Story by Kimberly Bird • Photos by John Mallory

Junior Varsity line-up at race #1 in the 2005 series.

The revolution may not be televised … yet … but it’s already in its sixth season and it’s spreading. Go to any bike shop in the Bay Area that carries Fisher or Trek and you’ll see evidence of it on their counters and stuck to their bulletin boards: a neat stack of pamphlets that instruct any innocent passerby to “Join the High School Mountain Biking Revolution!” The picture on the cover is a close up on three young riders garbed in rebel red—legs pumping, jaw muscles flexing. It’s the NorCal High School Mountain Bike Racing League, and they may be coming to your town … if they’re not there all ready.

While referring to a high school mountain biking league as a revolution may be a bit of marketing hyperbole, it’s not that much of a stretch, according to Matt Fritzinger, the league’s director and founder.

“Biking has been around for hundreds of years, but it’s never been part of our schools. We recognize it as a lifelong healthy sport and also a very positive direction for the future of transportation. But then again our public schools don’t support it. How do our diverse populations have access to this sport? For cycling to be part of the public schools it’s a bit of a revolution in that it’s not universally supported. There are some administrations that support it and some that don’t. And we have to fight for what we believe in.”

A lifelong healthy sport? A positive direction for the future of transportation? This doesn’t sound like the typical high school sports experience. Where is the no-pain-no-gain, survival-of-the-fittest-fastest-richest-and-most-popular culture of team tryouts from my high school days? The formative experiences that inflated some egos and prematurely punctured others, sometimes turning kids off athletics altogether?

Open Access

Refreshingly, the NorCal High School Mountain Bike League makes it a policy to never have tryouts. If a student is committed to training and racing, she or he is on the team.

For students whose families can’t afford a competition-worthy bike, the league offers loaner bikes that have been donated or purchased through fundraising efforts. The league also has a financial aid program, including scholarships, which waives the race registration fees for qualified kids. Forget old high school Darwinism – this revolution smacks of egalitarianism, empowerment, environmental stewardship, and the muddiest stage of the California fitness craze.

Founded in 2001, the NorCal league has been called one of the most organized in the U.S. Groups all over the country have contacted Fritzinger for advice on how to start their own leagues. In 2005, the NorCal league consisted of 14 teams divided into two divisions based on school size and rider participation.

Division I, schools with teams of seven or more riders, included eight teams: Berkeley High, Calvary High, El Cerrito High, Redwood High, Rocklin High, Nevada Union High, Sir Francis Drake High, and Tamalpais High. Division II, schools with teams of six or fewer riders or less than 100 students total, included six teams: Bishop O’Dowd, Marin Academy, Petaluma High, South Fork High, Windsor High, and Woodside High.

Teams must have at least two riders with a coach, but many independent riders also compete. The six-race series begins each February, but the league hosts a variety of camps all year round. More than 300 riders have participated in the league’s camps and competitions, and 2006 promises to bring many new riders to the camps and some new teams to the races.

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Not Limited to Jocks

The league draws all kinds of riders, says league president and Berkeley High Coach Austin McInerny. “You’ve got some pretty competitive kids at the front of these fields who are very successful athletes, winning national-level events. And then you’ve got the other end of kids who just like to bike and … are stoked to be out there on the course. They don’t even ask what place they came in. They come across the finish line boasting about how they rode through some creek and how rad that was. This sport and the race series allow a really wide range of kids to participate.”

In contrast to traditional high school team sports, the mountain biking teams learn to focus on other aspects of competition besides winning. “(A mountain biking race) is very difficult to win,” Fritzinger notes. “At the end of a soccer game, half the kids go home winners. At the end of a mountain bike race, maybe one out of 50 in a class has won. What the kids gain from that is that they learn to appreciate what they’ve done on its own … A lot of these kids become empowered as individuals. They learn to feel good about their own accomplishments in themselves. And that goes a long way later in their lives.”

Berkeley High School graduate Elena Spittler, the league’s 2005 female champion, couldn’t agree more. “Before I was on the mountain biking team, I didn’t have any goals in life and I didn’t really know how to set goals for myself,” says Spittler, 18, now a first year student at San Francisco State University. “Being on the mountain bike team allowed me to set a goal and accomplish it. I never had that before in my life. It gave me a sense of power that I didn’t feel before.”

From Dustee to Duster

Spittler joined the team as a sophomore right before racing season. “I wanted to prove to them – it was all boys then – that I didn’t suck and … that girls could do this sport also.” When she started, she had a hard time keeping up. But rather than feel defeated, she found it motivating. “Being left in the dust is not fun,” as she puts it. By her senior year she was dusting some of the younger and newer guys on the team. Spittler is now part of a group at San Francisco State looking to start a cycling team modeled after the NorCal high school league.

As the first girl on the team at Berkeley High, Spittler opened the door for other girls to join. In 2005, two years after she joined, there were seven girls on the Berkeley team, and the league doubled the number of girls participating overall.

This trend is destined to continue now that Nadine Budbill is on the scene. Nadine moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast where she had run girls-only mountain bike camps. Budbill met McInerny’s wife, Luna Chix ambassador Celeste McCartney, on a ride, heard about the league, and got involved. Her mission is to increase the league’s female participation. She organized the league’s first girls-only camp this summer in Marin and is planning a girls’ mini-camp early in the race season to provide even more support and ensure better retention. Budbill has helped the league craft a strategy that includes these girl-specific camps and clinics, as well as programs to train coaches on how to recruit girls and work with them once they are on the team. The league also plans to expose the teams to more female role models in the mountain biking community.

Kyle Wright of Nevada-Union makes his move.

Spinning Out Health-Conscious Teens

In addition to building the self-confidence of riders, male and female, league participation has influenced many of them to adopt healthier lifestyles. In an era when nationwide youth obesity rates have tripled since 1975 (according to the National Institute of Medicine), McInerny says he’s seen a huge change in the way many kids on his team think about food. Many who first join eat nothing but junk at home and out of the vending machines at school, he says.

“Kids on the mountain bike team realize fast that if they eat like that, they do not last on long rides. They say, ‘OK, I had some sugarcoated bomb pops this morning. I feel great.’ Then 10 minutes later they’re like ‘Ohhhhhh. What do you mean we’re only half way up the hill?’” As a result, many of his riders have learned to eat better and lost weight.

McInerny has made it a priority to talk about nutrition and hydration in the early part of the season. It helps that they have sponsorship from Berkeley-based Clif Bar, which provides them with healthy energy foods for training.

Spittler underwent a lifestyle change her senior year as she became more focused than ever on riding. “I watched what I ate and I wouldn’t go out and party on the weekends … I just didn’t enjoy that part of my life. I still hung out with my friends, but there were a lot more positive things that we were doing.”

Budbill remarked that the mountain biking league has a positive impact in combating the cultural mixed-message young girls receive about their bodies. “Participating in a sport like mountain biking promotes positive body image because it gives young women a way to relate to their bodies that is based upon physical power, athletic performance and inner strength, rather than upon superficial qualities such as beauty and attractiveness.
How You Can Help

Like most revolutions, the persistent problem for the NorCal league is raising the funds necessary to cover its costs, support its riders, and continue to provide access to interested students regardless of class, gender, or skill level. Since it’s not yet an approved California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) sport, it has to raise all of its own funds. Now that it has grown to the point that it demands a paid staff, fundraising is an even greater challenge.

Currently the league gets its funding from individual donors, corporate sponsors, grants, and fees. Clif Bar is a big sponsor and the bicycle industry has been very supportive with its in-kind donations, but the league is actively seeking additional sponsors.

The league’s annual benefit dinner bringing together the Bay Area cycling community is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 12 on Treasure Island. It will be hosted by former pro cyclist Andy Hamptsen, winner of the 1988 Giro d’Italia. Anyone who wants to support the league can go to the dinner; companies are encouraged to buy a table and put it on their calendars.

The league also hosts screenings of cycling-related films. These have proven quite effective at both inspiring the high school riders and bringing in people unfamiliar with the league. The screening of the documentary “PRO” in September brought in 600 people and raised about $3,000. Next up is “Off Road to Athens” scheduled for Jan. 14 (check for details).

Fellow cyclists may also be interested in the league’s “Lycra Drive,” which is just getting underway. Drop off points all over the area have been established where people can donate cycling gear they don’t use any more. Donated gear will outfit league riders who need it, and any extra gear will be auctioned off or sold to raise money.

Apart from donating funds and gear, there are other ways you can get involved with the league. Go to the website to find out if there is already a team in your area and contact them directly. You might be able to help coach or help lead training rides. If there isn’t a team in your area, why not help start one? The league provides step-by-step instructions and support in starting a team and will help put you in touch with other interested individuals, schools, and bike shops in your area.

For more information on the league’s fundraising events, how to donate, the Lycra Drive, and how to get involved with existing teams or start a new team, check out You can also email