High school mountain bike league thrives in Idaho

The first ride doesn’t hook them.

“At first, you kind of feel winded and tired and a little bit like you’re dying,” second-year mountain bike racer Brennah Vogt said.

It’s the next few adventures that do.

“You feel amazing afterward,” Vogt said. “... I really enjoy the sense of accomplishment you get after finishing a race because you’ve stuck to it and you’ve been dedicated and really put it all out there.”

Vogt, of Sage International in Boise, is among nearly 500 high school and junior high students participating on 23 teams in the Idaho Interscholastic Cycling League this season — the second year of the rapidly growing program. The season finale is Saturday at Avimor.

Previous races were held at Jug Mountain Ranch in McCall, Galena Lodge outside Ketchum and Grand Targhee Resort near the Idaho-Wyoming border. A race at Magic Mountain south of Twin Falls was canceled because of weather.

Many participants camp with their teams the night before races.

“Camping is just part of the mountain bike culture. It’s a big piece of what we do,” Eagle High coach Robert Shannon said. “It’s something the kids look forward to and is memorable — sleeping in the tent under the stars, being in the mountains, some interesting campfire stories. It’s definitely something that is unique and a cool opportunity to get an appreciation of the outdoors. That’s something that you take with you the rest of your life.”

The league is affiliated with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which expects to have leagues in at least 18 states by next season. Idaho started last year with 253 athletes, the largest per-capita participation for a debut season, league director Dylan Gradhandt said.

Utah started its league with about 230 riders in 2012. That number spiked to 1,666 by the fourth season.

Idaho’s league is on a similar trajectory, and Gradhandt hasn’t tapped into the North Idaho market yet.

Boise High, which includes athletes from North and Hillside junior highs on its roster, attracted 17 team members last season. The Braves carried 44 midway through this season.

“They keep trickling in,” coach Andrew Shaber said. “... People moved to Boise and North End Boise because they can ride out their back door. Well, their kids follow suit.”

Still, many of the participants have joined with little to no experience on mountain bikes — let alone racing them. Only 10 percent of the racers in the league’s first year had raced before.

Eagle High juniors Halle Hopkins and Annie Schubert joined the Mustangs last season without any mountain bike experience.

“I had been through a lot of other sports,” Hopkins said. “My mom’s like, ‘You need to pick a sport.’ It was lacrosse or mountain bike.”

Said Schubert: “My dad was a downhill mountain biker when he was in high school, so he wanted me to do it. I was going to play volleyball. I crashed the first time on the trail. I remember, (a coach) was like, ‘Will you be back?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll be back.’ It’s like a family. A big family.”

The racers are split into a dozen categories to help deal with the wide range of abilities. High school races include freshman, sophomore, JV and varsity for boys and girls. Middle-schoolers enter A or B divisions for boys and girls. Courses at Galena ranged from one 3.9-mile lap for the middle school B division to four 5.1-mile laps for high school varsity boys. The middle school laps contained 390 feet of climbing; the high school laps contained 500 feet.

Dealing with such disparate skills in practice can be a challenge. Boise High coaches timed a preseason hill climb to divide the roster into riding groups. The Braves have about 15 coaches or ride leaders to take the kids on the trail, with NICA requiring at least one ride leader per six students. Boise usually has two adults per group.

Many of the volunteers are parents.

“Not only do we have the kids out riding, but families are joining them, too,” Shaber said. “They’re going, ‘Man, I haven’t ridden in 10 years,’ and then they’re coming out to two practices a week riding with the kids and falling back in love with it.”

Scott Jackson, the coach at Sage International, has 23 athletes on his team. At least five of them are new to mountain biking, including two exchange students.

Putting new mountain bikers on a trail worries him.

“It’s actually probably the most stressful part of coaching,” he said. “The flip side is it’s also the most fun ... to see a beginner start to flourish.”

Connor Peterman, an eighth-grader at Hillside, joined the Boise High team this season. He was riding a 25-year-old mountain bike to school but hadn’t taken it onto the dirt. He signed up because several friends did.

“The first time I went up a trail, I got to the top of it and I was wheezing,” he said. “I felt like I was going to die. A week or two later, we went up (the same trail) and I was ready to do more. ... It’s just awesome.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Boise junior Abby Youngwerth, a year-round cyclist who spent a month during the summer competing in road races in Belgium. She also competes in cyclocross.

Youngwerth joined the mountain bike league for the sense of community.

“I’ve been riding and racing for about eight years now,” she said. “When I heard there was a high school mountain bike team, I was pretty excited to be able to get involved with my school sports because I’ve never really been able to do volleyball or soccer or any of the normal school sports.”

The athletes say the races get intense and competitive but there’s an overriding feeling of camaraderie and sportsmanship.

Last year at Avimor, Schubert fell while climbing a hill.

“One of the people from another team stopped and helped me up,” she said. “That was super cool. I wasn’t expecting that. She stopped and helped me up and made sure I was OK.”

The fun, friendly environment has helped the league grow. Riders register based on what they’ve heard from their friends, then start lobbying others to join them.

Costs vary by school. Boise High estimates expenses at $300 per student, not including bike and helmet.

The benefits, students and coaches say, include learning a lifetime sport, exploring parts of Idaho some of the competitors and their families haven’t seen, developing fitness and making friends.

“I get an experience that I’ll never be able to forget,” Sage International junior Hayden Irish said, “and I get to do something that I love in nature.”

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