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.
Beside the pavilion at the trailhead, a voice on a megaphone cuts through. Whitney Pogue, Head Coach of the CCHS Chargers, steps onto a nearby rock and runs through the announcements about the weekend’s championship in St. George. She is slight in build, with a thick shock of curly red hair and a deeply caring presence—attributes which have earned her the nickname “Ginger Mama.” She corrals the attention of the students with practiced authority. After the announcements, riders close into a giant huddle. Their voices come together in unison. From a whisper, they build to a full-on shout as they repeat the refrain: “Ooohh! Aaahh! You wish you were a Charger! Ooohh! Aaahh! You wish you were a Charger!” As the cheer reaches its crescendo, the students erupt in one final big-hearted battle cry. It is a striking moment—not just for the camaraderie, but because the sentiment rings true for anyone watching who didn’t have a high school mountain bike team: We do all wish we were Chargers. There is a chorus of cacophonous clicking—SPD cleats on concrete—as students disperse, spot their ride leaders, split into their respective groups, and head off on a long, dirt-road climb to the trails. In the distance, clouds of rising dust signal their progress.
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.
And it’s working. From a single school in Northern California seven years ago, NICA has helped to mature 19 leagues in 18 states with a total of over 12,000 riders. “They have everything you need to get a team off the ground,” says Coach Whitney Pogue. “They provide the support that lets us make mountain bikers out of anyone. And the impact this has on kids is amazing.” The betterment of youth is a worthy cause in and of itself, but NICA is just as good for the sport of mountain biking as it is for the kids who compete at the middle and high school levels. By introducing young riders to the trail, they’re training a new generation of advocates, trail builders, volunteers, and coaches who will go on to introduce more people to the joys of the sport. Good for kids, good for mountain biking. It’s a cause and program worth expanding, and the massive impact NICA can have on both the participating students and the communities they ride in was on full display at the Utah State Championships.
St. George lies 300 miles south of Salt Lake City, in a dusty region of red dirt and clay near Zion National Park. Here, high school mountain bike teams assemble from all corners of the state, arriving in RVs and family vehicles pulling trailers. The sheer scale of the event is astounding (the 2016 Utah State Championships hosted a NICA-record 1,276 riders), but the most remarkable part is the community. Families and parents, clad in the regalia of their children’s high school, turn out in droves to cheer and lend a helping hand. This is more than a high school sporting event and even more than a bike race. It’s a family outing. The Chargers have a prime location in the center of the action. The team takes up three or four times more real estate than most others. Within their camp there are eleven tents, three couches, at least a dozen tables and a hundred chairs, plus a fully outfitted trailer with three bike stands and enough tools to fill a bike shop. All morning, volunteers—many of whom are parents, ride leaders, assistant coaches, or former members of the team—have been serving food, repairing flats, and giving out words of encouragement to the racers. They are generous with their time and support. For a team this size, it takes a village. “It’s easy to look at all of this and think it’s not possible to build it in your community,’” says Whitney. “But NICA gives you everything you need to make this possible. When people see how mountain biking affects these kids, they just want to get involved.”
“And herein lies the true spirit of the sport: mountain biking is for everyone.”
Some of the students are here to compete (several Chargers, in fact, will go on to earn spots on the podium), and some are here simply to be part of the team, to be part of something that feels important. Throughout the day, riders return to the Chargers camp with dusty smiles. Whitney, walkie-talkie perpetually in hand, is at the finish line to cheer on every one of her Chargers. As the hours pass, Ginger Mama’s energy doesn’t falter. Even at the end of the day, when the light is orange and the shadows are long against the desert floor, when every rider has finished, when the points have been tallied and the Chargers have been officially awarded the title of 2016 State Champions, Whitney seems held up as if by some supernatural force. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world,” she explains. “I have all of these great kids.” What she doesn’t point out, because she’d be the last person in the wide state of Utah to compliment herself, is that the inverse is also true. Every one of these kids is lucky to have her, and they all know it. Her one piece of advice to someone interested in changing lives through mountain biking is simple. “Do it,” she says. “With the resources available through NICA, anyone can do this. The influence you’ll have on these kids…” She trails off, looking at a canyon far in the distance, imagining perhaps what high school mountain biking will look like in years to come, and how many kids will benefit from it. “You just have to do it,” she says. “You just have to do it.”