September 2018 - BICYCLING
Banner photo: The R-Cubed Composite team has a lot of depth and finished third in NY League this year. NICA NY
Creating “Little Rippers” and Lifelong Cyclists - Middle/High School Cycling
By Bob Frank
It is often said these days that kids (and adults for that matter) are lonelier, less interested in adventure and outdoor activities, unhealthier, and overall unhappier than previous generations. Whether this is true or not, or a partial result of us being barraged with a constant flow of negative and/or misinformation, I am not sure. But last June as I visited Chenango Valley State Park, I witnessed quite the opposite.
I saw hundreds of kids and families interacting and having fun in a festival type of atmosphere at a beautiful 1,100-acre park located in the Southern Tier. The park includes wetlands, lakes, a river, and most impressively forested areas containing all sorts of wildlife. These woods also contain some of the best mountain bike trails in the region, with tight twisty turns, berms and elevation changes that make you feel like you are on an amusement park ride – without the risk of being at the mercy of a drunken carny.
Simply put, people had come here to ride bikes in the woods, but it was much more than that for sure. The event was the State Championship of the New York League of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. It was the final race of the season and everyone was having an amazing time in a gorgeous outdoor setting.
NICA was formed in California in 2009. It acts as a youth development organization that promotes mountain bike racing for grades 6-12. From its inception they have promoted equality, inclusivity, strong mind, strong body and strong character as their five core values. They have also given middle and high school kids an opportunity to participate in an activity that offers life lessons and personal growth, outside of the “mainstream” sports, affiliated with their state high school athletic associations.
Another major goal is to create lifelong cyclists. Today NICA has almost 800 participating teams and leagues in 22 states. Nearly 30,000 student athletes and more than 10,000 coaches have reflected these core values through their participation in league races, leaders’ summits, and student athlete advocacy programs. While racing is not required, it is encouraged, and is a major part of the overall experience of the league. Most NICA leagues have a 4- or 5- race schedule, held in the spring or fall depending on the regional climate. In New York the races are held in the spring.
The NICA New York League was founded in 2012 by executive director Jason Cairo, with the first race taking place in the spring of 2013. Like the other leagues, the NY league promotes the five core values, and gets its direction from the national organization. In addition, the leagues promote health and fitness in teens and their families, gets kids outside, promotes trail-building efforts and environmental awareness. They also welcome and support diversity in ability, ethnicity, gender, fitness and skill levels. In 2018 there were participants who didn’t race, some that raced in a few events, and several that podiumed at every race, and then competed in the USA Cycling’s Mountain Bike National Championships in West Virginia. In 2018, the NY League had 400-plus student athletes who participated on 30 teams. Independent riders can also participate in races as well.
Teams generally fall into three categories. Official School Club teams are comprised of full-time students representing a single school district. These teams have official school approval and operate like a club and use the school name and mascot. Composite teams are comprised of full-time students from multiple school districts, they also have some of the most colorful names, such as Punks of the Gunks, Galena Growlers, and Long Island Hurricanes to name a few. There can also be Independent teams, which are also comprised of full-time students representing a single school but are not a school club, so they can create their own names and mascot.
With respect to coaching, training and schedules, the teams are required to abide by the NICA standards. Coaches must be trained and receive different levels of certifications. Formal practices cannot exceed three days per week and must be during the race season only. Again, a primary objective is to not burn kids out and to ensure they become life-long cyclists. However, this should not be construed that the races are easy and the kids do not work hard. Many of the top athletes follow strict training routines and are putting in ten-plus hours of training per week. The middle school courses are intermediate and the high school courses are expert level as well. The teams follow similar training routines and schedules.
There is typically a NICA NY Leaders’ Summit held in the fall for new and existing coaches and teams to provide leadership, direction and coaching certification. A major emphasis is put on development of bike handing skills, risk management and safety. This year’s summit is on Sept. 15-16 at Windham Mountain Lodge and Bike Park in Windham. In the fall and early winter, information sessions are held for students and parents of existing team members and for new potential participants that may be interested in joining a team.
Preseason training with indoor spin sessions typically starts in December or January. When the weather breaks, practices then go outside. The primary greater Capital Region training locations include: Gurney Lane Park in Queensbury, North Bethlehem Park near Albany, Luther Forest in Malta, and Central Park in Schenectady. There are also countless other riding venues that the teams and individuals travel to in order to prepare for the official April to June race season.
Competition – Students in grades 6-12 and ages 12-19 can participate. Boys and girls participate separately. At the high school level there are eight boys and girls categories that compete individually: freshmen, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity. Teams also compete against each other using a scoring system. The middle school students compete on a shorter course and are scored individually. The competition is an April to June based training and racing season, corresponding to the school year calendar. There are five races per season in five different locations. The races are always on Sundays so student athletes can pre-ride the courses on Saturday or Sunday morning.
A big upside of the league is their professional-style venues and races. Quality race promotion, timing, course preparation and risk management guarantee every participating students are given a fun and fast environment. These standards result in a very high caliber race atmosphere and experience for the kids. This undoubtedly is one of the reasons for the rapid league expansion in the US. Every year two or three more states are awarded charters, with the newest being in West Virginia, Maryland and Oregon. NICA has seen year-over-year participation increases of nearly 40%.
This past season’s races were located throughout the state: Long Island Sandy XC at Cathedral Pines in Middle Island (cancelled due to weather); Timber Ridge XC at Lippman Park in Wawarsing; Hill Climber XC at Walnut Mountain in Liberty; Adirondack XC at Gurney Lane in Queensbury; and NYS Championship Race at Chenango Valley State Park in Chenango Forks.
Local Teams – In the Capital Region there are currently four teams: Niskayuna Junior/High School with athletes primarily from Niskayuna; Mohawk Cycling Team with athletes from the Capital Region (Niskayuna and Mohawk teams were previously HRRT); R-Cubed Composite is comprised of Capital Region athletes; and Grey Ghost Bicycles Team (previously Glens Falls team) with athletes from Queensbury and Glens Falls. Each team has a broad mix of student athletes with varying fitness and skill levels, but what they all share is a high level of enthusiasm for mountain biking, and a love for being part of the team and community.
While racing is not required in the league, it is a major part of the action and is encouraged. In fact, the local teams are loaded with depth and talent. This year at the varsity level, the local teams had five out of the top 10 varsity athletes in the state, including the overall male champion. In addition, there were multiple individual champions and top five place winners in several of the other divisions and categories as well. In parallel, the teams did very well overall as well – Niskayuna won the league championship, R-Cubed finished third, Mohawk was sixth, and Grey Ghost in their inaugural season finished a respectable 13th. For sure our local teams are loaded with little rippers, and while they compete hard against one another, many of the kids are very close friends – and are all part of the broader cycling community.
In 2017 there were nearly eight million kids participating in high school sports. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these kids will never play these sports again upon graduating. One of the primary goals of NICA is to change this dynamic by creating lifetime cyclists. The rapidly increasing numbers and the large smiles on the faces of the parents and kids at the practices, races and events would suggest that they are starting to see signs of achieving these goals!
If you are interested in joining in on the fun, learning more about the league, starting a team or participating on a team, here are the primary contacts: NICA (nationalmtb.org or #morekidsonbikes); NICA: NY League (newyorkmtb.org) director, Jason Cairo (email@example.com); Niskayuna and Mohawk teams (Facebook: “Niskayuna & Mohawk MTB Teams”) head coach, Andrew Rizzi (firstname.lastname@example.org); R-Cubed Composite Team (rcubednica.com) head coach, Rich Tortorici (rcubedNICA@gmail.com); and Grey Ghost Bicycles Team (facebook.com/greyghostbicycles) head coach, Jerry Hicks (email@example.com).
Upstate New York has enough kids to add more teams, maybe in Clifton Park or Saratoga Springs, or in your town? I hope to see you out there!
Bob Frank (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Niskayuna. He’s an assistant coach for the Niskayuna and Mohawk teams. Bob is a lifetime cyclist and enjoys many outdoor activities.