And the new league is...Georgia! September is always an exciting month for NICA, with the Interbike bicycle industry show where the new league for the coming year is announced.
The Atlanta-based Georgia league is headed up by Dan Brooks, and very ably supported by 24-hour mountain bike stars Eddie and Namrita O'Dea, of 55Nine Performance, who in recent years have established themselves as prominent sports trainers and nutrition experts in the south east.
NICA's gathering at Interbike also included a meeting of representatives from all 10 leagues to share best practices, discuss issues, and examine the challenges and opportunities that come with being part of a fast-growing national organization.
Only a day after the Georgia announcement in Las Vegas, NICA staff traveled to help launch the Tennessee league, which is run by another accomplished bike racer, Kat Williams.
NICA's executive director, Austin McInerny, said, "It is so encouraging to see people who have raced bicycles at a high level wanting to give back and develop the sport."
Also contributing to the breathlessness in the NICA office was a flurry of attention by large non-cycling publications, most notably Outside Magazine, which ran a feature article on high school cycling, and at the Georgia launch at Interbike, LA Times reporter Roy Wallack showed up after getting the inside track from his nephew who, it just happens, has spent the past year racing on the Berkeley High School team.
"When these really large publications start showing an interest, that's when you know you're really on the way," said Austin McInerny.
Earlier in the summer, NICA student-athletes and alumni accounted for seven of the US national team competing in Pietermaritzberg, South Africa. NICA and its leagues are enormously proud of these athletic stars, one of which - Kaylee Blevins - is featured in this monthly wrap, but at same time the organization sees their achievements as just one of the many great things that happen when school students are put into a hotbed environment and given the room to grow.
Shayna Powless, Lucas Newcomb, Sean Bennett, Neilson Powless, Kate Courtney, Kaylee Blevins, Cole Picchiottino were also members of the US National Team at Worlds.
Meet the athletes
We caught up with US national team member Kaylee Blevins in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, shortly before the 2013 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, to talk about being among the top-ranked junior female mountain bikers in the US, what it's like for teenage girls in mountain biking, and the importance of having a high school cycling program for girls.
Lives in: Durango, Colorado
School Team: Durango High School
Best results: 2012 Colorado League Championships winner; 2013 US national team member; 2012 US Super D champion; 2010 US XC cat. 2 champion
Her mother races triathlons, her father's a keen cyclist and brother Chris shows great promise in competitive cycling. Coming from a family like this, it seems only natural that 2012 Colorado state champion, Kaylee Blevins, is excelling as an endurance athlete.
Her aptitude for sport was evident at an early age growing up in the sports-mad city of Durango, Colorado, and her early high school successes came on the running track and cross country courses. Not surprisingly, her winter program focused on competitive Nordic ski racing.
A distant winner in the 2009 13-14 age group national XC championships, aged 13, a year later Blevins won 15-18 age group in Cat. 2. This inspired her to reach for greater things. "I think I really started to love racing and working on improving more seriously around that time. But I would say the past three years have really been a time when I've just loved riding and racing my bike more each time I do it," said Blevins.
Although an accomplished cyclist before her high school years, Blevins welcomes the Colorado High School Cycling League events. "High school racing is more laid back for me, there is less pressure than some of the bigger races I have done. They are always very fun environments, it's cool to be racing with so many other girls from around the state."
Importantly, she gets that it's a sport that people can enjoy at every level, saying, "I think it has really made me appreciate how anyone can enjoy cycling's benefits, whether it's a first-time racer, or a seasoned veteran. I really would like to see the high school league grow, with more girls finding a love for the sport."
The problem, she says, lies in lack of awareness and misperceptions of cycling among teenage girls. Yet she is confident there are ways to get past these issues. "I think girls don't really know that much about mountain biking. Since the sport's popularity in high school has just started to really take off the past few years, girls might just not realize that they could participate. I think that some of the preconceived notions about its difficulty are intimidating. I encourage girls at my school to try the league, and what I do with DEVO's publicity also helps young women to start riding."
Despite a brace of national championship titles in enduro-style racing, Blevins admits to initially being scared by the more technical aspects of mountain biking. And despite making great progress since her first mountain bike races, Blevins still sees room for improvement. "Challenges I face now are racing at a higher level and doing my best to work on technical skills for some of the more challenging courses as well as trying to balance school and racing and training, it can be pretty tough."
Asked what she would would have said if someone had told her four years ago that she would be representing the USA at a world championship in South Africa, she said, "I would be hoping to see a lion or giraffe on my trip! It's been an extremely fun trip so far. Today we went on a jungle canopy zip lining tour, saw a huge waterfall, and went to a nature reserve and got within feet of zebras."
With the experienced leadership of USA Cycling's mountain bike team manager Marc Gullickson at the Worlds, Blevins was clear about her objectives at Pietermartizburg. "I am hoping to learn more about racing at this level, to further improve my performances, and I just really want to really take it all in. It's not everyday that you're surrounded by the best mountain bike racers in the world."
Already a four-year veteran of mountain bike racing, Blevins sees her path as just beginning. "I would really like to achieve a further appreciation for the sport, and continue enjoying every moment I'm on the bike whether I'm racing or just riding. I hope to compete for as long as I want to, and as seriously as I want to, while still maintaining a love for riding."
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