By Dave Harward
Organized mountain bike programs in the high schools will be the latest sport to debut for Utah teenagers. The formation of the Utah High School Cycling League will be announced at Interbike on September 14th. The new mountain bike focused league will start in the fall of 2012 with an anticipated 4-race season. Volunteer coaches are already organizing clubs at schools throughout Utah.
Lori Harward will be the League Director for Utah. She has been working since February with a group of interested individuals to meet the requirements the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) has in place to start a high school cycling league.
“Utah is a great place to start a new NICA League for a number of reasons,” said Matt Fritzinger, the Executive Director of NICA. “The leadership of Lori Harward has been a strong driving force behind getting a league established; she has been working hard since last winter to make it happen,” he continued. “She has also recruited an impressive group of coaches and volunteers.”
Harward said she had thought for a while about how to get more kids involved with cycling. That thought grew in to finding out about NICA and starting the bid process to get a league.
“When we found out about NICA,” said Harward, “we recognized that not only would their program get Utah kids on bikes but had great value in youth development and in impacting the entire community.”
The infrastructure for risk management and coach education and licensing were also appealing.
“NICA’s focus is truly on what is best for kids, which I believe comes from Matt Fritzinger’s teaching background. They demonstrate this care by having the vision of life-long cycling for the kids,” stated Harward.
Finally, she was impressed with the 5 core principles of the organization: Inclusivity, Equality, Strong Body, Strong Mind, and Strong Character.
NICA is making a push to have cycling leagues coast to coast by 2020 and Utah is the latest to come on board. Utah joins leagues in Northern California, Southern California, Washington, Colorado, Texas and Minnesota. The current leagues served 1,100 student athletes in 2011. Fritzinger expects 2,000 in 2012.
NICA was formed in 2009 out of the NorCal League in an effort to bring cycling opportunities to high school aged kids. Fritzinger started a program at Berkeley High School in 2001 and it grew to the NorCal League of over 600 participants. He took the successful model to Southern California and the SoCal League started up in 2009.
Fritzinger, a former math teacher at Berkeley High School, intended to start a road cycling club with kids in his class. However, they chose mountain biking. “A group of student responded to the school bulletin, but they all wanted to ride dirt, so the Berkeley High School Mountain Bike Team was born,” he explained
NICA is a sanctioning body with a focus on high school cycling, and for now specifically mountain biking. NICA offers educational and licensing services for coaches, insurance for both coach and athlete, rules and policies, as well as fundraising services and support to name a few.
High school cycling is expected to explode across the country, according to Fritzinger. “We have been blown away by the enthusiasm for high school mountain biking everywhere we go,” he says. “Anytime we go to a new place, whether it be Iowa, North Carolina, or Vermont, the enthusiasm is mind blowing. It’s very reassuring to me and to NICA that our model can work all over the country.”
Utah local mountain bike and cyclocross star Bart Gillespie is excited that mountain biking will be an option for high schoolers. “I used to daydream about having a highschool mountain biking program. I figured it would be just like crosscountry but way more fun,” reminisced Gillespie.
More importantly, he noted how important it would have been to have some direction. “Having an organized program would have been huge for development,” Gillespie noted. “I had tons of enthusiasm and needed someone to reel me in a little. Teach me the importance of rest and help me develop some patience.”
Gillespie plans to be a coach at Olympus High School and he hopes to have an impact on the kids who join the club. He said he hopes to pass along his love for cycling. When asked he said he wants the kids to learn, “a passion for exercising outdoors and exercising for life, how to be prepared, and how to shred!”
As a Physical Therapist, Gillespie knows the importance of healthy living. That’s another reason he wants to be involved at the high school level. He mentioned the amount of chronic health problems related to a lifestyle without exercise.
“The human body was designed for massive amounts of physical work and only thrives if it gets it,” explained Gillespie. “Because we enjoy the luxury of an automated world we need to find fun ways to provide the body with that work. Our recreation needs to be physical and cycling is the perfect lifestyle sport!”
The Utah League needs community support according to Harward. There are many ways to help from volunteering at the events, coaching at your local high school, helping with fundraising or becoming a sponsor. For more information contact Lori at [email protected] or visit utahmtb.org.