High school racing takes hold in USA

California league spawns national interscholastic program

CycleFest Colorado served to kick off the Colorado chapter of the US National Interscholastic Cycling Association’s (NICA) inaugural year this weekend.

It was a $100 a plate fundraiser, attended by a who’s who of Colorado mountain bike stars and hosted by Susan DeMattei and Dave Wiens. The evening featured both silent and live auctions to benefit the newly formed Colorado chapter, which included the latest and greatest products from Specialized, Trek, SRAM, Fox, Felt and Yeti. Not to mention, Wiens’ own 2004 Leadville winner’s trophy.

Susan DeMattei and Dave Wiens hosted the first CycleFest Colorado.

But out of all of this incentive for people to open their pockets to support the program, one stood out from all off the stuff people could win and bring home and if it couldn’t get you to donate, nothing would have. It was a speech given by a 17-year-old Colorado Douglas High School student, Angel Huerta. It wasn’t scripted and yet the teenager captured the essence of why people identify as mountain bikers. It moved him to be involved, as he will move others to become involved with NICA.

“When I found out about this, I said, ‘wow, I’ve got to be part of this,’ I love mountain biking,” said Angel Huerta, a 17 year old Douglas County High School student speaking to the attendees of CycleFest Colorado. “I’m sure a lot of you ride for that feeling of Zen and peace that you get…. That is the reason I ride, that is my place that I can go when I’m mad out of my mind; I can grab my bike and just go. Bringing that into high schools would be great. Teenagers wouldn’t be so dumb; I know I’m not.

“Mountain biking gives you that feeling of Zen and peace and things just go smooth, like you’re riding a full suspension bike. Bringing that into the schools is a great idea. The thing that makes me mad is that it’s just now getting here.”

The Colorado chapter was founded last year and is based off Matt Fritzinger’s successful NorCal High School Cycling League, which was founded in 2001.

The national body, NICA, a 501c3 organization, was formed last September and is now headed by Fritzinger. The goal of NICA is to develop viable high school mountain bike leagues across the nation by 2020. Colorado is the first chapter to branch out of the California pilots and the only new league slated for 2010. Next year plans for Washington State were projected at the organization’s first board meeting, but the plans are already expanding.

“We planned on one, Washington State,” said Fritzinger. “But now we’re considering Texas, Wisconsin and several others and NorCal’s two leagues may be splitting, so there might be seven.”

Seven new leagues in 2011, representing six states. It’s both a small start and a huge step for a program that is thriving in California after 10 years of work by Fritzinger and his team.

Why NICA is good for us all

NICA is getting due support from the US cycling industry and for good reason. If it succeeds in its goal of building high school mountain bike leagues from coast to coast by 2020, the entire industry and sport itself will benefit dramatically.

Trek product development rider and Colorado native, Travis Brown, was on hand at the event with his wife, NICA board member, Mary Monroe and summed up the impact program is already producing.  He explained that there aren’t too many functions that bring Specialized and Trek together, but this organization is something both can get behind to support and benefit from.

“It’s nice to be in a place with a lot of the bike industry whether it’s product or media and people are just thinking in the same direction and feeling good about it,” said Brown.

NICA has a better chance of reaching today’s youth and getting them interested in bikes than any other program and that has ability to grow the popularity of cycling enormously.

"You can look at it a couple of different ways, as an industry person projecting into the future where all high schools have competitive bike programs and that is a game changer as far as the scale of the industry,” said Brown. “But it’s also a game changer as far as our culture goes with health and all of the things that go hand in hand with bike competition; awareness about nutrition. It’s a lot bigger than just the industry, which is huge.”

Travis Brown, Mary Monroe and Matt Fritzinger

NICA could have social implications, as Brown stated and Colorado State Senator Chris Romer, an enthusiastic mountain bike rider, touched on his speech to CycleFest attendees.

“In that state legislature we waste so much money repairing adults,” said Senator Romer. “Oh my gosh, we don’t have the ability and there is not enough money through healthcare, education or otherwise to spend repairing adults. Is there any debate that we’re going to have to repair Angel? No. We need to get kids and people back on bicycles.”

Like NICA can bring Trek and Specialized together, it can bring road and mountain riders together.

Jonathan Vaughters, Garmin-Transitions team founder explained why the program makes sense for any two-wheeled enthusiast to support.

“You can’t expect high schools to put on road races,” he said. “There’s just too much … they won’t close the roads, but you can put some flags up and have a mountain bike course. Besides, I know that I’ll get some of those kids 10 years down the road.”

NICA brings competitive industry brands together to support a mutually beneficial cause — getting more kids on bikes.

Gary Boulanger, NICA president, said that they are realistic about the goals of the new chapter's first seasons. They aren’t expecting it to have what the California leagues have, out of the gate, but the kids that do show up will experience something akin to the glitz and glamour of a world cup, which he hopes might hook them on bikes.

If NICA can replicate what’s going on in California else where, it seems like high school mountain biking has a bright future. The same weekend of CycleFest in Colorado, the NorCal High School Cycling league had its first event, where 700 high school kids showed up to race. That’s a big number for a mountain bike race, especially one made up of kids.

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