Cyclingnews profiles two National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) athletes each month during the Spring and Fall high school league seasons. This month, meet Brian Duke and Hannah Rae Finchamp, both from California.
"NorCal was really the start of mountain biking for me. I started riding with the Salinas High team as a guest when I was in junior high. Once I saw how the team operated and the size of each NorCal event, I was hooked."
Those are the words of Salina High senior Bryan Duke, who is in his final year of racing in the NorCal League.
As an 8th grader, Bryan Duke was so intent on racing in the NorCal League, he even chose Salinas High School over another school that had no mountain bike team. His talent was immediately evident to the team's head coach, Robert Estrella, who noticed his smooth style and the effortless way he flowed over the terrain.
"I remember seeing him race at the local CCCX race and watched him beat most all the adults as an 8th grader," said Estrella.
Duke entered the NorCal League as a freshman, and at Estrella's request he had special dispensation to race at the junior varsity level. As a sophomore he progressed to the varsity racing category where he took some wins. Although winning seemingly came easily, Duke was training hard both off road and on, where he has been riding for team VOS.
"Bryan works harder and longer than anyone on the team. When practice is over he rides another hour and then does his homework. He has a 3.8 GPA," said Estrella.
Bad luck is almost as much a factor in mountain biking as talent, and Duke has had his share. At the 2010 state championship, his handlebars came loose while he was leading, and he incurred a five-minute penalty for outside assistance. At the 2011 state championship, a pedal fell off. His team fixed the stripped axle and he decided to continue racing to see if he could set the fastest lap. "After that race his competitors came by and said they were sorry that his pedal fell off. They consoled him, which is something that happens to the nice guys," said Estrella.
Estrella said, "He has been a strong figure in the school team, too. Last year he was club president, and this year he is the secretary. We have him talk to the kids on a consistent basis teaching them bike skills and the how-to of racing. When Bryan speaks the kids listen."
With just one season left in high school racing, Duke said, "I would like to compete at the top level of the varsity class and have a good result at nationals. Next year I plan on attending a four-year college inside California and will race at the collegiate level."
And as for his overall impression of high school mountain bike racing, "It's great to have a race series dedicated to high school students which still brings in the top level of competition. The league brings students into one of the toughest and most rewarding sports offered in high school while still keeping a fun atmosphere."
Hannah Rae Finchamp
Endowed with not just one, but several sporting genes, Hannah Rae Finchamp started competitive sports at age nine, beginning with club soccer, competitive gymnastics and what has become her great sporting passion: triathlon. The mountain biking didn't come until she started high school in 2011.
To Finchamp, already a champion Xterra off-road triathlete, when SoCal League executive director Matt Gunnell got in touch, joining the San Gabriel Valley composite team seemed the sensible option for this sports gourmet.
With a calendar brimming with foot races, swim meets, and some of the 100 triathlons she has completed, Finchamp made it to just two SoCal mountain bike events in the 2011 season. In one of these she recalled, "My seat broke pushing me further back in the results after accepting the time penalty and duct-taping my seat on to finish the race. This year I am able to make it to all of the SoCal races and can only pray for no mishaps."
So far this year, Hannah Rae has taken three wins from three starts in the SoCal High School series. This is hardly a surprise when looking at her 2011 triathlon palmares: first overall female, Escape from Alcatraz triathlon; first, Xterra National Championship (ages 15-19); and first, Xterra World Championship (ages 15-19).
Although triathlon is still number one for Finchamp, she said, "I love mountain biking and many of my favorite triathlons are mountain bike triathlons. The atmosphere of a mountain bike race is like no other, the people are so laid back in person but the start line makes everyone tough as nails."
She gives her club coach, Tom Lockhart, credit for preparing the riders in the San Gabriel Valley composite team for the rigors of mountain bike racing. "He has dedicated so much time to us riders it's unreal, and his efforts have not been in vain. He has produced a group of kids who will be cyclists for life and pretty fast ones at that," she said.
While Finchamp is a top performer, she is in no doubt that all high school girls will get a lot out of mountain biking, if they make a commitment to the sport. "Mountain biking is a fabulous sport for female high schoolers. It does take the willingness to work hard and get dirty, but I think anyone who has tried will admit that the feeling of accomplishment, confidence, and power an individual gets while conquering terrain on their bike is like no other."
As for her own aspirations, Finchamp said, "I would like to continue to improve, getting faster and stronger. This sport has endless opportunities and only the future can tell exactly where they will take me. I just hope to continue to glorify God with my efforts."