One athlete after another crossed underneath the finish line banner, most breathing heavily, cheeks flushed red from the effort they just put forth. 100 feet beyond the finish line, a course marshal directed the redlining riders to their right, and into the finish corral. There they were met by teammates, coaches, friends, and parents, usually waiting with open arms and a congratulatory remark regardless of their result. The athletes were middle and high school aged mountain bikers and had just completed a Wisconsin N.I.C.A cross-country event on trails that, up until this weekend, had never been made open to the public before. Most kids smiled and laughed, and shared stories of their respective races, the drama, and dynamics that come with going elbow to elbow in the forest at full steam filling the corral with an exuberance that is hard to describe. Others rode straight through, heads down with any number of things on their minds, while others still sought a few moments to themselves by finding an unoccupied space in the corral, perhaps to nurse wounds both physical and mental, and to wrap their brains around the events that had just unfolded over the course of any number of laps on the 6+ mile track. All of it, regardless of the specific details surrounding each individual's race, was a shared experience for virtually every person involved, from the riders, to the coaches, to the parents; it was an event that resulted in a full sensory experience, and it was a prime example of why this might be one of the most important things to happen to mountain biking in years.
The National Interscholastic Cycling Association was founded in 2009 with two leagues in California: the NorCal and SoCal leagues. NICA has since amassed a total of 21 leagues, with West Virginia and Maryland leagues coming hot off the press most recently. The Wisconsin league was founded in 2013 and is co-directed by Kathy Mock and Don Edberg. Wisconsin is known for many things, including cheese, lakes, Aaron Rodgers, and the Netflix phenomena Making a Murderer. While most mountain bikers wouldn't necessarily put this relatively quiet midwest state on their must-ride list, it does hold a great deal of value for cycling as the home for one of the sport's most important brands: Trek.
The Waterloo-based, cycling behemoth has been one of the world's leading brands for over 40 years and is an institution that many in the Badger State hang their proverbial hats on. Trek is the lead sponsor for NICA, and this is a year of firsts for both parties. For the first time ever, Trek has decided to open up their normally private stash of trails, located about 1/2 a mile from HQ, to the public, and N.I.C.A is utilizing the opportunity to host a round in Waterloo for the first time ever. It's significant not because of the trails themselves, although credit certainly goes to trail boss Vance McCaw for getting them ready, but because N.I.C.A has moved the needle so much in such a short amount of time, Trek's C.E.O John Burke, who never intended for Trek's private trails to be open to the public, immediately after witnessing his first N.I.C.A race ever in 2016 made it clear that he wanted to see these kids on his trails as soon as possible.
The real power at work here isn't the influence or inspiration the president of one of cycling's largest brands draws from N.I.C.A. It isn't the sheer volume of athletes participating either (over 500 kids toed the line in Waterloo just a few weeks ago, and upwards of 14,000 kids will participate nationwide in 2017.) What N.I.C.A represents is the demystification of mountain biking to the masses. Mountain biking is far too large a community to be considered "underground", but it's long been an example of something that people familiarize themselves with through participation, otherwise, it's a bit of an unknown to the general public. Ball and stick sports are enormously popular around the world not necessarily because they encourage an active lifestyle, or promote teamwork or any other dynamics you can find elsewhere. Some might even argue that off of the field, many of those sports have no inherent "lifestyle" to offer at all. They're popular because they occur in an arena that is easy to manage and encourage spectatorship, and thus have been cultivated and developed into big businesses that stop being about personal development, and start being about ticket sales.
Trek is the lead sponsor for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which is currently growing at a staggering rate.
The beautiful thing that is fully on display at any N.I.C.A event, and certainly at the event held in Waterloo, is not the competition specifically, although it definitely brings with it a number of important values and lessons that kids and adults can take with them. Instead, it was seeing the athletes and their parents alike experience the brilliance of riding bikes in the woods together. Many of these parents hadn't been on a bike for years, and yet by virtue of their own children's ambitions and growing love for this sport and community, a bit of an awakening took place, and continues to take place across the country as more of these events unfold. With each N.I.C.A race that's held, the mountain bike community gets to welcome scores of new members into the tribe, and there's no denying the special dynamic that comes when a parent and their child fall in love with bikes together, and the shared personal growth that comes with it.
Pinkbike was on hand at Trek's headquarters and private stash in Waterloo, Wisconsin for the third of five total events on the fall calendar for the Wisconsin N.I.C.A season and we took the opportunity to speak with athletes, parents, officials, and even some of the people at Trek to learn a bit more about the league, the process, and the takeaway for all involved.
It's been a busy stretch at Trek HQ, having hosted a World Cup cyclocross race just a few weeks prior to the N.I.CA weekend. No rest for the weary, as the kids like to say these days.
Madison is just a stone's throw away and has certainly shaped the culture of the region. See, Big 10 Football fanaticism.
Waterloo, the hometown for Trek and their private stash of trails, doesn't offer much in the way of elevation, but it's certainly a pretty place.
N.I.C.A events are a lot of great things, "family friendly" being one of them.
John Burke, Trek President
Why is it important to Trek to be involved with NICA in such a significant nature? You guys have really thrown a lot of support their way.John
: At Trek, we don't... it's not just a business. We do the business, but it's “what else can we do with the business”. We always like to do good things for the community, and we also like to do good things for cycling because cycling has been so good for Trek. Aaron Mock and his wife Cathy got involved in N.I.C.A several years ago, and they wanted me to come to a race. My wife and I went to a race and it just blew me away. I was watching all these kids ride their bikes and I thought, "Wow, that's amazing."
With each one of the kids, there's a family. You see mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers all riding bikes. I'm like "This is super cool." Trek has always been part of N.I.C.A, and we've always paid our dues, but I thought "How can we help N.I.C.A take it to the next level?" With this event, I told Aaron, "You need to have a N.I.C.A event at Trek because we've got these trails here, and they're just absolutely amazing." Being able to share it with the N.I.C.A group is going to be really good.
What has been your greatest takeaway since getting involved?John
: Answering that question, I just get goosebumps. It just amazes me the amount of potential that's here because you take a look - especially in America, you take a look at the amount of kids and you take a look at the obesity epidemic and you take a look at kids spending their days sitting on couches playing video games and screwing around with their phones, and then you come out here and you see today there are over 500 kids at the start line. When's the last time you were at a mountain bike race and there are 500 people at the start? We're just getting started in Wisconsin. There are so many other N.I.C.A chapters around the country that are just getting started. What really excites me is that you're actually changing the world out here. That is super cool to me.
Emily Batty, Trek factory athlete, Olympian, and World Cup star, was on hand for rider clinics, autograph sessions, and more.
Emily's presence energized the riders, as her passion for racing and coaching is palpable.
Mountain biking presents a very different dynamic for spectators compared to more traditional "ball and stick" events, but the parents seem to be adjusting well enough.
Kathy Mock, co-director of N.I.C.A Wisconsin
What does your role entail?Kathy
: That entails developing the program by getting more teams, more kids, more coaches. Then organizing the coach's training system, and organizing the races. Planning for the races and finding people for volunteer spots.
How much growth have you experienced since the league began?Kathy
: This is our fourth season. We started in 2014 with 150 kids, 60 coaches, and about 16 teams. Now we have 49 teams, 373 coaches, and 672 registered athletes.
How do you guys manage that growth?Kathy
: I would have to say through N.I.C.A's management system. They help us with their online registration system, and all their processes are all tested and they work, and we just basically use those processes to run the league.
What does it mean to you, then, having Trek Headquarters, these trails that have never really been open to the public before. What's it mean to you guys to be able to utilize these trails today, or this weekend?
Kathy: It's pretty huge. Never in my wildest dreams did I see this. I used to work at Trek, and my husband still works at Trek, and I have been told that it probably would never happen. When John Burke came to my husband this year and said, "Absolutely we want to race that track." It was unbelievable. This venue and the way Trek has come forth and inspired all the Trek employees to help us has been incredible.
What's been one of the big take aways, in our opinion, in four years you guys have been doing this thing? What good has come from N.I.C.A?Kathy
: This sport is for every kid. You don't have to be the best athlete. You can be a kid that doesn't ever want to compete. You can be a kid that has never ridden a mountain bike and we will take care of you. Every team will bring you on board and give you an opportunity, you get to ride every minute of every practice. You can race if you want, but you don't have to race. You can be a dual sport athlete, and most of our teams welcome those kids onto the team. They're able to take this sport with them for the rest of their lives to be fit. It's been the most fun job I've ever had.
Prior to each race wave, a different student was responsible for a rendition of the national anthem. For some, it was a moment of reflection, for others, it was a chance to calm the nerves.
Wave after wave of racers thundered up the hill out of the start corral. It was always impressive to watch kids of various ages and ability levels give it their all throughout the morning.
There's no denying the transformative process that racing facilitates, especially at such a young age.
Mountain biking can teach a person a lot of things, and learning how to push through pain is one of them. An invaluable lesson at such a young age.
The Wisconsin leader's jersey is a hard-won piece of attire.
The 6+ mile long course was dusty, dry, and fast. The racing was interesting and fun to watch unfold, regardless of the age group.
Stephan Van Dorn, coach of the Shorewood High School team
What do you do with the NICA Wisconsin League?Stephan
: I am a coach for Shorewood High School team. I'm also a middle school teacher in Shorewood.
How long have you been doing this?Stephan
: Since the inception, so this is our fourth season.
What are some of the changes that you have seen since the beginning?Stephan
: We started with 18 athletes on our team. We're currently at 53; so 53 from a single school district, and we're very proud of that. We also have more people. I mean, we've just grown. It's been fantastic to see us grow.
What are some of the reactions that you see and how much interest is there from other folks that aren't yet a part of the program?Stephan
: I'm glad you asked that because we have a cross-country athlete who's in a multimedia class at the high school, and is also involved in our high school newspaper, out here doing a multimedia story on the team. So we're getting some great press in the school. We just had a meeting with school administration, and they want to adopt us into the athletic department instead of just being a club sport, so we're growing and we're being recognized. It's fantastic.
How do you “coach” a mountain bike team? What’s race day like for you?Stephan
: Honestly, I try not to give them too much last minute advice. I try to get them out of their heads a little bit have fun. I help them stay in the moment, but also enjoy the moment and not stress out about the competitive part of it. I try to help them eat right before they start, and not do something stupid like have a donut half an hour before they're going to race.
Have you seen an increase in the amount of parents getting involved with the team over time?Stephan
: Absolutely. We couldn't be a team without parent volunteers handling the camping, the cooking, the transportation, the fundraising, and all of those things. It's great to have them involved in that piece, but we also have parent volunteers who are involved on a coaching level and ride leader level.
They come to practice and practice with their athlete, as well as with all of the other athletes. They develop their own skills, and then they hit the trails with us on the weekends. I've seen the kids grow exponentially in their skill and I've seen the same thing happen with the parents as well.
It's kind of fun when you see a kid cheering their mom on, going over an obstacle that the mom is surprised the kid is doing, and then the kid is surprised that mom can do that, and then they're kind of high-fiving each other at practice, talking in the car and not on the phone. It's pretty awesome. I don't see any kids on any cell phones out here right now. I see them on bikes. It's awesome.
The finish line was buzzing throughout the day, as various age groups have different lap counts. It was quite the sight, watching young men and women squeeze every last ounce of energy out of their legs, only to shake hands, high five, or hug their teammates and competitors moments after crossing the line.
Riders were always greeted with excitement from the spectators and coaches, regardless of the school printed on their jersey.
These kids could be doing any number of other things with their weekends, so yes, riding your bike through the woods, and pushing yourself physically and mentally deserves a hug or two.
You can't always have a perfect ride, but you can always learn from it. Mountain biking is hard on the body, the bike, and the brain, and the takeaways can be enormous for these guys.
Ashley Pernsteiner, senior athlete at Camrock High School
How long have you been doing the Wisconsin NICA?Ashley
: I've been doing it since I was a freshman, so I'm really lucky I've been doing it the entire time that it's been here.
How would you describe NICA Wisconsin? What are these events like and race weekends like for the student-athletes?Ashley
: It's kind of like one big family getting together to party and cheer each other on. It's awesome because there are so many times that I've been riding by and people who I've helped set up courses with know my name and are cheering for me; people I've never seen before today. Everyone's just so happy and supportive. It's amazing.
Do you play any other sports as well?Ashley
: Nothing competitively, but I am pretty active besides this.
Do the races get pretty competitive despite the overwhelming sense of camaraderie?Ashley
: I think that depends on the individual. There are people that are super competitive, not in a bad way, but you know, they're performing at a very high level, and they want to keep performing at a high level. There are people who are just there to have a good workout or to have fun, and I think that I'm kind of somewhere in the middle, kind of leaning towards competitive. I'm trying to almost compete with myself, if that makes sense.
You're a senior now, so presumably, you're going to college, you're doing something afterward. What are you gonna miss the most about NICA when you're all done?Ashley
: The first thing I've gained from NICA is a sense of self-improvement because everyone here just wants to see everyone else get better. They just want to help each other. My teammates have helped encourage me to become the best racer that I can be. I'm trying to become the best racer that I can be. They've helped me to train, and have really helped me with a lot of things. I appreciate that.
Another thing that I think people don't really think about with mountain biking is about how much it kind of helps with self-confidence. I know that going into high school, I was anxious, nervous, and kind of a shaky kid. Before I started doing this I wasn't very secure in myself at all. Through this, I kind of learned how to trust in myself first, and then in my bike after that. I have learned how to be comfortable in my own skin, and comfortable with that what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. It gives me this really deep sense of confidence and calm that I don't think I could find in any other sport.
There's a shared joy that's very contagious at a NICA event, and luckily for mountain biking, its spreading.
See more of the story here.
More information, including events, schedules, and how to get involved with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association can be found here.