America has a long tradition of highly organised, competitive almost to the point of professionalism, school and young people’s sports. Track and Field, American football, swimming, basketball – many of which dangle the carrot of lucrative (or at least cost saving) college scholarships. In such an environment, and with stakes like your educational opportunities, it’s no wonder that high school sports is big business.
Despite the incentives to excel at high school and college sports, this doesn’t appear to translate into wider levels of participation. Yes, the college sports teams are lauded, and university teams and events enjoy stadium filling crowds many UK Premier Division football teams would be glad of. But those crowds are sucking on their bucket sized cups of fizzy drink and eating their sacks of potato chips as they behold the scenes of athleticism before them. National obesity statistics suggest that the displays of elite excellence aren’t inspiring anyone to get down to the gym – instead it’s a spectacle of entertainment to be witnessed only.
It’s interesting, encouraging and gladdening, then, to hear of the success of NICA, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, established in 2009. Hugely successful at introducing mountain biking to children of high school age, NICA coaches I meet state that mountain biking is the fastest growing high school sport in the US right now. Not only that, but while there is a strong element of competition and racing, the purpose is not to create elite athletes, but to instil ‘the development of strong mind, strong body and strong character’ in the young people.
I’d never heard of this organisation before I happened to bump into a NICA coaches’ training session in a playing field in Idaho. All talked enthusiastically of a supportive race environment, where every rider is cheered across the line, and it’s the taking part that counts. They’re passionate about their subject, and I envy the kids that are getting the benefit of their support and coaching. If participation and growth continue, then the law of averages would surely say that the USA is going to be turning out a healthy crop of decent riders in years to come. And even if those riders aren’t pro, there’s a bunch of them going to grow up to be the kind of riders who keep riding, and buy their own kids mountain bikes. Trek has become heavily involved as a sponsor, and no wonder: brand loyalty from an early age would be a valuable asset. Even for other brands, a boom in the number of potential mountain bike buyers is just what the industry needs.
Could mountain biking be the new football in American high schools? Maybe not quite yet, but if any group is focused on changing the curriculum it is the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). Started by math teacher, Matthew Fritzinger, in Berkeley, California, NICA has been on a crusade for the last six years to incorporate mountain biking into schools as a legitimate option for sports. When the interest grew with the kids in Berkeley they began attending local races, but were discouraged to find no other youth in attendance at that time. Mr. Fritzinger reached out to the race promoters to request high school categories which lead to the creation of NICA and the high school race circuit. Austin McInerny, NICA’s Exectuive Director took over coaching the Berkeley team in 2004 and has had a hand in the growth of NICA which now includes 19 leagues in 18 states – with four new leagues to be announced at Interbike. To date over 6000 students and 2500 coaches have gone through the program.