Scott Mercier: Future of mountain biking on display Sunday at Snowmass
Special to The Aspen Times
American cycling has been in the doldrums at the international level for over a decade now. However, thanks to the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, that’s begun to change. And change in a big way. NICA was formed in 2009 in Berkeley, California, but it got its roots in 1998 as the Berkeley High School Mountain Bike team. Matt Fritzinger wanted to start a high school road cycling team, but the four kids who showed up to the first practice were all riding mountain bikes, so he decided to make it a mountain bike team instead.
Today, NICA has leagues in 25 states and over 20,000 kids racing. These kids are already making the Yankee presence known at the highest levels of the sport. Kate Courtney, just 23 years old and a recent Stanford graduate, won the 2018 Mountain Bike XC World Championships and the 2019 World Cup title. Sepp Kuss, who got his start with NICA in Durango and who is a CU alumnus, is one of the hottest young riders in the professional peloton. He finished 29th in the Vuelta Espana and won a stage while shepherding teammate, and Vuelta winner, Primoz Roglic through the mountains.
The Colorado High School League is celebrating a “decade of dirt” this year. Co-founder Kate Rau formed the league in Boulder. She hopes that mountain biking will help kids foster healthy habits, become self-sufficient while sharing the outdoors, and strengthen family bonds. And, of course, she wants the kids to have fun and ride fast. And kids from Colorado can ride fast indeed. The U.S. sent 10 athletes to the Jr. Mountain Bike World Championships this year, and six of those athletes are high school kids from the Colorado League!
The Colorado League has grown so rapidly that there are now two conferences — North and South — with 30 programs and 1,400 kids racing bikes. Anything North of I-70 is in the Northern Conference and anything South of I-70 is in the Southern Conference. Seven hundred of these kids will descend on Snowmass Mountain this weekend for the third race of the season. It’s the first time the League has raced in Snowmass.
The kids will race on a 4.8-mile loop with 750 feet of climbing per lap. There will be five waves of racers starting at 8:20 a.m. on Sunday morning. The varsity boys will race four laps starting at 11:20 and the varsity girls will race three laps starting at 11:25. The start/finish is just off the Snowmass Mall by the Skittles gondola. I’ve been told that the winning boy could finish the 20 miles in under 90 minutes!
Needless to say, to put on an event like this it takes an army of volunteers. Help is needed on Friday and Saturday with registration and camping, and on Sunday with course marshalling. Please go to one of the links below if you can help:
The Roaring Fork Valley will be well represented. Glenwood has had a team for years and nearly 50 kids ride and race for Glenwood High. Aspen and Basalt have only had teams for two years. In a unique twist, Aspen and Basalt train and ride together; they’re not rivals, but rather allies!
Aspen will have 12 riders headlined by juniors George Beck, JP Viola and Christian Kelly in the varsity race. Wyatt Balderson, a senior from Basalt, is a Legacy Rider racing with the JV Boys. A Legacy Rider means that he has raced all four years. He started racing even before Basalt had a team. In that time, Wyatt has only missed one race and that was due to an injury.
High School Mountain Bike racing is the very definition of a grass roots sporting movement. NICA is still in its infancy, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see 50,000 kids racing by 2030. We’re just starting to see these kids take on, and beat, the best riders in the world. I have no doubt that a future Olympic Champion and Tour de France winner will have gotten his or her competitive start at an event like the one this Sunday in Snowmass. So, grab your bike, and come watch the future of cycling. At the very least, you’ll see a bunch of kids having a great time on a bike. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He currently works as a senior financial adviser in Aspen and can be reached at email@example.com.