The Highlands Composite mountain bike team, based in Tucker and Randolph Counties, won best overall in the West Virginia chapter of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).
The Highlands Composite team won every race this year, which was NICA’s inaugural year in West Virginia. A team’s top four race finishers compose that team’s aggregate points. Four races were scheduled this year, but heavy hurricane rains forced the league to cancel one of the races.
In regards to placing first overall, Highlands Composite Coach Jason Cyr said, “I think it was more of a pleasant surprise. I think I knew that the fact the kids are training here, and we have really, really technical terrain would help, and we don’t have much smooth stuff to ride. So inherently, the learning curve is much steeper here.”
“I didn’t know what to expect, I know we had some fast kids on our team,” Tucker County High School junior Nate Dearborn said. “After the first race, and seeing everyone race, and actually realizing that we were that good, I had high expectations for the season,” Dearborn said.
All of the 15 riders and accompanying coaches on the team are based in Tucker and Randolph Counties. The team practiced three times a week throughout the 10 weeklong season.
With many talented mountain bikers in the area who volunteered their time to coach, including Highland Composite Head Coach Jeff White and Tonya White, some of the team’s success was credited to their help and instruction. “They definitely helped a lot as far as midweek telling you what to do to get ready for the race. Drinking water, eating the right things,” Dearborn said. “I’m not sure any of the other teams had pit crews like ours,” Team Director Vicki Fenwick-Judy said.
The West Virginia NICA league’s inception began with the help and dedication of the mountain biking community throughout the state. “A lot of it was just folks involved in the mountain bike community saying ‘Can anybody coach? Can anybody head it up?'” Fenwick-Judy said.
To form a new NICA chapter a state must proceed through a rigorous bid process. West Virginia League Director Cassie Smith was at the forefront of that process. “Last September we actually found out that West Virginia was awarded the bid out of five other states,” Smith said. “We had to prove to NICA that West Virginia would be good state to have NICA in.”
NICA is a mountain biking program for middle and high school students across the United States. NICA began in California in 2009. There are 23 different leagues located in 22 states.
Six other staff members worked alongside Smith to complete all the necessary steps in order to present a full-fledged racing experience to over 100 youth riders.
Smith noted that the rigorous bid process and subsequent trainings helped the West Virginia NICA league present a solid product. “They want NICA to be pretty uniform throughout every state. So they do a lot of training, but when it all came together, you can see why,” she said.
The high production value of the races enables riders to experience a legitimate racing experience. “The music, the professionalism of the races, it puts off a good product, and I think the kids feel good about it,” Smith said.
There were 130 riders registered in the league. Riders could choose to race or not. As to not deter more casual riders from joining, NICA gives riders the option of between a competitive track and an adventure track. “If they don’t want to race, that’s ok,” Smith said. “It’s not only about getting more kids on bikes, it’s about getting more families on bikes.”
Despite some of the financial barriers that deter some families from even taking up the sport, mountain biking is well suited to the state. “The terrain is amazing,” Smith said. “I think it’s just a really good thing for the kids in West Virginia. There’s a lot of hopelessness in some areas, and it’s such a positive thing.”
“I’ve raised my son through mountain biking. I know how it good it could be for people, and I wanted to share that with people. West Virginia needs this for our kids. It’s such a great program,” Smith said.
“I think it was at Watters Smith race when we were racing that it dawned on me what a different sport mountain biking is,” Fenwick-Judy said. “The confidence, independence, and bravery these kids have, they are going off into the woods, three miles away, and it’s totally an individual sport that takes them out of their element completely,” she said.
“It’s such an individual sport in a lot of ways, everybody sees your performance. You’re putting it all out there,” Cyr said. “Everybody sees where you place when you come across the line. Some people get so nervous about racing, I think it’s great that the kids are doing it. They don’t care what place they get or what anybody thinks about them. They’re just out there competing and having fun.”