By Timithie NORMAN
Head to the Cherry Canyon trail in La Cañada Flintridge on a Thursday afternoon and you might be surprised by what you find. On the fire road between Descanso Gardens and the 2 Freeway, up to 40 high school students – both boys and girls – train for competition in the most recent high school sports phenomenon: mountain bike racing.
Governed by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) and the 28-team SoCal High School Cycling League, teams from Crescenta Valley and St. Francis high schools train from December through May to compete in five races for the season. Qualifying riders are also invited to participate in a state championship event, which was held May 20 in Los Olivos.
“My perception is that kids are less interested in the traditional ball and stick sports,” said Lee Bird, the founding head coach of the 23-man St. Francis cycling team, which just completed its fourth season of competition. “They are more interested in X Games-type sports like skateboarding or biking.”
Many of the students on the team had never participated in a youth sport before giving cycling a try. Bird says at least one student chose St. Francis over another parochial high school specifically because of the cycling team.
“We have a no-cut team,” explained Bird. “As long as you show up and work hard, you’re on the team.”
The Crescenta Valley team is equally inviting, offering any student a chance to participate. There are no requirements to join, and you can even borrow a bicycle for your first season if you don’t have one.
“The NorCal League started high school cycling 10 years ago, and now seven states have leagues with four more on the way,” said Crescenta Valley’s head coach Jim Rowton, who has also seen his team through four seasons. “The goal is to take high school cycling coast to coast by 2020.”
Riding a bike uphill on a dirt path in direct sun isn’t for everyone, but for this growing number of student athletes, it is the perfect way to spend a Saturday morning. Race courses are typically six miles and range from 500 to 800 feet in elevation gain/loss over the course of one lap. Freshman, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity races, as well as boys versus girls races, require a different number of laps to complete the race. And of course, the best time wins.
CV’s Lucas Rowton recently placed seventh at the state championship for varsity boys, the team’s first podium (top five) finish at state.
St. Francis had a break-out year according to Bird, and cheered Austin Hamilton on a fifth place finish in the freshman class and Sean Bird on a fourth place finish in the JV division. Both teams had additional riders finish top 20 in their respective divisions.
In cycling, however, sometimes just finishing a race is reward enough. The state championship races were cut short due to temperatures in the high 90s, and combined with elevation, rough terrain and the simple exhaustion from riding a bike – fast – for sometimes more than an hour, can lead to bodily injury or mechanical problems.
In perhaps the most stringent coach prep program across high school sports, all cycling coaches are required by NICA to attain a nearly 40-hour certification for safety, risk management, wilderness first aid and coaching/leadership before working with any student athlete.
But as with any young organization, there are still kinks to be worked out in the SoCal League management and officiating. For example, teams are coed and Division 1 team scores are compiled using the top eight riders’ finishing times, including times for at least two female athletes. Yet that leaves single-sex teams like St. Francis unable to compete as a team.
“It seems easy for someone else to say ‘just add a girl to the team,’” Bird said. “But it’s not that easy.”
In addition, teams are not yet recognized by the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) or as official sports by the participating high schools. The groups are instead labeled as “clubs” and as such, are required to do all their own fundraising for bikes, jerseys, travel and other expenses. Luckily, the supportive and generous nature of the foothills community has led both the CVHS and St. Francis teams to individual and business sponsors to offset the cost for individual riders.
“You volunteer all your time and money,” Rowton said. “But we love to ride bikes. And this helps them [the kids] realize they can do something strenuous and hard and be fit athletes and enjoy learning great life lessons about perseverance and reaching for goals.”
Bird exhibits this sentiment with his own team.
“One of the things I am most proud about is that in the four years we have raced, we have not gotten a single ‘did-not-finish.’ You can have mechanical issues, you are tired, there are injuries and the races are hard,” he said. “But our team doesn’t quit. They work hard, and first or last, I am so proud of them just finishing.”