The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) is well represented at the 2013 UCI Mountain Bike Worlds in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Seven young men and women, who are current or former NICA student-athletes are members of the US National Team. They include Sean Bennett, Lucas Newcomb and Neilson Powless (junior men cross country); Kaylee Blevins and Kate Courtney (junior women cross country); Shayna Powless (U23 women cross country) and Cole Picchiottino (junior men cross country)
Some of the riders were mountain bikers before their high school racing days while others were not.
Courtney, a junior women's World Cup winner, who is 17 (racing age 18) said, "My experience in NICA was really important. I didn't even start mountain bike racing until my first NorCal race in my freshman year. That was my first race, and I was kind of just doing it as cross training for cross country running, and after that race, I was hooked."
Recently graduated from high school, Courtney explained how her NICA experience both motivated her and helped her when it came to non-NICA races.
"At the time I was racing under NICA, a lot of the top girls in the country were actually in my league, so I got to watch the varsity girls and see that they were competitive on the national level and were having cool opportunities racing internationally. One of my best friends, who was a junior when I was a freshman, made it to Worlds that year and then I kind of set that goal."
Another NICA alumna Shayna Powless agreed with Courtney. "Racing in the high school league is a good stepping stone to get to this world championship kind of level. It helps you prepare to make that jump."
"I think the competition in NICA was good. A good amount of people showed up. The past few years I did it, we got more people out than in previous years. It was growing steadily. I think it's good because when you come to races like this, there are a ton of people. The amount of kids at NorCal races helped me prepare for races like these."
Fellow NorCal League racer, Bennett, 17, said his league is what got him excited about racing. "I've been racing NICA since my freshman year. That's when I got on a bike. My family had a background in racing, but I never raced until my freshman year. My brother got me into it and pushed me toward it."
Bennett noted that consistent participation in the NICA races helped him with his fitness. "They get you prepped for the bigger races. There are a lot of other guys who make the NICA racing nice and hard."
With one more year in both the NICA and junior ranks, Bennett has been impressed with the level of competition at Worlds. "It's a lot harder than NorCal," he said.
Some student athletes like Blevins, who races for the Colorado League, were already well into racing before joining her high school league two years ago.
"I've been in the Durango Devo program since the year before I started middle school, so I've been mountain bike racing for awhile," said the 17-year-old Blevins.
"Any time you get the chance to race is good practice and good experience. The high school races are super fun. It allows for races in which there is not as much pressure. You can just go out there and have a good time. I've met some cool people through the high school league, but it's just a good chance to race against other girls. Sometimes there are bigger fields in the high school races than the races we do in the summer. It's nice practice - racing against those bigger fields."
Shayna's younger brother Neilson Powless, has been competing under NICA since his freshman year. "I was racing mountain bikes, but really mainly triathlons, pretty much my whole life. I just started getting more serious about mountain biking when I started NorCal," he said.
The younger Powless turns 17 in the next week. "The competition at the NorCal races seems to be the best in the country and some of the best in the world. It's good prep for these sorts of races. The distance and time you race in a NICA race is pretty much equal. It's the technicality of the world championship and World Cup races that is a lot more difficult. These Worlds courses are obviously designed for more advanced riders."
Juggling NICA and non-NICA races
It can be difficult to juggle the NICA and non-NICA races for some young riders.
"I kept racing NICA even as I raced more elite junior races. My last year, I had trouble making it to some NICA races. I missed States the last two years, but I made a good amount of the races," said Courtney.
"It's always a hard decision to miss NICA races because if you want to get the overall, you can't miss more than two. So I had some tough choices to make with which races I could and couldn't do. Overall, it's pretty easy to balance NICA and non-NICA races, and they let you pick the races you can come to."
One thing that helped Courtney was dropping other sports once she figured out how much she loved mountain biking.
"My advice is to figure out what you want to do and stick to it. My freshman year, I was trying to do biking and cross country (running) and manage school. Then I figured out my heart was in biking and I decided to focus more on that. If you really want to do biking, you have to commit to it and put everything into it."
Shayna Powless had a similar experience. As she got more into her NICA League and bike racing, she shifted her focus away from her other sports: triathlon and running.
"I competed freshman through senior year in NICA. I did my first mountain bike race at age 4 because my dad was a triathlete and my mom was a runner. They got my brother and I into athletics and biking at a young age. I started out doing most triathlons. My dad was into Ironmans and he enjoyed coaching me and my brother. It wasn't until high school that I started to decide to focus on mountain biking. I had been doing cross country because my mom was a runner and did marathons. I didn't stop running until my senior year, when I focused on just mountain biking."
Powless said that what drew her to the high school mountain bike racing was how much fun it was.
"I met a lot of people at every race and it was fun to see them at the next races. You make good friends through the process. I remember racing with Kate in all the varsity races. It's good to have that camaraderie between all the racers."
Powless advised other high schoolers to focus only on having a good time. "That's the main thing - have fun. it's great if you can get up to a high level, but don't pressure yourself too much - just have fun with it."
Powless is heading into her second season of racing collegiately for UCLA. "I did one collegiate mountain bike race last fall and three to four road races in the spring. I'm going to try to do more - collegiate racing is fun. It's not as developed and competitive as the NICA League, but it's fun."
The final NICA student athlete on this year's team, Newcomb, was not available for comment. He was skipping training to recover from a crash during training the previous day. He damaged some soft tissue in his shoulder, but is still hoping to take to the start.
NICA is for downhillers, too
While NICA races are all cross country style races, Picchiottino has found them to be extremely helpful for his downhill racing.
The 17-year-old soon-to-be high school senior said, "I've always raced cross country. I didn't switch to downhill racing until later on. I still race cross country. It's good to keep me in shape. It's good to have that endurance, especially for longer courses, like this course, on which there is so much pedalling. It helps out with my strengths; pedalling is one of my strengths."
"There aren't a lot of races in the off-season to keep you in shape, and NICA is good for that. To be able to go out and bust out four laps with some of the fastest varsity kids in California is pretty good."
While some of his high school racing colleagues don't have experience in downhilling and can't directly relate to his non-NICA racing, they can appreciate what it might take after chasing him downhill in cross country races.
"Usually when I'm riding the downhills on all the cross country courses, the others realize that there is a bit of a difference between what I do and what they do. That's when they ask questions, but the top five varsity kids definitely have me on the climbing!"
"To be able to race with other kids from all the other different high schools is cool," he said. "They are really the only races that everyone comes to from around your area."