NICA: American High School Mountain Biking – sport done right?

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America has a long tradition of highly organised, competitive almost to the point of professionalism, school and young people’s sports. Track and Field, American football, swimming, basketball – many of which dangle the carrot of lucrative (or at least cost saving) college scholarships. In such an environment, and with stakes like your educational opportunities, it’s no wonder that high school sports is big business.

For many though, it’s a source of angst. It’s a stock scene in almost any American coming-of-age indie movie: the failure to get picked for the team, the horror of dodgeball, the short-fused coach. For real life parents too there are worries: an increasing awareness of the dangers of head trauma, and some especially worrying links between repeated head trauma at a young age and later life emotional and cognitive issues, has many parents keeping their children out of the football team.

Despite the incentives to excel at high school and college sports, this doesn’t appear to translate into wider levels of participation. Yes, the college sports teams are lauded, and university teams and events enjoy stadium filling crowds many UK Premier Division football teams would be glad of. But those crowds are sucking on their bucket sized cups of fizzy drink and eating their sacks of potato chips as they behold the scenes of athleticism before them. National obesity statistics suggest that the displays of elite excellence aren’t inspiring anyone to get down to the gym – instead it’s a spectacle of entertainment to be witnessed only.

It’s interesting, encouraging and gladdening, then, to hear of the success of NICA, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, established in 2009. Hugely successful at introducing mountain biking to children of high school age, NICA coaches I meet state that mountain biking is the fastest growing high school sport in the US right now. Not only that, but while there is a strong element of competition and racing, the purpose is not to create elite athletes, but to instil ‘the development of strong mind, strong body and strong character’ in the young people.

Somewhere in a field in Idaho.

I’d never heard of this organisation before I happened to bump into a NICA coaches’ training session in a playing field in Idaho. All talked enthusiastically of a supportive race environment, where every rider is cheered across the line, and it’s the taking part that counts. They’re passionate about their subject, and I envy the kids that are getting the benefit of their support and coaching. If participation and growth continue, then the law of averages would surely say that the USA is going to be turning out a healthy crop of decent riders in years to come. And even if those riders aren’t pro, there’s a bunch of them going to grow up to be the kind of riders who keep riding, and buy their own kids mountain bikes. Trek has become heavily involved as a sponsor, and no wonder: brand loyalty from an early age would be a valuable asset. Even for other brands, a boom in the number of potential mountain bike buyers is just what the industry needs.

“Getting kids off of their phones, outside and on the trails, and helping them find a passion that lasts a lifetime is something we believe strongly in. NICA has a huge future.” – Trek Bikes President, John Burke⠀ ⠀ Thank you @JBTrek08 and @trekbikes for expanding your support of NICA to put even #morekidsonbikes across America! ⠀ ⠀ More details – link in profile!⠀ ⠀ #betterwithbikes #moregirlsonbikes #getoutside #mtb #rideyourbike 📷Dave Reich @wisconsinmtb

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Cold, hard, finance aside, it’s potentially the beginnings of a generation who knows what it means to be outdoors, and who appreciates the natural resource that lets them pursue their hobby. Those who use their environment and are in touch with it, who experience it first hand, are surely more likely to care about its stewardship. If NICA delivers a new crop of environmentally conscious mountain bikers, there’s hope for the bike industry and the human race yet. 


Hannah was exploring Idaho thanks to Crank Tank Impact Sun Valley Media event, who covered travel and accommodation costs.

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Hannah Dobson

Managing Editor

I came to Singletrack having decided there must be more to life than meetings. I like all bikes, but especially unusual ones. More than bikes, I like what bikes do. I think that they link people and places; that cycling creates a connection between us and our environment; bikes create communities; deliver freedom; bring joy; and improve fitness. They're environmentally friendly and create friendly environments. I try to write about all these things in the hope that others might discover the joy of bikes too.

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Comments (1)

    Plenty of similarities here with Go-Ride clubs in the UK, where the focus is on skills development and inclusivity, rather than performance.

    The US example sounds great though, especially as I imagine it works well regionally due to the large distances (compared to the UK).

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