The 2012 National Interscholastic Cycling Association's spring racing season has just begun, which means there is high school mountain bike racing in four states this spring. With another three states holding their series in fall, 2012 will see an increase in participation, events, and locations of over 50% from last year. 2,000 student athletes from over 250 high schools will compete in 31 races in seven leagues.
Old school mountain bikers will recall Jeep as a familiar name at US pro-level mountain biking events during the hey-day in the 1990s, and now NICA is proud to welcome this long-time supporter of mountain biking as its first platinum-level sponsor that manufactures something other than bicycle products. The existing platinum sponsors that Jeep joins are Specialized Bicycle Components, Trek Bicycle Corporation, Easton Foundations, and SRAM.
For climate reasons, the racing season is divided into two parts of the calendar year, depending on the location of the league.
NorCal: February 26-May 20
SoCal: February 26-May 20
Texas: March 11-April 29
Washington: March 25-May 20
Utah: September. 8 - October 20
Colorado: September 9 - October 21
Minnesota: September 9 - October 21
Each of these leagues has its own website, which provides details of each event and posts results and other league information.
Meet the athletes
We caught up with two NICA student-athletes, one of whom, Sean Bennett, is the younger brother of national team member John Bennett. Sean is getting ready for his racing season in Northern California.
The other student-athlete, Ariana Dittmer, was an experienced road and cyclo-cross competitor who thought she knew the cycling world pretty well until she discovered high school mountain biking in the Colorado League, and now she wants other students to experience that too.
Sean Bennett of El Cerrito, California
Sean's older brother, John, was introduced to cycling through the El Cerrito High School mountain bike team. In his four years as a high school student-athlete, John Bennett achieved near-legend status in the NorCal League, and now rides for the California Giant/Specialized team in hopes of following in the footsteps of other NorCal alumni as a full pro rider. Some younger brothers might see that as a hard act to follow, but for Sean Bennett the case is clearly otherwise.
Sean won NorCal's freshman series last year, and finished fourth at the state championships while racing with strep throat. This year he has been granted permission to leapfrog the sophomore category and move up to the junior varsity field, a prospect that leaves him undaunted.
"I've been training really hard during the off-season," he told Cyclingnews. "This year in the NorCal races I'm aiming to keep great form throughout and make the podium every race. I haven't been racing in a couple of months, so I will have to see how I've progressed, but I am very excited to get back to racing."
With his elder brothers John and Chris avidly engaged in mountain biking when he was younger, it was an obvious step for Sean to take up the sport. "I knew my brothers liked mountain biking a lot, and so I did a few rides and thought, 'This is real fun!' so I stuck with it from there. If I had not done mountain biking, I'd probably be running or playing soccer, but I'm loving the cycling. I just love being on a bike!"
According to Sean, this is a prevalent attitude among the El Cerrito High School Mountain Bike Team. "We have a pretty good team, they're all loving it, it's their lifestyle," Sean said.
A little parental support is always appreciated, but Sean's mother went one better than just helping out with the high school team. "My mom started riding when John did. She's pretty good on the climbs, although she takes it easy on the descents," he said, adding, "At the moment we're trying to convince her to get a new mountain bike."
Ariana Dittmer of Golden, Colorado
As a young mother, Carrie Dittmer competed on a Trek grassroots team at NORBA national championship series events back in the 1990 and early 2000s. It was at these events that her very young daughter, Ariana, cut her racing teeth, at age three, riding in the Shimano Youth Series events.
Fast forward a little more than a decade and Ariana Dittmer is now racing mountain bikes for Golden High School in the Colorado High School Cycling League. But as we already know, she came to high school mountain bike competition as a seasoned racer, and it actually took a lot of persuasion to get her to give it a try.
"I didn't want to do it at first," Ariana said. "I was doing a lot of 'cross racing at the time, but in the end I entered a high school event. My first race, the state championship, was not what I was expecting, but it was really fun though. I thought there would be a lot more girls racing in the varsity category, but there were only five of us." That was in 2010, the Colorado League's first year.
Ariana discovered that she enjoyed high school mountain bike racing more than cyclo-cross or road, and saw an opportunity for others to share her new-found sport. "There were a lot of strong riders at my school, and I wanted to be on a team, so I put out the word. I got hold of some teachers at my school and we put a team together. Also, I encouraged some girls to race, and now there are 16 riders on the team, with four girls."
In 2011, the varsity girls field in the Colorado League almost doubled to eight, and in 2012 similar growth is expected.
For school-age cyclists who have yet to discover the fun of high school mountain bike racing Ariana has a clear message: "I would say to them: you have nothing to worry about. The races are really fun and everyone is very supportive. The races are shorter than the non-high school events, and the climbs aren't as tough, which make a nice break from the bigger events."
Ariana is now a senior and will graduate in May, meaning she has completed her time as a rider in the NICA system. But that's not the end of it for her.
"I will keep in touch, I want to be a part of high school racing. This high school league, it's really awesome. There are a lot of great people and sponsors, the events are just great. I've been waiting for something like this to happen for so long. A lot of people need to be inspired by mountain biking. This is a great way to do that for kids, because it's all kids at the events. There are no adults racing there, that's what makes it so different."
In particular she believes this is a sport for girls. "I want to inspire more girls to do it. I want them to know how fun it is and how great it makes them feel," she says.
Last year Ariana gave a talk in a local bike store about her positive experience with high school mountain bike racing.
If you are wondering what it is that motivates school students to spread the word about their sport like this, get out to a high school mountain bike event in your state and you will quickly see why.