The ending of a highly successful spring season for NICA leagues was followed by a the tally of the numbers revealing that participation in NICA's spring leagues grew from 2012 by an average of over 31%. Participation in all leagues is expected to be close to 3,000 student-athletes this year.
NICA spring league student-athlete participation
New York - first year of operation, so not applicable
Average growth across all spring leagues, +31%
School might be out, but preparations for the fall leagues kept NICA staff occupied throughout June at the Berkeley headquarters in California. Registration has started for the fall leagues which include Colorado, Utah and Minnesota plus the two leagues in their inaugural seasons this year: Arizona and Tennessee. Racing will begin in September.
With more than 800 licensed coaches, NICA's coach education is a huge part of the high school cycling movement. The coach education program stepped up a notch with NICA's first ever advanced coaching clinic, held in Utah and led by Lee McCormack of Lee Likes Bikes. Thanks to Booster Club support, 16 coaches from the nine leagues received sponsorship to attend and instruction was specifically aimed to create a group of licensed skills instructors to help coach new riders to increase awareness and control in a range of common situations.
Summertime is camp time for NICA. The NorCal Camp took place among the redwoods of Mendocino. Guest speakers and riders included Carlos Perez, CEO Bike Monkey, Yuri Hauswald - Gu Energy Labs and Marin Bikes Pro-endurance rider, and Teal Stetson-Lee, pro athlete from Team Luna Chix.
The SoCal camp ran Monday through Friday, June 24-28, with guest speakers journalist Jimmy McIlvain from Mountain Bike Action and Eddie McDonald of Felt Bicycles, and a session with Patrick Kell, the IMBA Southwest regional director.
Promotional efforts stepped up in July with an awareness that US cyclists do not yet know enough about NICA unless they are directly involved. A new advertising campaign named "Shaping the Future" was launched to promote the astonishing array of new talent, both adolescent and adult, coming into the cycling world through the various leagues. NICA executive director, Austin McInerny, said, "We realized that although many cyclists like the general idea of high school mountain bike leagues, not enough are aware of how many great people it takes to make something like this happen, and of the range of important life and cycling skills student-athletes get from a few years in a high school league. The fact that more than 99% say they will be lifelong cyclists speaks volumes about the program. The ads call on ordinary cyclists to join the NICA Booster Club as their way of contributing to the growth of cycling in the US."
The NICA Booster Club has been augmented by the efforts of the recently configured NICA Honorary Board who are working diligently to help expand NICA's reach.
Getting the message out about NICA's positive effect on school students and their families continued through the NICA documentary Singletrack High. Screenings have continued across the US since the February premiere, with the next one scheduled during the Outdoor Retailer Expo in Salt Lake City next week.
Meet the athlete: Taylor Smith
Lives in: Marin County, California
School Team: Marin Catholic High School
Best League Result: Third overall, Varsity, NorCal League 2012
Best Championship result: 2 x 1st place Varsity, California State Championships, 2012 & 2013
After learning of a stable fracture in his fifth lumbar vertebra six weeks before the California state high school championships, the 2013 winner Taylor Smith had reason to think his hopes for the season had been dashed.
"I was getting a lot of lower back pain, and it flared up in the NorCal League races. Since the diagnosis I've been doing physio-therapy, and have ridden three races building up to the state championships," he said at Stafford Lake Park after comfortably retaining his state championship title.
That's right, a year ago Smith, who is now on the Sho-Air/Cannondale North America mountain bike team, won the California high school championships in a three-up sprint. This year he did it by almost a minute.
"This is the first time in 2013 that I've really felt like myself in a race," he said.
With a stated preference for individual sports, Smith found cycling in his 11th year, after six years of taekwondo.
As a mountain bike racing sixth grade student Smith was well aware of the high school league, and by the time he reached eighth grade and became eligible, most of his racing friends were already competing for school teams.
His league result last year was third, showing he has great consistency and an outstanding ability to rise to the occasion for the biggest events.
His first ever mountain bike race was the Sea Otter Classic, in which he placed a creditable 14th in the 14 and under category. This year he started with the pro field. "I was riding with Jeremiah Bishop near the front of the group at the start, then Adam Craig attacked on the first climb and that blew the group apart. I finished somewhere in the 80s," he said. Let's remember though, that race was only a few weeks after the diagnosis of his spinal injury and he was still doing physio-therapy work.
Even though the nation's top junior mountain bikers compete in high school races, the step-up from the high school ranks into pro racing is still quite massive.
"It is a totally different spectrum starting with the pros," says Taylor. "Riders like Jacob Albrecht and I go as hard as we possibly can in a pro field and still finish nowhere. In high school racing, you get some chance to shine and see how it feels to be the top rider at the event."
He is clear about the value of racing mountain bikes in high school. "As a high school sport it's an opportunity for a huge number of kids who don't want to do team sports. It's so competitive in these races now, you can race at any level. High school cycling is the next big step for mountain biking."
As for his years in the NorCal League, "It's been one of the best times of my life. I've learned so much these past few years. The biggest challenge has been putting in more and more hours on the bike. In my freshman year, I could get away with five hours' training a week. Now it's 13 hours. It's been good experience learning to balance my school work and homework, my family and friends, and my training."
The Sho-Air/Cannondale team sponsorship is top of the list of things that have improved his racing life recently, but Smith is quick to thank his parents and local pro rider Mark Weir for all of their support.
This year and next he plans to "put it all on the line. By the time I'm 23, I hope to be in the top under 23 ranks. This year I had a slow start with my injury, but next year I'm going to come out swinging."