US national high school racing league thinking big

By Kirsten Robbins | Thursday, December 3, 2009 5.08pm

The US National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) is raising the bar in high school mountain biking one state at a time.

What began in Northern California with the ever-expanding NorCal High School Mountain Bike League in 2001 now has a clear mission to build high school cycling from coast to coast by 2020.

Matt Fritzinger, a former math teacher at Berkeley High School, launched the NorCal High School Mountain Bike League in 2001. Now eight years later, there are 35 participating high schools and some 600 student racers. The league's success ran throughout the state and by 2008, Southern California had a league of its own. Matt Gunnell currently heads the SoCal Interscholastic Cycling League that has doubled its student participation to nearly 15 high schools.

Next year, both NorCal and SoCal leagues combined are expected to have 50 participating high schools and more than 1,000 student racers.

"This is your world of high school mountain biking," Fritzinger said. "Our league has succeeded partly because mountain biking works well with kids and parents. I think kids are looking for more exciting activities. Also, the timing was really good being on the heels of Lance Armstrong's success. We are the most successful high school cycling program in the USA."

Fritzinger launched NICA in September, as a service oriented association aimed at supporting high school mountain bike leagues across the nation. It plans to build as many as 10 leagues by 2015. Potential up and coming leagues include North Carolina, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, New York and Maine.

"Cycling is good for society," Fritzinger said. "These leagues are giving so many kids an opportunity to become highly involved in a lifelong sport. It's healthy, it empowers kids and it often gives them focus, momentum and helps with academics. They become team players and they also become interested in preserving our natural resources. It's also a great competitive sport and  is becoming a means for getting into colleges like other sports. There are a number of colleges for up and coming high school mountain bikers."

Colorado is expected to be the next State to join NICA in creating its own high school mountain bike league. According to Fritzinger the idea is materializing quickly and expected to have its first season of mountain biking to start in September next year.

"It's snowballing," he said. "It has been really well received probably because they had some high school programs in the past so they've formed the concept and hundreds of people are getting involved in the effort."

NICA sponsors include Specialized as a founding national sponsor along with Easton Sports Development Foundation as NICA's sponsor and founding SoCal and Colorado sponsor.

CycleFest fundraiser a massive success

NorCal and SoCal High School Mountain Bike Leagues raised a total of US$100,000 at their annual CycleFest fundraisers with $60,000 from SoCal and $40,000 from NorCal. Colorado will host its inaugural CycleFest in Denver on April 24, 2010.

Fritzinger boasts the CycleFest events as being more than just a fundraiser.

"The first year we put one on in NorCal, we knew that we had something worth celebrating," Fritzinger said. "A great group of people have come together to make the league happen. It was a great way to take our program from out of the woods and into a fun gathering with the best food and the classiest of venues we could find and still raise money."

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According to Fritzinger the funds raised from the NorCal CycleFest go back into the over head budget that is required to keep the league running each year. "It offsets the year round operating cost for conducting all of our programs," he said. "It helps keep our camps and races affordable. It helps pay for rent, equipment and payroll. It allows us to raise other money that is focused on rider scholarships so that any rider who wants to race in a league can get support."

The NorCal High School Mountain Bike league celebrated its sixth annual CycleFest dinner hosted by Jonathan Vaughters, directeur sportif of the Garmin-Transitions ProTour team. Prominent hosts in the years past include Levi Leipheimer in 2008, Bob Roll in 2007, Tom Danielson in 2006, Andy Hampsten in 2005 and Freddy Rodriguez in 2004.

"Every pro bike racer usually has a story regarding how they got into cycling and live through their days as young cyclists," Fritzinger said. "I don't think there are passionate bike racers who don't want to give back, it's an opportunity for them to give back. They tell great stories about who supported them and they honour that tradition."

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