In Draper, Utah, in a valley 20 miles south of Salt Lake City, the Corner Canyon High School Chargers mountain bike team assembles at the Orson Smith trailhead for the last organized practice before the 2016 Utah State Championships. The atmosphere is alight with energy. Students huddle in small groups over phones, gazing up occasionally at the golden hills as they wait for the practice to begin. This region, nestled alongside the Wasatch Front, is a mecca for outdoor adventure sports. Neighboring valleys boast “the greatest snow on earth,” and are renowned for their world-class ski resorts, but here in Draper, the community of 50,000 residents claims something different but perhaps just as remarkable: the nation’s largest high school mountain bike team. The 138 members of the Corner Canyon Chargers are a sight to behold. At the trailhead, mountain bikes—some new, some passed down from an older sibling—are scattered across the grass and gravel. For every five or ten students in a CCHS mountain bike jersey, an adult volunteer stands nearby ready to assist with last-minute adjustments. It is order in chaos, tied together with a single overwhelming sentiment: happiness. These kids have worked for this day, the last before the year’s biggest race. They have put in the hours on the trail, both in season and over the preceding summer, and are now poised to test themselves against the state’s best. For some of these athletes, tonight marks the last practice of their career in high school athletics.
For any former high school athlete, and especially those who found cycling later in life, it’s natural to wonder how mountain biking might have changed the high school experience. In fact, almost every adult rider in Draper’s mountain bike community—including the dozens of volunteers who are essential for everything from leading practice to bringing nutrition to the trail—says as much. “I wish they’d had this when I was in high school.” There’s something undeniably cool about a high school mountain bike team, something that separates it from more traditional sports teams like football, wrestling, and soccer. The great distinguisher, perhaps, is that mountain biking doesn’t end with graduation. It knows no age limit. At Corner Canyon, the team has more than doubled in size since its first season in 2013. And herein lies the true spirit of the sport: mountain biking is for everyone. You can be slow, you can be fast, you can be experienced, you can want a new challenge, you can simply want to be around friends. Whatever you want to get out of it, mountain biking gives more in return. Whatever level of ability, mountain biking changes lives. Today in the United States, there are nearly 8 million high school athletes. Of this number, a shockingly low percentage go on to play sports in college or beyond. Unfortunately for many, that means hanging up the cleats, or goggles, or racquet far too early. It’s not a pleasant thought. But cycling is different. At Corner Canyon High School, every rider is developing in a sport they can pursue for the rest of their lives. The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) is the governing body for middle and high school mountain biking in the United States. They provide the guidance and leadership for communities and coaches like Whitney to start mountain bike programs, and their resources are abundant. Founded in 2009 by a math teacher named Matt Fritzinger, NICA takes a holistic approach to development. The idea is that mountain biking can be about more than athletics, and NICA believes in helping student athletes develop strong bodies, minds, and characters.