The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) is running a new pilot program to include middle schoolers in some of its mountain bike programs, which hitherto, have been only for high school students.
"We've gotten some feedback that by the time kids get to high school, they're already tracked to other sports. They're missing the opportunity to try riding earlier and maybe get into it," said Austin McInerny to Cyclingnews.
"We have seen that many middle schoolers are starting to ride. Some of our bigger high school teams have local middle schools overflowing with kids who want to get on their high school teams."
McInerny said the pilot program is a chance to figure out what works and what doesn't with the younger students and to learn some lessons. When he asked League Directors who was interested in including middle schoolers, Minnesota and Utah volunteered.
"They had parents asking, 'What do I do with my seventh or eighth graders?' Those leagues have started and practices are underway."
McInerny noted that the involvement of middle schoolers will not focus on racing, but about getting them to have fun and enjoy mountain biking. "We don't want to overemphasize the competition side of it. We want it to be fun among their peers first."
The way the program is working, seventh and eighth graders who want to participate can form a club at their middle school. They have to have a coach who has gone through NICA's training. Then, if the high school team and its coach and riders agree, they can allow the middle schoolers to join in one or several practices per week, with a focusing on skills and riding. They'll also start to learn some basic trail-side mechanical skills.
At some race TBD in the middle of the pilot league seasons, middle schoolers will be invited to attend and participate in a race, likely between 45 minutes and one hour long.
"It's a chance to be on same course as the high schoolers and have a race experience. The price for entering will be heavily discounted," said McInerny.
Participation in the middle school league will cost about $40 - the amount needed to cover the insurance for their involvement. We're hoping for 50-70 participants in Minnesota this season. After the season, over the winter, we'll talk to folks there ,and see if we can roll it out more for the next season. It would be a high school feeder program."
McInerny said NICA is taking its time to figure out the middle schooler involvement. "Everything we do focuses on quality. I don't want to grow too fast and lose that. We want to focus on the rider, safety and the family experience."
"We want to figure out the appropriate length of course and time on the course for middle schoolers. We want to go slow now so we can do it right in the future. NICA is only four years old, but I have a feeling in that in a few years you'll see a lot of middle schoolers out there."
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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews. She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.