It is never quiet in the NICA community. With spring and fall season leagues, activities take place 12 months a year. With the fall leagues just having concluded, spring season leagues in NorCal, SoCal, New York and Texas are busy with recruitment, which often has the effect of converting non-cycling families into cycling families. As of December 1, student athletes will start getting into the rhythm of skill acquisition and fitness training, so if not already prepared they will be ready to start racing come spring.
Activity has also been focused on NICA's own version of the Academy Awards. Called simply "The NICA Awards", this is a way to acknowledge and applaud the massive volunteer effort that makes high school cycling a reality each year for more than 3,000 high school students and their families.
The NICA Awards ceremony is a public event, with the gala held on January 25, 2014 at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California.
"We have been impressed by the number of nominations, almost 250 this year," said Austin McInerny, NICA's executive director. "People volunteer a lot of time to make our high school racing leagues happen, so it's encouraging to see how many among the leagues appreciate this enough to actually write us and make a case for somebody in their league to receive an award."
The awards committee comprises representatives from NICA sponsors, and each award is named after a sponsor.
"It was a privilege to learn more about the nominees," said Tim Baker, marketing director of Primal Wear (Race Production Partner award). "There are remarkable individuals making a difference in our communities through cycling and with the help of NICA's mountain biking network you can see this becoming a lasting legacy."
With 11 categories, the NICA awards embrace the gamut of work that is required to produce the leagues: Student leadership and performance, distinguished alumni, extraordinary courage, responsible trail use, coaching, general volunteering, community impact, race production, league founding, and philanthropy.
Deliberations are well underway for the NICA Awards, as is work to prepare the gala event. This year pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop (Team Sho-Air/Cannondale), who was selected as a USADA True Sport ambassador, will be the guest of honor. Details of the awards gala, including ticket sales, will appear very soon at nationalmtb.org
As suggested by the range of categories in the NICA Awards, community activity is a major component of youth development and thus NICA's work, which brings us to Meet the Athletes.
Meet the Athlete: Sean Bird
Hometown: La Canada, California
School Team: St Francis High School
Last year, a group of high school mountain bikers in Southern California, not all of them racing in the high school league, came together under the leadership of junior classmate, Sebouh Bazikian, and formed a charity called Bikes 4 Orphans to provide better mobility for orphans in Africa. As of November 2013, only a year after launching, this charity has raised more than $22,000.
The back story to all this involves Sean Bird, whose family at one time might have believed he was headed for a future in basketball. "Sean was an extremely competitive basketball player, and had reached a high level," said Sean's father, Lee Bird, a former mountain bike racer who joined the SoCal League as a founding board member six years ago and working with Sean's elder brother, Lance, set up a mountain bike team at St Francis High School in La Canada.
Sean got a place on the school basketball team in his freshman year, and continued to participate in several other sports as well. In his earlier youth, he had enjoyed BMX, and with his family connections it seemed natural for him to sign up for the school mountain bike team.
With application and commitment Sean soon enjoyed success as a mountain biker too, and in his sophomore year started to get serious about his racing. But school team basketball and school team mountain biking add up to a lot, and he realized something had to give. "It was difficult to balance the two with a slight overlap in the seasons, but the main reason was simple burnout. At the time it was difficult to give up basketball, but I was supported by my friends, my family and my coaches. That's the kind of school St Francis is, everybody wanted me to do what I thought best, and I'm still friends with the guys on the basketball team. But I am convinced it was the right path to take," said Sean.
According to Lee Bird, Sean has a talent for road cycling as well as mountain biking, and progressed from Cat. 5 to Cat. 3 in just 18 months. His high school mountain bike racing results saw him regularly in the top five of the SoCal League and he is emerging as a precocious talent in 12-hour mountain bike racing - a discipline of the sport typically suited to mature adults with several seasons' racing in their legs.
"He loves the racing, but I think the main thing for Sean is the camaraderie of the team, and this is one of the key things about the NICA system," says Lee Bird.
There's no argument from Sean. "The MTB team is amazing. It's been a wonderful support system for me throughout the years. It's wonderful to see families and friends grow closer during a race weekend," says Sean, who recently experienced the rare joy of competing alongside his father in a race.
"I think there's something about emptying yourself out on the race course that bonds people. I can go out on a group ride and ride with people that are 10 years younger or 50 years older. It doesn't matter, we're all there for the same reason, doing the same thing," he said.
Sean met Sebouh in their Freshman year. Sebouh already rode bikes, but he was inspired by Sean's passion and enthusiasm for cycling. "I have been interested in cycling since freshman year, but it was not until meeting Sean, when I really became committed to this great sport," wrote Sebouh on the Bikes 4 Orphans blog.
Sebouh reached out to Sean in their junior year, a few months after announcing the charity, and asked if he would be the manager and help advocate in the cycling community.
"I was very excited to be asked, and said yes right away," said Sean. "I'm very interested in both cycling and service. The two combined flow extremely well together and none of it is a burden."
The first delivery of 43 bicycles was made in August this year, to Machao Orphanage in Makeuni, Kenya.
"We purchase the bicycles through World Bicycle Relief, they drop them off for us where we ask. World Bicycle Relief gives the best value," he said.
The effort took time to gain momentum, he recalls, "Initially few people knew what the goal was, but since we held a fundraiser in October we've had an overwhelming amount of support. It is touching, and wonderful to see all this generosity. It's not only family and friends. We've been in some newspapers and on TV news, and had some donations from people we don't know. It's great to see that people are willing to help out.
"To be honest I wouldn't say I had extraordinary expectations of the charity. I thought it an intriguing idea, but I can't say I expected to reach this point. And I think there's quite a bit further we can go, and it will continue to go. I am looking forward to the future," says Sean.
Apart from racing bicycles 12 months a year with an eye to a pro contract, and helping manage a successful fledgling charity, Sean is also laying the foundation for what he hopes will be a career in writing. He runs a blog called SeanBirdCycling, which focuses on product reviews.
It is true that cycling has gone through a dark period recently, but with people like Sean smartly positioning himself for a life in the sport is is hard for cyclists not to share his optimism about what the future will bring.