Blast From the Past: High School Mountain Bike Racing

Read this 2004 story about the formative years of high school MTB racing, including the trend-setting NorCal High School Mountain Bike League, which spawned the current-day National Interscholastic Cycling Association.


Editor’s note: This story about the formative years of high school MTB racing, including the trend-setting NorCal High School Mountain Bike League, which spawned the current-day National Interscholastic Cycling Association, first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #106, published in April, 2004. Words by Jim Wallace. Photos by Matthew Fritzinger.

Interest in mountain biking programs for high school students is growing in many places around the country, but a few organizers have quickly moved to the head of the class.

The Northern California High School’s Mountain Bike League is setting the pace for many people who would like to see more kids hitting trails through the woods on bikes than hitting the streets with nothing constructive to do. The league is only into its fourth season, but it already has a few dozen participating schools and a growing list of local and national sponsors. The league’s activities include a few pre-season events and then a six-race series that begins in February and ends with state championships in May, plus summer riding camps and a coaches conference.

“I know no one has gotten as far as we’ve gotten,” league director and founder Matt Fritzinger said. But he has heard from many people elsewhere who would like to follow in his footsteps—or tire tracks—and he has won the admiration of officials at USA Cycling.

“He’s done a really good job of developing that race series and league,” Steve McCauley, USA Cycling’s development director, said. “He’s taking it to the next step. He’s encouraging his riders to develop as athletes. They’re raising the bar in northern California, which is not surprising, because they tend to be trendsetters for the country, not just in sports.”

McCauley wishes Colorado, where he is based, had a high school league and race series like the one in northern California. He hopes the National Off-Road Bicycling Association will drive the formation of leagues in Colorado and other states based on Fritzinger’s model.

One recent development with the NorCal League is that professional road cyclist Michael Sayers is supporting it with some cash and help with fundraising efforts.

“He went out of his way to contact us,” Fritzinger said. “He can increase the awareness of what we’re doing.”

Although Sayers, who is now 34, was a national team skier when he was young; he regrets that no cycling league was available to him when he was in high school. “If there had been, I might have found cycling earlier than 20 years old,” he said in a written statement. “A big part of me feels like I missed so much by not racing at a younger age. When I found this organization, I felt like it was the perfect place for us to develop young riders.”

McCauley isn’t surprised at all that a road cyclist like Sayers would lend his name and support to a mountain biking league. “I think what it says is that it’s all good,” McCauley said. “It’s all racing. It can help teach kids to lead a healthy lifestyle. Who cares what they’re riding? Crossover—I think it occurs naturally.”

Fritzinger thinks the relationship between mountain biking and road cycling is comparable to what Tee-ball is to baseball. Mountain biking is a good way to teach kids better bike-handling skills, he said. “If you want kids to be road racers when they grow up, they should be mountain bikers as kids,” he said.

McCauley said another organization that is making good progress in getting students involved in mountain biking is Team Nova. It has established teams in Texas, southern California and Arizona, where it’s based. But it’s working with up to 100 kids from ages 7 through 19 in several states as far away as New Hampshire and claims to have had more than 700 riders in races across the country in 2003.

Under the auspices of the Nova Youth Cycling Foundation, the organization runs the Nova Desert Classic in March. It’s a race that attracts some of the top pros and provides winning junior riders the opportunity to qualify automatically for the national championship race in Mammoth, California. All proceeds from the Desert Classic, which began last year, go back into Team Nova’s programs.

Jerry Sieve, team director and president of the foundation, said his organization also ran the Arizona high school championships in 2001 and 2002. Although Team Nova let someone else do that last year, officials are considering getting back into it next year.

“I have been contacted by a number of schools asking me to try to integrate the high school championship into the Desert Classic,” Sieve said. He also has had discussions with McCauley about finding a way to hold a national high school championship as early as 2005.

“One or the other or both may happen,” Sieve said. “I see continued growth for us. We have gained a lot of national exposure in the last two years because of our presence at NORBA nationals.”

Sieve has met Fritzinger at a couple of national mountain biking events and admires what he has done in building the league in northern California. Fritzinger has another admirer in Tennessee, where Speed Baranco is coach of a team at St. Andrew’s–Sewanee School and has organized two state championships.

“Northern California was a good resource for me to help build our team state championship,” Baranco said. One thing that pleased him was that Fritzinger had already worked out a scoring system that allows whole teams to compete with the top five scores counting. “That establishes camaraderie among teammates,” Baranco said. “The absolute beginning rider could be just as important as the team anchor. It allows a full spectrum of riders to compete.”

Although Baranco’s regular job is in real estate, he also teaches a mountain biking course that is so popular he can’t take all the students who want to sign up for it. However, drumming up such interest at other schools has been more challenging, he said, “because the athletic departments don’t receive it well.”

Sending out letters to all the schools in Tennessee and many of the bike shops didn’t get him very far. So now he’s networking through NORBA to contact students who are already mountain bikers in the hope that they’ll be able to get activities started at their schools. He expects eight to 10 schools to compete at the next state championship in October, but would like to see more in coming years.

However, hard work doesn’t always pay off. Officials at the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association thought they had the beginnings of several high school clubs a year or two ago, but Mark Schooley, a member of the board of directors, said only a few have survived.

“Everybody thinks it’s a great idea, but when it’s time to belly up with support or money, it seems to fizzle real fast,” he said. Schooley said principals tend to worry about liability and costs, and teachers are afraid that mountain biking might take students away from cross-country running and other activities. He said organizers went through “a good bit of hassle” starting one high school club, which they had hoped to use as a model for organizing others.

But mountain biking activities Schooley helped arrange at the middle school where his wife teaches generated a lot of enthusiasm. That led him to the realization that organizers must reach the kids well before high school.

“Once they get driver’s licenses, if they aren’t into mountain biking by then, it ain’t going to happen,” Schooley said.

Dave Fleming, who is in the process of starting a mountain biking club at Parkersburg High School in West Virginia, wasn’t sure where to turn for guidance. “I’m learning as I go,” he said. After he heard about what the NorCal League has done, Fleming was encouraged and planned to check it out.

The experiences of Fritzinger and Sieve indicate that, once organizers can get over their initial hurdles, momentum can build. Fritzinger now has a professional fund-raiser on his board who’s helped him realize the potential for getting his league beyond break-even financial status. He hopes that will allow him to scale back on his teaching duties in the Berkeley school system and devote more of his time to running the league.

“From this point forward, I think it’s going to become more and more of my income,” Fritzinger said.

Sieve makes a living as a scenic and nature photographer, which is relatively compatible with his mountain biking activities. So far, he at least gets many of his Team Nova expenses covered, but if finances improve, he also would like to devote more of his time to mountain biking.

McCauley said USA Cycling is doing its part by cutting the membership price for high school and collegiate mountain biking clubs in half to $50. It also offers assistance, as well as low-cost insurance coverage, to anyone trying to organize clubs, leagues or competitions.

“That’s our job,” McCauley said. “It’s part of our mission.”

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