It's a Monday afternoon in late October, and Whitney Pogue stares out at 159 teenagers assembled in the concrete bleachers of the Andy Ballard Equestrian Center in Draper, Utah. The Salt Lake City suburb is home to the nation's largest high school mountain biking team, two-time defending state champion Corner Canyon (CCHS), and Pogue is the head coach.
Pogue, a 47-year-old mother of four who grew up just north of Draper, in Sandy, has long red curls and is known as ‘Ginger Mama’ by the team, both for her hair and her care. She surveys the buzzing stands in front of her, microphone in hand. "Listen!" she shouts, and necks snap to attention. She spots a pair of whisperers high in the crowd and calls them out. "I can see Ian Cheney talking to Rylie Crandall!"
"Oooooh!" the team giggles.
Pogue blushes and grins. "It's not like that ... as far as I know."
A dozen team captains stand in a line to her left as a scene straight out of “The Price is Right” unfolds. She calls a rider's name and he or she emerges from the crowd to applause, then rushes down the aisle to be hugged by Pogue and the captains. Pogue takes turns with her assistants reading each honoree's achievement from the prior weekend's race.
One kid lost his contacts and still finished. Another was in third place when he got a flat and dropped to 24th, but didn't complain. Another improved his result by 13 spots from the prior race. Assistant coach Rosie Hancey commends a girl who "crashed four times, got a cactus in the face--she should maybe get two stickers for that--and still finished super strong."
Near the end of the feting, Pogue addresses a sticky move. "As we all know, Lone Peak is our rival, and during the race a super awkward situation came up," she says. A Lone Peak athlete thought Corner Canyon rider Zac Barnes' pass late in the race, which vaulted him to the fifth and final podium spot, was overly aggressive. After the race, Lone Peak's coach approached Pogue about it; they got the two boys together, and the boys hashed it out.
Pogue, who makes no secret of her desire to "kick some Lone Peak butt" during practice yet maintains a close friendship with the Knights' coaches, continues into the mic: "I applaud you, Zac, for being courageous and making the move, because that kid would've been fifth if he'd had the courage to make that move."
With that the awards are over, and it is time to ride. Pogue barks into the mic again: "I hope you know what group you're in. If not, you can come ask me and I will kick you in the shins then tell you."
Kids scatter. I join one of the boys groups, with a smattering of varsity and JV riders. There are nine of us--I think. It's hard to tell when 13 dozen kids start riding up a mountain at once.
I have come to Draper to answer a few questions: Is the future of mountain biking mass participation, like what is happening at Corner Canyon and Lone Peak (which, by the way, is the nation's second largest team) and hundreds of other National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) schools? Will everyone someday be former NICA cross-country racers? Is that good? What about the old-school, backyard freestyle way into the sport?
In addition to shadowing Corner Canyon's team, I would also tag along with some of the area's leading young freeriders for a sunset session at I Street, a well-known dirt-jump location perched on a hill above Salt Lake City. The kid who organized that session, a high-flying sophomore named Bradley Jorgensen, happened to be in my practice group.
"As you can imagine, like anything, some people love us and some people can't stand us," Steve Ellis, one of the ride leaders, says at the back of the train. He is talking about imposing such a mass of bodies on a finite trail system multiple days per week. We will see two other teams tonight, not nearly as large, but each contributes to the crowd. This does not include Lone Peak, which accesses the same network from the other side of the mountain and has beaten Corner Canyon in every race this fall. Draper, I will learn, holds a sleeper bounty of single- and doubletrack tucked away in the southern Wasatch, with flow trails, crankable climbs and enough mileage to keep the after-work rider satisfied for years. But it still gets stressed by all the high-school traffic.
After a steady climb maintaining what group leader Steve Saxton calls Zone 3 effort--a prescription for how hard the boys should be riding, on a scale of 1-5--we connect to a trail called Rush, one of the canyon's primary arteries and a ripping descent. We finish at the Draper Cycle Park, a maze of jump lines and pump tracks next to the equestrian center, looking out at the Oquirrh Mountains. As the sun paints the sky orange, I get to talking with Saxton about the Corner Canyon culture--and, by extension, the culture of high-school competition as a whole--that attracts so many kids to cross-country racing. Saxton's son, a 6-foot-2, no-handed-wheelie-popping senior named Seth, is one of the state's top racers and holds more than a few Strava crowns in Draper, yet Saxton's daughter, a junior in her first year on the team, epitomizes what's happening here.
She'd been a dancer all her life when she joined the Chargers last year, with plans to balance her new interest with her old reliable. "She was doing both for three weeks," Saxton says, "then she was like, 'Dad, I don't want to do dance anymore.' I was shocked, man. I couldn't believe she bailed on dance."
For Corner Canyon to practice, 35 adults must show up to volunteer before the normal workday ends. Pogue has a list of roughly 50 ride leaders whom she can call, but filling the roster never ceases to stress her out. "I joke that most people won't even make eye contact with me on the street, because they know I'll rope 'em in for practice," she says.
Pogue was a standout local racer for years and has finished the Leadville 100, among other events farther afield. When she heard about the coming Utah high school league in 2012, she thought, I want a piece of this. Her daughter attended a charter school called Summit Academy, so Pogue started a team there. "We had 18 kids," she recalls. "It was super ghetto." The entire state had only 218 riders that year.
When Corner Canyon High School opened in 2013, Pogue's daughter transferred and she started a team there. (As a club sport, the team receives no funding from the school and coaches are unpaid.) Seventy-five kids signed up that year, launching the team's five-year, ongoing streak as the largest high-school squad in the country.
The roster grew to 125 in 2014, then to 142, then to 155. Last season began with 167 kids on the team, though attrition cut that number by eight. "Of the 159, probably 40 are really high-level cyclists, and the rest are just there to fit in somewhere, and to be a part of something in high school," Pogue says.
Because one of NICA's founding principles is inclusivity, Pogue doesn't turn anybody away. "I often curse it, the I-word," she says. "Because it means anybody can participate who wants to. There's no tryout, there's no bench, anybody can race. But I always say, it means you can participate, if you play by my rules. We're not a drop-in sport, we're a team."
Kids and adults marvel at how fast Pogue learns everyone's name--as well as who each student is and what he or she likes. "She knows every kid, and she can read 'em--she knows when something's wrong," says assistant coach Jeni Andersen. "She knows when something's wrong with us, too. That's why the team is so big, because of Whitney."
Yet having such a large group--and the national superlative that comes with it--also can be a burden. Pogue often responds to complaints, some based simply on perception. Last year she received an email grumbling about rude team members on a trail they hadn't ridden that day. Because it was a large group of high schoolers, however, the emailer assumed it was Corner Canyon. Other complaints are valid. "We try to mitigate this," Pogue says, "but sometimes a kid is out of control or runs into another trail user, and sometimes people are just mean and ornery, so you just have to be like"--she feigns a soft, apologetic tone--"'Sorry! Sorry we exist!'"
CCHS is hardly alone in its growth. High school racing has exploded throughout Utah. This fall 70 teams will compete in three leagues--nearly triple the number of teams from six years ago. A former assistant from Herriman High School said his team went from 20 riders in 2016 to almost 90 in 2017. Mike Pratt, owner of Hangar 15, a Draper bike shop that gives discounts to high school teams including Corner Canyon, said he recently decided to fold his pro road-racing team--which competed in the Tour of Utah--and instead focus more resources on high school mountain biking. "This whole scene feeds an ecosystem that has blown up," says Ellis.
The same story holds true nationally: It's likely no group is expanding the fat-tire population more than the 14-18 age bracket. Among CCHS's 167 riders at the outset of the season, 30 had never mountain biked before. Lone Peak coach Davy Kammer, who had 154 kids last fall (and stepped down after the season to be an assistant), split his team into three subteams. "It gets a little bit hectic over about a hundred. When you’re north of 150 kids, it’s just too much to manage," he said. "We stopped actively marketing or advertising the team, because it gets too big and we don’t have enough assistants or ride leaders to come out and help."
The rapid growth is enough to make you wonder what will become of individuality, which has been a hallmark since the beginning. At Corner Canyon, a school of 2,200 students in a valley rife with public dirt-jumping options, only a handful of kids are into gravity riding. All but two are on the team and thus strongly encouraged, if not required, to prioritize staying healthy for races over expressing themselves in the air--at least during the season.
I wanted to see how the two disciplines overlap, so the following afternoon I met three CCHS team members--Bradley Jorgensen, Payton Andersen and Jacob Haag--and four of their friends at the famed I Street dirt jumps 25 minutes north of Draper. Jorgensen's older brother, Chris, drove up from Provo, where he attends BYU and works in a shop. The group also included Easton Llewelyn--a four-year CCHS racer and University of Utah freshman who finished last every race his senior year, electing to help back-of-the-pack racers with mechanicals--and Bryn Bingham, who used to race for his high-school team but quit to focus on enduro.
Bradley Jorgensen opened the session with a no-foot can, then Chris--who raced in high school for Alta--threw a one-handed no-foot can, followed by a 360 with spin to spare. He hiked back to the top, beaming. "We love the cross-country stuff, but this is where we live," he said.
All six then shot downhill in a train, tweaking their bikes off a hip, trying not to "be a squid." They hit a wood jump named ‘Boner’ and charged a bermed slalom line through the trees. "Why'd they take the sign off Bitchin' Camaro?" said Andersen, a sturdy sophomore who quit football for cross-country racing after he suffered his fourth concussion on the gridiron--one of nine he has sustained overall, he says. They stayed until sunset, launching some of the biggest airs of their lives, fueled by each other's energy.
Later, over pizza, we talked about the two versions of the sport they love.
"Cross country keeps me in shape for this stuff, but dirt jumping frees my mind," Bradley said. "I'm more myself when I'm hitting dirt jumps."
"I think the whole downhill, dirt-jumping, do your own thing is going to stay," said Chris, who grew up riding in Green River and Virgin. "Just because it lets us escape from real life for a few moments. Each person has their own way of riding and it's displayed more here than in cross-country racing."
"I wouldn't be surprised to see cross country keep growing, because more people can participate and it's less risk-oriented and more training-oriented, like a lot of other popular sports are," Llewelyn said.
"I look at it as a gateway," said Bingham. "A lot of my friends wouldn't even be riding bikes if it weren't for NICA. And now they're getting into jumps and the gravity side and having a blast with it."
Perhaps the biggest draw to join Corner Canyon's team, cheesy as it sounds, is the familial atmosphere that Pogue goes out of her way to maintain. Kids on the team text Pogue on Mother's Day to tell her how much she means to them, and to thank her for coaching them. "If I ever needed someone, I'd probably go to her," says senior Lauren Fenton, who has leaned on Pogue more than most. "You just know that she's there. She's Ginger Mama."
Some of Corner Canyon's rivals poke fun at its size and the scoring advantage that brings, but the large numbers also make the team more vulnerable to everyday perils--including, sadly, tragedy. This was hammered home on Nov. 19, 2016. Late that Saturday night, an SUV carrying five 16-year-olds--three of them members of the CCHS mountain-biking team--crashed at high speed and rolled, just down the street from the equestrian center. Two of the teens were ejected and killed: Ethan Fraga, who was not a team member, and Lexie Fenton, who was. Three more survived, including the driver, who has not been named publicly but was later charged with two counts of negligent homicide, a class A misdemeanor. The survivors narrowly escaped the vehicle before it exploded.
Lauren Fenton, Lexie's identical, inseparable twin sister, was one of the survivors. She and Lexie had joined the team as freshmen and fallen in love with the community and sport, in that order. After the accident, Lauren couldn't bring herself to ride for months. Eventually she returned to train with the team, a catharsis that she found bittersweet. She and Lexie had always ridden next to each other during every practice and race, trading places on the results sheet. "The maximum time we'd come into the finish apart was one minute," Lauren said. "And ironically, that's how far apart we were at birth: I was born a minute before her."
The accident remains a raw subject for the team. Corner Canyon was two weeks removed from winning its second straight state title when the crash occurred. Pogue organized a vigil and tried to comfort 150 devastated kids. Other teams' coaches drove up for the funerals. The entire league wore CCHS's colors as a show of support.
Lauren said her teammates played a crucial role in getting her through the year. As a senior last fall, she wasn't fast enough to race varsity, but she didn't care. She simply wanted to be around the group. So she raced JV. "They're like family to me," she said.
On my last day with the Chargers, I tagged along with one of the team's slowest groups, comprised of three freshmen girls. It was led by Ty and Mikelyn Montalvo, a married couple who came late to mountain biking but have become two of Pogue's most reliable ride leaders. Ty had lost 60 pounds since he started riding with the team three years ago. They ran a loose ship, befitting their pupils, who were unlikely to factor into the state championship in November (CCHS would end up finishing second to Lone Peak, ceding its title).
"Can we ride something not too technical?" asked Janie Tubbs, a firecracker whose dry wit kept the mood light.
When I asked if their group had a name, someone suggested the Silver Belles. Janie shot that down and instead anointed them the Fluffy Pillows. One of their male teammates passed us without announcing himself, prompting Janie to call out, "Um, on your right? Hello, dude?"
We saw another team stopped at a junction, and Janie recognized them immediately. "That's Alta," she said, feigning disdain. "Why are they on our trails?" She giggled. "Just kidding. They're cool."
The trio were not exactly pushing themselves to exhaustion, but they were here, riding bikes on trails, members of the defending state champion Chargers. Late in the ride, as the light faded and the air chilled, talk turned to the Corner Canyon fight song. I asked if they would sing it for me. At first they demurred. "It's a little snotty," said Ellie Harris, who was still riding without a jacket long after I'd donned mine.
They launched into it softly at first, but soon they were belting it out on the descent, whizzing through trees as my hands went numb.
Hoo! Ha, ha! You wish you were a Charger!
It would be hard to say there wasn't some truth to it.