By Amy West
In Santa Cruz’s light industrial setting sits Georgiana Bruce Kirby Preparatory School. In the parking lot behind enthusiastic mountain bike coaches shout instructions for the stormy afternoon’s ride. After a few minor bike adjustments, an exuberant group of teen cyclists pedal off to the hills.
These high school mountain bikers are training to compete in a sport that is growing exponentially and nationally. It is growing so much, in fact, that the NorCal High School Cycling League needs restructuring.
“We’ve got over 600 riders this year, but we are also maxed out as far as our venues and our races,” said Vanessa Hauswald, the executive director of NorCal. “Putting more than 100 kids in one category out of the race at one time is just crazy. It’s a good problem to have, but we are looking at expanding next year and doing a regional split.”
After a Berkeley High school teacher started NorCal in 2001, demand spread to form other leagues. Creating the National Interscholastic Cycling League a few years ago is helping take the sport coast to coast. Two leagues now exist in California as well as ones in Washington, Minnesota, Texas, Utah and Colorado, with many more vying to join.
When Kirby’s team started in 2007, you could count the number of kids on one hand. Now with a few dozen riders, Kirby’s been catapulted into Division One. That’s a noticeable percentage for a school of about 200. Head Coach Adam Haverstock is thrilled.
“I think it goes to show that the kids are having a good time, like this guy right here, Dano,” Haverstock said. “He started with me in 7th grade, and now here he is as a sophomore and he is one of my top dogs. He’s been with it when he was scared of his own shadow.”
Sophomore Dano (Dan Pederson) agrees. “Oh yea, this is going to be a lifelong thing. I caught the bug, the cycling bug,” he said. “This is a great sport for everyone. Anyone can get into it!”
Though the cycling league supports high school racers, Kirby includes grades 6-12. Their roster includes four middle school riders–perhaps to their distinct advantage.
“When they come rolling for freshman year,” Haverstock explains, “They already have a year or two in the incubator, and are not as behind the eight ball. It’s not as new and scary.”
Equipment, race fees, gear maintenance, and travel turn this into a hefty investment, but crucial parent and community sponsor support keep things rolling. Enthusiasm from Kirby parents is evident–some even brought their remote-controlled airplane for aerial footage of the kids riding. Haverstock said a good ratio of kids to coaches makes riding safe.
“It’s not your average ordinary sport. You are not in a gymnasium where if you are feeling tired, you can just go sit against the wall and say, ‘Coach I need a sub!’” he said. “We are miles out in the dirt. We are out in nature. If it starts raining, you better have your rain slicker with you. You better have your gloves with you because your handlebar gets slippery.”
Once the school realizes that mountain biking is not a fringe sport, but requires an extraordinary level of endurance, skill and commitment, the club gains traction. Recruiting girls is a big part of this sport and scoring is set up so you can’t do well without them.
“We’ve found it’s much more effective to recruit two girls, two friends,” Hauswald explained. “You will have more likelihood that she will come to practice, or even come to a meeting if she has a friend that comes with her.”
Once Kirby student J.J. Anderson started three years ago, she was hooked.
“My first year was definitely a challenge, and I just fell in love with the sport,” Anderson said. “I really wanted to do better at it. Every race I am competing for myself, but I’m also competing for the team.”
At the south end of Monterey Bay a rival high school team gathers for practice. Mike Cerna has been assistant coach for the Salinas High School Cowboys since its inception five years ago. In fact, it was his son that helped start the team. Now Cerna’s daughter races for the girl’s varsity.
“It’s been great watching the team grow from the very beginning up to where it is right now,” said Cerna. “And I think where it is right now, we are in a really good place,”
Jim Warwick, another assistant coach agrees.
“I think the best part of this is our girls. This is our biggest group of girls we have ever had, and they are scoring for us big time,” he said.
Aside from being Monterey County’s only high school cycling team the Cowboys also have Bryan Duke, the number one varsity rider in the NorCal league. As a freshman, Duke hoped to just finish a race, now as a senior, he’s placing seconds below the top in national races like the Sea Otter Classic held each spring at Laguna Seca Raceway. But that is something he never expected.
“The first time I raced varsity, I didn’t know if I was going to be in the top ten or finish dead last,” Duke said. “And I actually ended up winning the first race. It just kind of hit me there.”
Most, like Duke will continue racing beyond high school. The coaches want the kids to enjoy the sport, and Kirby’s Haverstock notices what a fun environment can foster.
“Kids in the other sports see all the smiles they see the gear, they see us leaving every day at 4 o’clock hooting and hollering and heading for the singletrack and the trails,” he said. “I just think there is an excitement to mountain biking and to the team that has permeated the school.”
That excitement is palpable and, clearly, encouragement from coaches keeps these kids peddling… though having a sweet bike probably doesn’t hurt, either.
(Update – May 9, 2012) Over this past weekend, Jacob Albrecht from Santa Cruz Composite (junior cycling team without a high school-based team) won the Nor Cal Championships, beating Bryan Duke’s time by two seconds. Santa Cruz county now boasts its first league series champion.