- Associated Press - Saturday, April 11, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Mountain biking might not get you a varsity letterman’s jacket, but it could get you a whole lot of fun and something to continue long after high school.

The National Interscholastic Cycling Association is forming a league in Idaho with a four-race season planned in the fall, and it’s looking for coaches, mentors and organizers to help launch it.

“We’re trying to make it as simple as possible,” said Dylan Gradhandt, executive director of the Idaho High School Cycling League.

Basically, the template is in place. The association already has 15 leagues in 14 states and a goal to be coast-to-coast by 2020. The association handles much of the administrative work, such as insurance, fees and rules, but still leaves each state leeway to adapt its own program. It’s also designed to make mountain biking accessible to all riders and abilities.

“We go out of our way to make it possible for them to participate,” Gradhandt said.

Teams can be associated with individual schools or “composite” squads consisting of riders from different schools. Teams are open to ninth-graders through seniors, ages 13 through 19. Teams are coed, but boys and girls compete against their own gender. Gradhandt said ideally he would like to see equal numbers of male and female riders on the team.

Each student pays a $50 registration fee, and another $35 per-race entry fee. Scholarships are available based on financial needs.

Coaches pay a $25 annual fee, and training costs $50 to $300, depending on the licensing level. Then each team pays a team fee ranging between $125 to $250. Riders are responsible for their own bike and gear, travel costs, food, camping, etc.

Two local races are scheduled for October, one at the Eagle/Ada bike park and another at Avimor. Riders will also travel in September to races at Grand Targhee ski resort near Driggs and Galena Lodge between Ketchum and Stanley.

The goal of the program is to introduce high schoolers to mountain biking and racing, give them a good social experience and make cycling a life-long sport.

There are no tryouts or bench warmers. “We’re really interested (in kids) who may have fallen through the cracks, and stick and ball sports didn’t suit them,” Gradhandt said.

Coaches don’t need a racing background, just a willingness to undergo some training and help young cyclists. Most coaches in other leagues are parents, mentors, or longtime mountain bikers who want to give back to the sport.

“We teach these coaches to get kids to the trailhead, get them out for a fun, safe ride and get them back,” Gradhandt said. “None of the steps are overwhelming, but there are a lot of them, and we walk the coaches through that.”

He said the league is not to designed to turn out elite-level cyclists. He likened the cycling league to a rec-league team, where the emphasis is on having fun. That’s a lesson he and other coaches learned in the initial stages of forming high school teams and competing.

Gradhandt is a former national junior racer who coached squads in Northern California that were among the first organized high school mountain biking teams. He is getting help from Christina McBride, who moved to Boise last summer and coached a mountain biking team in St. Angelo, Texas.

Their high school coaching experiences were similar in some ways, and different in others. Both found the social aspect was the major attraction.

“We rapidly learned the kids were coming out to be with their friends and to be outdoors,” he said.

They also saw families get involved in cycling inside and outside the teams, which is backed by NICA data that showed about half of parents resume, or start riding, mountain bikes when their kids get involved in the program.

But Gradhandt’s teams originated near the birthplace of mountain biking in Marin County, Calif., and when word got out he was forming a high school team, “the kids were coming out of the woodwork,” he said.

McBride started a team in St. Angelo, Texas, in 2012 with two riders. By the end of the first season, it blossomed to 13 riders. The team traveled 5 to 9 hours for races, and “our racing and camping were in cow pastures,” McBride said.

At a race near Houston, there was a caution sign warning about nearby alligators, she said, and a rattlesnake once slithered through their campsite.

Not only did she coach many riders who never mountain biked before, they had never been camping either. She said part of the deal for being on the team was they had to camp at least once, and her riders quickly learned to accept, and enjoy, camping as part of the team experience.

They figure Idaho is a natural for mountain biking teams because it’s already a popular activity here, and the riding, traveling and camping are a natural fit for people used to spending their weekends and vacations camping or visiting ski resorts.

That’s not to say Idaho doesn’t have unique challenges. The state’s population centers are in the corners, and the Panhandle makes travel between North and South Idaho challenging. Initially, Grandhandt is focusing on South Central and Eastern Idaho communities.

His goal is to have 150 to 160 riders in the first season and 12 to 16 teams. The Idaho league has a bit of a head start, considering several teams have already formed and raced in Utah last year, including a Treasure Valley squad.

“We really believe that cross-country mountain biking is the perfect access point for the sport of cycling,” he said.


Information from: Idaho Statesman, https://www.idahostatesman.com

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