“You are witnessing the future of mountain biking!”
Over and over, heard on the PA echoing across Stafford Lake, and falling from the lips of parents and coaches alike. No one was wrong. Not only were we witnessing the future of mountain bike racing at the High School State Championships, but the future of cycling itself — future road racers and cyclocross heroes, enduro and downhill champions, as well as trail stewards and advocates could all come from the pool of nearly 1000 students that raced in the NICA (National Interscholastic Cycling Association) season’s final event. The Stafford Lake race was especially unique, in that it was the culmination of an annual grudge match between NorCal and SoCal — two of the largest high school mountain biking leagues in the country, making it the largest high school mountain bike race ever held in the history of the fast-growing sport here in the United States.
We’ve joked about how California “starts them young,” but where else in the world could such a perfect storm of bike culture exist? The roots of mountain biking in California are as strong and as deep as they could possibly be, so why wouldn’t it coexist alongside perennial staples like basketball, football, or track? The local film Singletrack High explores this microcosm — it’s a must-watch for anyone who has yet to experience this scholastic phenomenon firsthand.
The race brought about the clash of dozens of teams from all across California, including our very own Sir Francis Drake Pirates out of nearby San Anselmo. It’s impossible to take to the local trails on a weeknight without spotting a green Drake jersey or two mid-ride, which might be tantamount to watching members of the high school basketball team shoot free throws down at the park anywhere else in America. Naturally, our favoritism lies with Drake, as student athletes from our own homes, from the homes of our friends, and even from the Kitsbow office itself (our intern races with the varsity ladies) are all on the Drake MTB team.
It’s no accident that Drake has won more state titles than most people are able to remember, as the school consistently assembles winning teams from a body of exceptionally talented and motivated students, making the team a force to be reckoned with, year after year. Part of that success can be attributed to the hard work of its coaching and support staff, which includes the likes of both Joe Breeze and Otis Guy — two local legends who’ve already earned their place in the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame. It probably also doesn’t hurt that San Anselmo is perfectly situated amidst some of the very best year-round road and mountain biking in the state.
Race day is an exercise in diligent coordination on part parents and coaches who together, divvy up the massive task of feeding and looking after the 30-some athletes at every junction of the race. No detail is overlooked, and no cat un-herded; from guiding rider warm-ups and prepping bikes to manning feed stations and providing refreshments upon each racer’s return. These were the same parents who would later be out on-course, cheering and encouraging their team with all the fervor of Italy’s famed tifosi.
A number of the race categories, including the Sophomore boys, were so large they necessitated sub-categories within the main race to ensure a starting slot for every racer. An emphatic testament to the statewide popularity of the sport, to be sure. But regardless of size, each category stormed out of the start gate, kicking up plumes of dust as they sorted themselves out on the far side of Stafford Lake. Some of the racers were as cunning as the professionals they admire; carefully metering efforts and working together with teammates and rivals to conserve for a breakaway on the last lap. Others, less so — going full-gas right out of the gate and pedaling as though life itself were up for grabs.
The undulating, 5.2 mile course offered plenty of sharp elevation change, as well as opportunities for flat-out speed. But it was the punishing 24% grade Jeep Hill Climb where the day’s podiums would ultimately be decided. When confronting the hill, riders were presented with a crucial tactical decision on each lap: run it or ride it?
We witnessed plenty of heroics from the athletes as they battled leg-busting climbs and the heat of an early Marin summer, but it was the dedication of the parents that we found the most refreshing. It didn’t matter if their child was first or last, they still cheered their support with an incredibly tangible sense of pride — as though the volume of cheering was directly proportionate to the alleviation of suffering. And when shouts of encouragement weren’t enough, a refreshing splash of cold water did the trick. It probably goes without saying, but NICA parents aren’t your everyday soccer moms.
Minutes behind the podium finishers, we watched riders trickle across the finish line in varying degrees of exhaustion — some far more shattered than others. We were reminded in these moments that while there are always team aspects of the sport’s competitive side to be enjoyed, cycling is a deeply personal battle with one’s self where winners and losers alike confront the demons and suffering. Knowing that these kids were fighting and winning these powerful struggles at such a young age was as humbling as it was inspiring.
How old were you the first time you burned through your last match, and still finished? Despite cycling’s tiny place in modern high school sports, the lessons its athletes are afforded are as intrinsic as they are invaluable; because here, there is a competition that extends far beyond even the strongest rival. Irish poet WB Yeats called education “…not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” And what better fire to light than one that instills pride and discipline, and forces each student to look deep within themselves for every last measure of strength?
These kids will be the cogs of a bright future, and not just the future of mountain biking.