By Michael Schwalbe
Sometimes it’s what you don’t see that stands out.
On a cool November morning under an overcast sky, eight middle-school kids and one high-schooler straddled mountain bikes at the edge of the woods, waiting for the ride to begin. After ten minutes, the kids were getting antsy. When a coach called the group together to hear instructions, it struck me what was missing: not one young rider had been gazing into a cell phone.
The eight riders and eleven adult coaches, also on bikes, were gathered at the Brumley Forest Nature Preserve for a “try-it-out ride” organized by the North Carolina Interscholastic Cycling League (NCICL), a constituent league of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).
NICA, founded in 2009, describes itself as a youth development organization that promotes cross-country mountain bike racing for student-athletes in grades 6 through 12. Today, there are 32 leagues in 29 states, over 25,000 student-athletes, and over 14,000 licensed coaches. In North Carolina, there are 64 registered teams, 550 coaches, 899 student-athletes, and about 15 teams in the Triangle area. About 20% of the student-athletes are girls.
The North Carolina league is now in its pre-season. Rider registration began on October 1 and runs through January 21, 2024. December is devoted to core skills workshops for new and returning riders. January sees the start of a three-times-per-week practice schedule. The race season begins in March and runs into early June.
Races are divided into categories for boys and girls and further divided by age and ability level. All riders on a team contribute to the team’s score. No one sits on the bench.
But racing is entirely optional. About 40% of kids participating in the league don’t race. “The focus is really on getting kids on bikes,” coach Kris Novak said, “and doing it in a safe, equitable, and respectful way. It’s not just going out and tearing through the woods. Developing character is a key part of all this.”
Sheila Dalton, a parent of two student-athletes, echoed the point. “It’s not just about who’s the fastest or who’s going to beat which team,” she said. “It’s really about helping kids stay positive, have fun, and be strong.”
Those who don’t race can participate in other ways. “They can cheer for their teammates, write encouragement notes, help set up tents, or hand out snacks,” Dalton told me. “There are many ways to be involved. That’s a real strength of NICA.” The league also recently began offering an adventure option to get kids outside—on mountain bikes, of course—and explore new trails.
Another non-racing program is called GRiT— short for Girls Riding Together. GRiT is for female riders and coaches who participate in the league. As NICA describes it, the GRiT program aims to help young women “build confidence and empowerment through off-road riding.”
Julianna Brinson, who is a team director, coach, and parent of two student-athletes, said that GRiT is a way for girls to support each other and build solidarity. “GRiT is a place where girls can feel they belong and are valued,” Brinson said. “That can be hard if it turns out you’re the only girl in a group.”
All coaches go through a training and licensing process overseen by NICA. Training includes safety and risk management, abuse awareness, NICA philosophy, bike skills, and, at higher licensing levels, CPR and wilderness first aid. NICA also requires at least one coach per six riders (or two coaches per eight) whenever a group heads out on the trail.
“The coaches are just incredible,” Dalton said. “The best word to describe them is ‘supportive’—they’re 100% supportive, and that makes a huge difference in kids’ development.”
What do the kids say?
I asked Eli Novak, a McDougle seventh-grader and son of coach Kris Novak, what he liked best about the sport. “I like it that everybody makes the team,” he told me. “Everybody’s on the team no matter what. Everybody can connect. Even if people are on other teams, everybody’s still cheering for everybody else, and you can get a really great community out of that.”
Another young rider, Wilson Barry, a Culbreth seventh-grader and son of coach Bill Barry, said it’s just plain fun. More fun than road biking? “Yeah, because it’s more interactive,” he said. “With road biking you’re just biking; with mountain biking you’re avoiding obstacles and doing jumps and stuff.”
Wilson also said the group aspect of the sport helps riders improve. “We usually ride in a group, and on the trail we talk about how to avoid obstacles or go over them in races and go faster. And then after the practices we talk about what we did, what our favorite part of the practice was, and just how practice was in general.”
One coach called this post-ride ritual a reflection circle. Rather than end a session abruptly, coaches encourage riders to talk about what they learned during practice, the skills they need to work on, and the accomplishments of their teammates.
I asked parents of student-athletes what they would say to other parents who might like to get their kids involved.
“I would say the league is transformative,” Brinson told me. “Some of the young riders are kind of wobbly at the beginning, but then their skills grow so that by the end of the season, we can barely keep up with them. We see them come out of their shells and gain confidence. We see them grow as people.”
Kris Novak’s answer ran along the same track. “It’s really rewarding to see not just your own kid but other kids develop by overcoming challenges. Getting to see this progress in young student-athletes, especially middle-schoolers, is inspiring and a lot of fun—not to mention that you get exercise and get to be outside as well.” As another coach put it, “This is an activity that offers a ton of opportunities to beam with pride.”
Other parents cited the camaraderie fostered by the sport. “You’re not just standing around watching your kid race,” Dalton said. “You meet the parents of your kids’ friends and you find that everyone is supporting each other’s kids. It’s really a wonderful opportunity to build community.”
The student-athlete registration fee is $240 for the season, and there is a $35 entry fee for each of the five races. Riders also need a bike, helmet, and accessories. But NCICL doesn’t want to see anyone deterred from participating. Scholarships are available if costs are an issue. League members also receive NICA discounts from retailers.
As the student-athletes pedaled into the woods for the try-it-out ride, a coach standing next to me nodded at the departing group and remarked that I should have brought my bike and ridden along. I demurred, saying that I didn’t think my ego could take being passed on the trail by a sixth-grader. She just smiled and said, “You’d get over that pretty quick. We all had to at one time.”
Michael Schwalbe is a retired professor of sociology and an unretired cyclist. He has lived in Chapel Hill since 1990.