By: Chris Mehlman, Photo: Alice Johannen
Mountain biking is a fast-growing sport. More and more people are taking it up as a way to socialize and challenge themselves physically and mentally. However, according to pinkbike.com, mountain bikers are “mostly male, between the ages of 25-44, and relatively affluent”. How can we ensure that mountain biking will continue to flourish in the future and attract a more diverse range of participants than it currently does? The answer: youth XC mountain-bike racing.
Cross-country mountain bike racing is not your typical middle or high school sport. Most kids gravitate towards traditional team sports such football, basketball, and baseball. However, mountain biking offers much that traditional youth sports do not. First, it is a lifelong activity. While many kids play team sports through high school, they often end up stopping once they graduate, since it is hard to find the time or a league in which to play those sports later in life. When kids take up mountain biking, however, they develop a passion for a lifelong sport. Even if they do not choose to race after high school, they now have a way to enjoy themselves and stay fit through their working life and into retirement. Second, mountain biking offers an alternative for kids who are not interested in traditional ball sports. I played lacrosse throughout middle school, but found that mountain bike racing offered me a chance to challenge myself physically
and mentally in a way that no other sport could, while still allowing me to be in a team
environment. While XC running is the closest comparison, mountain biking racing involves a longer effort and more technical prowess. Kids who are more interested in the technical nature can challenge themselves through that aspect, while kids who want the aerobic challenge can also be pushed to their limit. In mountain biking, a young racer can feel his or her own work directly paying off and bringing results or PR’s. Finally, and most importantly, the mountain biking community is a fun, welcoming group to be around. Just go to any high school race, and you will see hundreds of smiling faces, kids from different teams hanging out with each other, and a general sense of community that other larger sports do not have.
For these reasons, youth mountain bike racing is growing at an astonishing rate. New England High School Cycling Association (NEHSCA) was founded 2015, with its first race taking place in the spring of 2016. Even at the first race, there were over 175 kids. I, like many other kids who mountain bike, had always struggled to find other young people to ride with, but once I started racing in NEHSCA, I found a whole community who shared my passion. There were racers of all different ages, from 5th-12th grade, competing in several different categories. Some had raced for years, and were there to win, and others were there just to have fun. As a testament to the growing popularity of youth mountain bike racing, NEHSCA more than doubled in size in their second season, and is on track to continue that growth this year.
This massive growth is not a phenomenon isolated to New England. Throughout the country, there already are well-established middle and high school racing leagues run through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). More and more leagues keep popping up each year, and I have no doubt that there will soon be a league in almost every state.
These leagues are also working hard to attract people other than the stereotyped affluent white male. The largest barrier to mountain biking is typically the cost. However, large companies like Cannondale, Trek, Specialized, and Shimano, along with local shops, have been generous in supporting youth cycling by offering discounted bikes and equipment to youth racers. They do this because they know that these leagues are the foundation for a strong future for mountain biking; they are these companies’ future customer bases. Some leagues have also established teams in the inner-city in less-affluent neighborhoods. In addition, many leagues, including NEHSCA, have worked hard to attract more girls to the sport, through girls-only clinics andgroups. Little Bellas, an organization founded by professional racer Lea Davison to help get more girls on bikes in order to develop self-confidence, has also helped leagues with this mission. By introducing kids of different genders and socio-economic backgrounds to riding now, mountain biking will be even more popular and widespread 20 years down the line.
Now, when I ride in the trail systems around Boston, I always smile when as I see more and more kids in NEHSCA jerseys riding in groups, or out with their parents. The bug has hit them, just as it has hit all of us.