By Sal Ruibal
I live a few blocks from a county high school and see the kids heading to class and back home nearly every school day. It really pains me that very few of them ride bikes.
Freshmen and sophomores who don't have friends with cars walk or get a ride from their parents.
I see a few skateboarders once in a while, but once the leaves drop and the streets get mushy, they're walking. In the next few years, I hope that we have a mountain bike team there. Northern Virginia has a great trails network and there's an IMBA-designed race course less than two miles from the school.
All this makes me think about what we'll need to do to recruit high school kids for organized mountain bike racing teams. Note that I said, "organized."
Organization and mountain biking are often oxymoronic. Our outlaw roots and code of self-sufficiency doesn't mix well with authority.
Mountain bike race leagues, such as the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, are based on rules and rules tend to chap our collective asses. That said, I have met a lot of kids who ride bikes and haven't met many who were total jerks. Maybe their parents were jerks, but the kids are always polite and well-behaved. Maybe a little too well-behaved in an Eddie Haskell sort of way (kids can Google that name).
So, I've been thinking while I see these young men and women march to and from school that I need to start recruiting some of these kids soon. There are a few already competing and they'll be the core, but the goal of NICA is to be inclusive, to get all skill levels and genders in the mix. The common element is, "Does this person have the mountain bike spirit?"
The first group of kids I'd want are the ones already riding their bikes to school. Way back in 1971, I was embarrassed to ride my bike to high school, but one year later in college, biking in Boulder was way cool and still is. Any kid who willingly rides a bike to high school has to love the bike. They know the freedom it brings and the responsibilities, too. Any kid who works on his/her own bike goes to the top of the list. This group gets it.
The second group would be cross-country runners. Trail running and MTB riding are very similar, especially around here, where it's not just jogging around the golf course. Another plus is that both sports are individual and group oriented. The team can't win with just one star and the rest gazing at his/her majesty as they run away from the pack.
The next would be academic high-achievers. With great intellect comes great pressure. SAT scores, college selection, honors classes, etc. Having an athletic pursuit in addition to academics is an edge. It is also a pressure-release valve. Good students are also good thinkers and the NICA model asks a lot of its riders, especially in organizing races and other events.
The best steel also includes some junkyard scrap and I'm always on the lookout at the skate park for the scrappy little guy or girl who won't take a crash for an answer. Toughness and an unwillingness to give up is what wins races. The only size that matters is the size of your heart.
The last group is the toughest to reach, but one that also reaches across several other categories: The Outsiders. The Outsiders are the kids, mostly immigrants or transients, who see school as a government-mandated waystation before they hit the hardscrabble road that their parents and grandparents have been travelling. They have bikes because it's work transportation, too. Every day Dad rides a bike six miles each way to flip burgers or mow lawns. Mom walks 10 blocks to the Safeway and carries everything home. They ride a bike to clean up your mess at the McDonald's parking lot.
Even a few hours to train every week takes them away from making money for the family. But by including them, even if just for one race, one time, they are on the same team as their school peers. Something like that could change a person's life forever.
That's the mountain bike spirit.
That's the team that I want.