By: Cindy Abbott Wood, IMBA Level 2 MTB Instructor
Growing up in Austin, Texas, I never had the opportunity to race a mountain bike on behalf of my school, nonetheless even realize that riding one was cool! If you'd have asked me 10 years ago if mountain bike racing was a viable option for high school and middle school sports, I would have said “heck no” because this incredible sport had not yet infiltrated our Austin community.
However now, with the help of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA for short), and visionaries like our league founder Vance McMurry, we're over 525 student athletes strong in our Texas High School Mountain Bike League. In fact, in the 4 years following the inception of the league, we have seen consistent 50% growth in race registrations per year, which is a testament to the true success of mountain biking as a competitive sport for youth. Although these numbers are staggering, the real value lies in the benefits mountain bike racing provides for our kids.
Photo: Texas High School Mountain Bike League
I can start with some personal anecdotes from my experience as a High School mountain bike team coach, and private coach. I am a mountain bike coach for a small private school in Austin, the only private school in the Texas High School mountain bike league, and one of the founding teams of the league. I come from a long history of amateur professional and professional cross-country (XC) mountain bike racing, and wanted to be done with my personal XC mountain bike racing career for good. That's when I was asked to come on-board as the mountain bike coach for St. Stephen's Episcopal School, and felt it was the perfect opportunity for me to give back to the sport that has given so much to me.
In my first year as coach, I helped our team to a 2nd place finish in State, with just 12 kids competing against teams of over 100! This was certainly due to the kids' perseverance, determination, and lasting passion for mountain biking.I have seen kids come to our team barely being able to ride a bike, and scared out of their minds, but by the end of their high school career they have a cycling scholarship to college. It's truly amazing! Mountain bike racing builds confidence, strength, perseverance, and resilience in a world where kids are filled with uncertainty and lack of confidence.
This photo was taken after our team got second at our championship race in 2015. This was one of my favorite races and I absolutely adored my team of girls – they were a blast!
The teamwork, camaraderie, and positivity at our Texas High School Mountain Bike League races is something to be admired, and can really be lacking in other traditional competitive sports. I have parents come up to me at nearly every race saying how they wished they could have had mountain bike racing when they were in school, and love how nontraditional it is for their kids.
Mountain biking is a sport that attracts a lot of kids who may not feel like they fit in to the role of traditional team sports. It is incredibly welcoming, and although expensive, our League teams will always find a bike and a way for a kid who may not be able to participate due to cost. Our mountain bike league has had life-changing impacts for many families, where kids are empowering their parents and siblings to live healthier lives and even pick up a mountain bike to give racing a shot.It's a family affair for sure, and I am constantly motivated by this.
Getting the kids up and moving on race day after camping.
It's also worth noting that there are few youth sports in our society that encourage co-ed bonding, and I feel this is a valuable experience for the kids. We have a sport where the girls are just as competitive as the guys; they learn from each other, push each other in practice and learn to accept each other's strengths and weaknesses. We certainly do have a disparity in girl vs. guy race participation, but it is definitely a personal goal of mine to increase our female participation, and empower girls to realize that mountain biking isn't scary, but fun!
Being able to come together and share the common passion of mountain biking with these kids is inspiring, and our student athletes have certainly made a lasting impression on my heart. Some thought high school mountain bike racing was a passing fad, but our many thriving high school mountain bike leagues across the country have proven that it is certainly here to stay. I am looking forward to many more years of involvement in this league, and am excited to see the hundreds of new faces impacted by mountain biking!
For more information on leagues in your town, or starting your own league, visit http://www.nationalmtb.org.
St. Stephen's Episcopal School High School Mountain Bike Team with coaches, including Cindy – pictured bottom right.