NICA high school cycling races have been taking place in five states this fall: Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Tennessee and Utah with a total of 1,795 registered student-athletes participating.
For the Tennessee and Arizona leagues, this is their inaugural race series, and after helping get them both off to successful starts, NICA staff returned to the Berkeley, California headquarters to work on the ongoing process of refining the league development and training processes.
As demand across the nation increases for leagues in the NICA system, fundraising, development and training are high on the agenda.
Interest in forming new leagues is higher than ever. According to NICA's programs director, Lauren Duensing, several groups around the US - many with very impressive experience - have enquired about starting leagues in 2015. The goal of coast-to-coast high school cycling by 2020 is looking ever more attainable.
Although NICA has already recruited and trained 1,000 coaches to serve its leagues and teams, more coaches are always needed and those interested can find more information on the NICA website.
NICA's Booster club is now in full swing, working to raise funds for numerous NICA programs. One of the most funding-intensive of these is inner-city development, where demand is steadily growing among both teams and coaches. "We'd love to lower the barrier to entry for coaches in inner city areas, and if providing scholarships is what it takes to do that, then we will work to provide scholarships. One of the foundation principles of NICA is inclusivity, which means we make our services available to people across the whole economic spectrum," said NICA's executive director, Austin McInerny.
Female participation continues to grow within the NICA ranks, and currently lies in the 20-25% range across the 10 current leagues. With the goal set at 50% female participation, there is both need and opportunity for more female coaches.
On the subject of female success, NICA's California state champion and US national team member Kate Courtney won the Collegiate Division 1 national cross country title at her first attempt, riding for Stanford, and with a new contract to ride for NICA's founding national sponsor Specialized, she joins Hanna Rae Finchamp, riding for Luna Chix, in the pro ranks. All told, NICA female graduates swept the Division 1 cross country podium and also the division 1 omnium overall at the Collegiate National Championships.
Meet the Athlete: Kate Courtney
League: formerly NorCal
Hometown: Kentfield, California
School Team: formerly Branson Bulls, now Stanford University
It seems fair to say that high school mountain biking set California high school student Kate Courtney on a new path in life. "Through cycling I have formed strong relationships with a community of people who share in my love of cycling, and with the travel it has entailed I have gained a lot of independence and confidence which has definitely affected other aspects of my life," she said.
Courtney comes from the small town of Kentfield, California, situated at the very base of Mt Tamalpais, and now in her freshman year at Stanford, she is a former high school student. With multiple league, state, national and international race wins, she has already established herself as one of the most impressive young female talents in cross country mountain biking anywhere in the world.
Yet for her, mountain biking is about more than just racing bikes, and during her high school years, she volunteered as a youth leader with Trips for Kids and for bike trail maintenance projects in her area. The sum of her combined efforts led NICA to name her as the 2012 Trek All-Star Athlete.
As a confident young woman in a male-dominated sport, Courntey has no hesitation in asserting that more women in the sport will improve the future of competitive cycling. While she sees that the number of girls at the start lines of both NICA and non-NICA events is steadily increasing, she also notes that with figures currently in the 20-25% range there is a long way to go until participation is equal.
The tradition of male domination in mountain biking is something she thinks may have led teenage girls to believe there simply wasn't a place for them. Courtney thinks this can be remedied by putting more women into leadership roles, saying, "I think female voices would be particularly helpful in mentoring. I know when I was a freshman, I was the only girl on my high school team and would have loved some female mentorship." To this end, one idea in her mind is to be part of an all-girls pre-ride at some high school races, so girls on male-dominated teams can appreciate the mountain bike world in a female-focused setting.
"Female role models are out there," said Courtney, pointing to Georgia Gould and Lea Davison as important influencers in the sport, "Lea has been a pretty active part of NICA, and I think she serves as a great example of where the sport can take you." The female role models are not only cyclists though. Kate credits NorCal League director Vanessa Hauswald and Redwood High School's coaching director Julia Violich with inspiring her and many other high school girls to get on their bikes and race.
Now a highly accomplished mountain bike athlete, Courtney is already a role model herself, but she recalls that it's only a few short years since her first mountain bike race, a NorCal League event in her high school freshman year. At that time, she was only participating in mountain biking as cross training for cross country running and did not put a great deal of pressure on herself. "I was definitely a little bit intimidated by the older, varsity girls but I raced in the freshman category and was just excited to get out on course. After that race, I was hooked."
From that first race Courtney's desire for cycling grew exponentially. Hungry for more competition, she looked beyond high school league events and joined the Whole Athlete-Specialized cycling team. Her first non-high school league event was the Pro XCT in Fontana, California. She raced in the 15-18 category, competing against girls that were in the Varsity category at NorCal races - giving her a sense of what larger field competitions were like.
In this more advanced field, Courtney didn't place as highly at Fontana as she had in the JV high school races. She remembers the feeling when seeing the fastest riders disappear ahead of her, "I became even more inspired to work hard and race more often in the hopes of eventually being able to compete with the top girls in the Pro XCT races."
There was no shortage of support, both within and outside NICA, for a young rider like Courtney, who was looking for guidance and opportunities to progress. Yet she gives NICA sole credit for getting her, and other teenage girls into the sport and helping them find the path that's right for them. "I am so excited about the role that NICA has been playing in promoting high schoolers to get on mountain bikes. As a freshman in high school, I had ridden mountain bikes before but had no idea that mountain biking could be a competitive sport".
"Without NICA, I may have never discovered my love of mountain bike racing and would not have known how to get involved in racing outside of the high school league. The high school leagues definitely provide a community that is inviting to newcomers and provides the opportunity for seasoned riders to take their racing to the next level."
Having recently won the US collegiate national championship and started on a pro racing contract with the mighty Specialized team, a teenager of Courtney's tender years might be excused for believing the sky's the limit, but no, this teenager has her feet firmly on the ground.
"It's been a long season with a lot of racing and traveling and I have had to learn about "picking my spots" as my dad says. I can't be at every race and travel constantly, so it is important to focus on a few goals and work towards them."