Riders Write: The power of high school MTB racing

This reader submission comes to us from Hannah Heydinger. She just finished her senior year racing in the Texas High School Mountain Biking League where she was team captain for St. Stephen’s in Austin. In 2015, Heydinger was invited to the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) banquet to be awarded the Specialized Student Athlete Leadership Award. In addition to all that, Heydinger wants to study creative writing in college and we’re pleased to have her story. We hope you enjoy her perspective! (Thanks to her mom for the photos.)


I started mountain biking during my freshman year of high school when the St. Stephen’s mountain biking club decided to join the Texas High School Mountain Biking League. According to the league, a National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) chapter, then in its second year, the riders lacked only one criteria for competing: a girl. I didn’t have any experience mountain biking but was recruited due to the reputation I had gained for riding my bike to school with a lacrosse stick, a backpack, a P.E. bag and an alto saxophone.

Andrew Andres, my coach, told me to record three goals before my first race. They were meager: don’t get seriously injured, meet new people and don’t get last place. I achieved all of these goals and surprised myself—and everyone else—when I wound up first in state for freshman/sophomore girls and was voted team MVP.

25418534005_0f80553bee_oAndrew showed me how important it is to have someone be so dedicated in your success that you strive to push yourself and do the best you can. Andrew moved to Kenya two years after my first race. I was teaching a middle school girl how to ride up a technical climb when I mentioned how much I was going to miss him.

“He knew what I was capable of better than I did,” I said. “When I was struggling to get through a rough part of trail, Andrew would push me to make it, and I would.” She responded by saying, “that’s who you are to me right now,” and I was more proud at that moment than I had been after winning the championship two years earlier.

If you happen to camp at a Texas ranch in the Spring, you might see hundreds of kids in colorful jerseys sleeping in tents, riding mountain bikes, or running along trails and cheering. Riders are shouting, “great job!” while passing each other, and coaches are cheering, by name, kids that aren’t on their teams. The scene is a picture of sportsmanship at its best. It was this environment that enabled me to grow into the leader and athlete that I am. I have NICA—and all of the league directors, coaches, and volunteers who make it run—to thank for making mountain biking truly something special. Attend a NICA race and you’ll witness kids achieve things they didn’t think themselves capable of.

I have heard of no other sport in which the competing varsity girls can be found leaning over their tires chatting, encouraging each other and sharing Shock Blocks in the few minutes before the start of a race. “How did the Calculus final go?” and “Look, the cute rider on the Bowie team is over there” and “You finally replaced Joey! (the name of the rider’s former aluminum hardtail)” are not the sorts of things you hear from competing varsity basketball or volleyball players.

Competitors support each other and this is always something that surprises people who are new to NICA. We race against each other one moment and hug it out on the podium the next. It is this friendly environment that supported my growth as a leader. I am a successful leader largely because of the support I receive from the communities I lead, and this has been evident from my time in NICA. I enjoy introducing more girls to mountain biking because I want to share this experience. Constantly challenging myself shows me what I’m capable of, and teaching beginners, not just racing, enables me to put these capabilities to use in a way that feels truly fulfilling.

Team 3rd place in Troy, tx 2013 (1)

In January, I was honored to attend the 2015 NICA Awards to receive the Specialized Student-Athlete Leadership Award at the Cliff Bar Headquarters in Emeryville, California. I met the recipients of the other awards the night before the ceremony and I can honestly say that I have never made friends so quickly.

The stories of the six other student recipients, especially those of the GU Extraordinary Courage Award recipients, Kade Brantiongton and Esmée DeBarssi, evinced how powerful NICA is in the lives of its student riders. Kade was from a small town in Colorado where he faced rejection and harassment— including getting his car vandalized—for quitting football to start mountain biking in the Colorado league. Mountain biking in the NorCal league helped the Esmée overcome Anorexia and she now educates students and coaches about promoting a healthy body image and overcoming eating disorders.


We spent the morning of the award ceremony riding Mount Tamalpais with incredible riders like Todd Wells, Lucas Euser, and Gary Fisher before going to the Marin Museum of Bicycling to learn more about the incredible machines that brought us together in the first place. After a memorable evening at the Cliff Bar Headquarters, the other student recipients and I spent as much time together as we could, talking together in the hotel until our exhausted parents called us back to our rooms so we could prepare for the flights that would disperse us back across the country.

Every once in awhile, I’ll get a message from the “Super Awesome Bikers” group text we created before the awards. We still check in to see how each other’s races are going. I don’t always know what they’re talking about—I still don’t know what a bleed port screw or caliper is—but I know that we’re going to get back together to go riding again someday.

Just like there are “theatre people” or “music people,” there are “biking people.” They are, in my opinion, some of the best people there are and I am so grateful that NICA gave me the chance to become one.

Thanks, Hannah, for sharing your story and good luck at the University of Texas! Want to submit words to us? Learn more here.