Since arriving on the cycling scene in the 1970s, mountain biking has opened up new places to ride, new ways to ride, and new technologies that create even more possibilities. This sport that we cyclists hold dear, that enables us to make our livings and make our mark, has become entwined in the lives not only of dyed-in-the-wool cyclists, but also everyday folks who are as likely to play football or basketball on the weekends as ride a bike. Mountain biking has become a popular recreational pastime for hard-core cyclists and families alike. It has come of age.

Take, for example, NICA, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, a non-profit based in Berkeley, California NICA exists to develop young cyclists, to teach technical cycling skills, as well as to promote teamwork and respect for community and environment. Though existing racing series offer age categories for high school-aged racers, such categories typically see fewer than a dozen competitors. The youth who show up typically don’t know each other, and don’t come based on where they live or what high school they attend—they’re just coming to race because a race is offered. NICA organizes high-school-only races that allow youth teams to compete against each other in a league; these races bring families and school communities into
the fold as well.

“The students like racing against other students their own age, not being mixed in with much older or more experienced racers,” says Gary Sjoquist (pronounced SHO-quist), QBP’s bicycle advocacy director. “Additionally, NICA draws a more diverse crowd to these races, including female racers and a much wider range of ethnicities. This kind of diversity is important for the cycling industry, which traditionally is old, white, and male.”

NICA is funded by a combination of foundation grants and national sponsorships. As a grant sponsor, QBP’s involvement with NICA runs deeper than mere dollars, says Sjoquist, who works to promote bicycles and ways people interact with them at all levels. Solquist’s job ranges from lobbying the federal government to working with individual cities, towns, and community groups to develop bicycling education and infrastructure. One of his many accomplishments in these efforts has been to help NICA develop the Minnesota High School Cycling League.

“Right now, I’m working around the state to help form new teams,” says Sjoquist. Minnesota’s league has seen impressive growth. It had 155 racers on 15 teams its first year. This year, its third year, Sjoquist estimates 425 racers on 40 teams.

Perhaps the most lasting measure of NICA’s impact is its effect on the families involved. “NICA literally creates cycling families,” says Sjoquist. “Twenty percent of the students participating in the Minnesota League are new to cycling. But through their involvement, they often bring their parents into cycling as a way to share the activity.”

“Since our son Brandan started with the Minnesota High School Cycling League, we have learned a lot about a sport we knew nothing about,” says parent Tom Eisma. “Brandan says that mountain biking is a stress reliever for him. It keeps him active and outdoors, which is something he really enjoys. Furthermore, our family has found a new activity that we all enjoy. Brandan’s brother and I have both joined in on the mountain biking bandwagon. We go on mountain biking excursions including many trails around Minneapolis, and Brandan has researched and helped arrange trips to Cuyuna, Fruita, Moab, and Telluride. This has led to some great experiences for all of us.”

Dan Ball’s daughter also races in Minnesota’s NICA league. “Before biking, my daughter lacked self confidence, had typical tween/teen girl drama and the like,” says Ball. “In the last couple years of biking, she has not only gained confidence, but gained an interest in physical activity and exercise.”

Another parent, Bonnie Finnerty, was a casual mountain biker herself who had started taking her kids to Cuyuna when the trails first opened. But it was when her family got involved with NICA that things really took off. “My husband signed up to be a ride leader and we would all go to the practices together,” Finnerty says. “Most of the races were out of town so we had a lot of time in the car and during the races to bond with our kids, as an entire family. Not only has mountain biking through NICA brought our family closer together, it has strengthened my husband’s and my marriage. We finally have something that we can do together.”

Clearly, NICA is making an impact, one that results in positive experiences for racers, their families, and their schools.

“For the schools, NICA provides a new way for students who traditionally don’t engage in team sports to become productive members of a cycling team,” explains Sjoquist. “No one gets cut, so all contribute to the team’s success. And since it’s not an official school sport yet, cycling doesn’t cost the school anything. All liability and costs are shared between NICA, the Minnesota League, and the racers.”

NICA’s success also benefits local shops—and local ridership in general. Ultimately what NICA does is solidify mountain biking as a way of life. It builds the structure by which people earn their wings, and in so doing it helps create the future of cycling. It doesn’t take much to see that’s good for all of us.

NICA develops high school mountain biking programs for student-athletes across the United States. It focuses on skills development, excellence, teamwork, professionalism and respect for the community and the environment. To find out more about NICA, visit their website: www.nationalmtb.org.

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