NICA experienced a new high with the California High School MTB State Championships, May 19th, when 700 student athletes assembled at Stafford Lake Recreation Area, Novato, just 45 minutes' drive north from downtown San Francisco. It was the biggest event dedicated to high school mountain biking to date in the USA.
The California championship came amid the culmination of NICA spring leagues. Texas had their championship on May 11th, and the New York League's final event will be on June 2.
The New York League got off to a great start on April 27 at Sprain Ridge Park, Yonkers, New York. Hopes are high that this league will tap into the immense cycling energy of New York and grow to rival NorCal for participation figures.
Even amidst the flurry of activities helping newer leagues manage their fledgling events, the greater aim remains clearly in view: providing opportunities coast to coast for high school mountain bike racing by 2020.
NICA has been in conversation with groups in five states that have expressed an interest, and will soon start considering new league applications. The deadline for submissions is June 15. As in past years, the new leagues announcement is planned for Interbike.
May 20th in Healdsburg, California, was launch date for the NICA Booster Club Gran Corsa or "Big Ride" events, the day after the Tour of California. Riders chose 35- or 45-mile options, both of which ended with a gourmet cyclist's lunch prepared by Chef Biju and Dr. Allen Lim, co-authors of The Feed Zone Cookbook and Portables Cookbook.
Meet the Athlete: Hannah Rae Finchamp
Lives in: Altadena, California
School Team: Maranatha High School
Best League Result: 1st place, Varsity Girls, 2012 & 2013, SoCal League
Best Championship result: 1st place California State Championships
Hannah Rae Finchamp handily won her first of two possible attempts at the California High School Mountain Bike Championships in the varsity category. It was straightforward win in the absence of her only real rival in high school racing, NorCal's Kate Courtney, who was away racing in the UCI junior MTB World Cup series opener in Germany.
That is something Finchamp would have understood: Last year she herself had missed the state championships for the ITU OFF-Road Triathlon world championships, where she won the 15-18 age group.
Although only 17, Finchamp already has a clutch of world championship titles, so it is fair to say that she was not exactly over-awed by the day's achievements, but neither did she take the event lightly.
Relaxing in the grass under the willow trees after the race, it was more like she was comfortable in her domain beside the scenic Stafford Lake with racers in other categories flitting by every few seconds. It was only 25 minutes since she had crossed the finish line, but cleaned up and changed into regular clothes it was hard to tell she'd been mountain bike racing at all.
"Today is my biggest high school cycling achievement," she said, putting into context a scholastic cycling career that has seen her take nine out of 10 league events. It would likely have been 10, but she missed the 2013 SoCal series final to compete at a junior elite triathlon in Virginia.
While the winning is evidently important, Finchamp repeatedly refers to community in our conversations.
In October last year she was recruited by the Luna Chix Team as a development athlete, giving her a chance to rub shoulders with some of the world's top pros.
"All the women on that team are seasoned athletes. They have the best advice, and they all love what they're doing. That's the most important thing in being a successful athlete: it's to love what you're doing."
This is the first year of her new high school team, which is coached by Joe Zambrano. "It's a really fun experience to ride with people you've not ridden with before," she says, and gives a shy giggle when asked what the other riders on that team think about having someone of her stature around them. "I think they were surprised by the intensity of racing in the SoCal League. People at these events take it very seriously, the guys and the girls."
Like most of the other athletes in the high school league, she loves the fact that the events are for high school student-athletes only. Comparing the high school events to the triathlons and XTERRA events, she says, "Racing against women my age is intense and competitive because we're all fighting for the same prize."
As to what the high school sporting system can learn from the mountain bike leagues, she is quite forthright.
"It's amazing that it's remained so hidden, yet it's so huge. It's important that we get the word out. Schools tend to put money into other sports, but you can tell from looking around at the level of organization you see in the team camps here that the school teams take this seriously, and it's a matter of opening the school (administrations') eyes and helping them realize this is another way the students can represent their schools."
Hannah Rae began her endurance sport career as a nine-year-old triathlete. "Cycling grew into a passion, I started racing bicycles outside triathlon, and it is my favorite event within the triathlon. As to whether her pro career will be in cycling or triathlon, that is "wherever God leads me," she says.
As to her preference in cycling, she loves the challenges of mountain biking. "Every race brings its own challenge, every course is different. That's why mountain biking is better than road racing. Anything can happen, so you can never stop pedaling. 'Never Give Up' takes it's own meaning in a mountain bike race."
One thing is clear: she can take the punishing schedule of a pro athlete. Already she competes in around 40 events a year. "The best way to train is to race," she states, and it's hard to argue with her results.
Another thing she is clear about is the value of something like bicycle racing to a teenager. "It's a confidence builder. It teaches you where your limits are. As a high schooler you can be insecure, but through cycling you learn you are capable of so much more than you thought on a day-to-day basis. You just have to set your mind to it."
"I would love the opportunity to race for the USA," she says. It seems fair to expect that opportunity will knock in Finchamp's door in the very near future.