for high school mountain biking. By building more trails and advocating for more bike access we are investing in our future by giving kids the opportunity to be active, healthy, and strong. Without trails and bike advocacy high school mountain biking would not be where it is today.”
David Giannini has coached for over nine years and describes one of his primary motivations in becoming involved in youth mountain bike racing, “Knowing that you are creating lifelong cyclists and growing young humans who will become tomorrow’s leaders.”
If you have been thinking about trying something new, stepping up your fitness, and spending more time outdoors then joining a mountain biking team as a coach or racer may help you realize your goals.
So next time you hear that pack of thirty kids ripping through the woods on their bikes take a moment to reflect on your own high school years and imagine yourself in their shoes. These riders are the future guardians of the trail you’re on so you might want to give them a hoot of encouragement as they fly by.
One of the best aspects of mountain biking is the rise of the culture that surrounds it, but if they don’t race how can kids get some? Intramural and school club rides are growing in number around the country and provide the opportunity for youth to gain many of the benefits of organized rides without the pressure of racing. These rides include every size and shape of rider and bike and focus on getting kids outdoors via safe routes to unpaved roads.
Tawn Kennedy is the director of Greenways to School which hosts group rides from middle schools in Santa Cruz County every Wednesday. Tawn is passionate about youth on bikes as you’ll note in his description of why he does what he does. “By getting youth in early adolescence interested in positive, prosocial activities like exploring their proverbial back yards on bikes, we can keep them out of a lot of trouble. Best of all, we can get them stoked on a mode of transportation and recreation that can provide life long fitness, expose them to beautiful natural settings, and contributes to protecting the planet.”
Sounds like school club rides tick all the boxes but unfortunately non-competitive bike clubs aren’t nearly as pervasive as one would hope. The key factors required for the formation and ongoing success of bike clubs are individuals with the vision and devotion to organize the program (check the NICA website for tips) and adults to lead and sweep the rides. If you’re an inspired youth or adult who’d like to see more kids in your area benefit from mountain biking then get together with a few like-minded folks and get those wheels turning! –DR