On October 6, in the shadow of the newest high speed chairlift at Bogus Basin, more than 1,000 kids pedaled their way up and down the morningstar run competing in the fifth annual interscholastic mountain biking state championships.
“When you finally get to the top of a hill,” said 17-year old Paige Rowland of Sage International School, “it’s just so cool to look back and see how far you’ve come. It’s got this feeling of accomplishment to it.”
Competitive races are the featured event, but riders are not required to race — and many don’t.
“It’s going to be hard, but you’re going to have fun,” sais 16-year old Hayden Wilson. He’s been riding since 8th grade, and rides for now two-time state champion Wood River High School.
“You don’t have to win, you don’t have to be the fastest. You can just come out here and have a good time.”
The good times officially began in Idaho in 2015. Eddie Freyer moved to the Gem state from Alabama, joining forces with a local named Dylan Gradhandt to help a fledgling group of cycling enthusiasts start a state NICA league; the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, established in 2009 by riders in California.
In its first year, Idaho’s league had fewer than 250 kids.
“We’ve averaged between 20-25% growth each year,” Freyer said. He assumed full control of the Idaho league a few years ago.
“We now, in our fifth year, have over 1,000 kids participating. There’s no benchwarmers, there’s no tryouts to be on a team. If a student-athlete wants to come out and participate, they are going to be able to participate,” he said.
Over and over, kids and coaches alike called that inclusivity important. In some cases, club mountain biking teams are pulling kids' attention away from team sports where they might not have seen the playing field. That was the case for Carolyn Park’s son. He played soccer and rode in the cycling league as a middle schooler.
“Our son said, ‘I don’t want to play soccer anymore, I want to mountain bike,’ and we said, 'Yes!'” Park explained. “With biking, he got a lot more out of it, and we as coaches; it was a family activity that we could do versus standing on the sidelines.”
The family participation is one of the most noticeable differences between cycling and team sports. Many cycling teams have one volunteer coach for every two or three riders. Park is now the team director at Boise High. She leads 121 kids and nearly 70 coaches — most of them team parents.
“We put coaches with their ability,” she said, “because there’s always a student which matches your ability. You’re not always coaching your child, which is a good thing.”
“We just want kids on bikes,” said Brandon Hampton, coach of the Timberline High School team.
“One thing we struggle with, is keeping our kids on the team,” he said. “Once you get into high school and become a junior or senior, there’s a lot of other opportunities you can focus on.”
Overall, the Idaho league is split nearly 50-50 between middle school and high school-aged riders.
Hampton said Timberline has been successful in hooking those kids and retaining them on the team through graduation.
Costs are a concern. Unlike traditional school-sanctioned sports like swimming or football, club sports are fully self-funded. Teams recruit sponsors, and Freyer says there are scholarships available to help students of all incomes participate.
The league plans to grow some of its non-competitive programs, adding adventure rides and traial clean-up events next season. And the league has a group focused on growing female ridership as well — which is currently less than a quarter of participants. And while Freyer doesn't think the 20% annual growth is sustainable, he knows of at least two new teams forming in southern Idaho next year, and every existing team expects to add riders next year as well.
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