Fast Times at Singletrack High
A new breed of jocks are taking over at Marin County’s Sir Francis Drake High School—endurance geeks who think spandex is cool, love getting dirty, and want to make mountain biking America’s favorite extracurricular activity.
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JOE BREEZE stares blankly at the freshman girl for a moment, then looks down at the mountain bike she’s handed him. Breeze, 60, is best known for creating the first purpose-made mountain bikes back in the 1970s, when he and other founders of the sport began riding the dirt trails around Marin County, California. He still develops new bikes for his Breezer brand, which sells 55 different models in 16 countries around the world. He’s also the volunteer race-day mechanic for Sir Francis Drake High School’s mountain-bike team, the Pirates.
It’s a warm May morning on Boggs Mountain, a heavily wooded state forest 100 miles northeast of San Francisco. Today’s the day for the NorCal High School Cycling League Championships, the penultimate event of the Pirates’ six-race calendar, and Breeze has been tuning bikes at the team’s campsite since shortly after dawn.
“Madison, is their anything specifically wrong with your bike?” asks Sarah Starbird, the Pirates’ codirector and assistant coach.
“It’s just kind of making this knocking noise,” Madison says.
Breeze eyeballs the bike’s derailleur, sighs, and lifts it onto his stand.
Having a legendary frame builder attend to your bike’s funny noises is one of the many advantages of riding for the Pirates. In the rapidly growing world of competitive high school mountain biking, the team is like the New York Yankees—perennially dominant, beloved by fans, and fiercely envied by rivals. One of the coaches is Otis Guy, 59, another pioneer of the sport. The public school, located in Marin’s Ross Valley, has immediate access to a vast network of trails, along with the deep pockets of a wealthy, bike-crazed community. Coming into the 2013 season, which runs from February to May, the Pirates had won six NorCal league championship titles in nine years, including the last four in a row, plus all four California State Championships since the NorCal and SoCal leagues began holding the event in 2009.
As Breeze works, half a dozen other girls under a nearby tarp pedal on magnetic resistance trainers, the devices buzzing like robotic bees. The boys, who won’t be racing for a few hours, pick through a buffet table or sprawl in camp chairs surrounding a smoldering fire pit. Parents mill about drinking coffee and trying to be useful: unpacking more trainers, reminding riders to hydrate, and double-checking the spreadsheets of start times and job assignments taped to the team’s equipment trailer. Similar scenes are playing out across Boggs’s tightly packed group campsites. Most of the nearly 50 teams in the NorCal league opted to spend the night here, so the place is overflowing with some 400 kids outfitted in team racing kit, along with hundreds of parents, siblings, coaches, and support staff.
Noticeably absent from the Pirates’ campsite is Lucas Newcomb, a rail-thin redhead who is one of the top cycling prospects in the nation. To assure a good night’s sleep, he spent the night in a nearby hotel with his family. The younger boys on the team view Newcomb as a celebrity, a status enhanced by the fact that his girlfriend is Kate Courtney, an attractive senior at Marin’s private Branson School and one of the best teenage mountain bikers in the world.
But while the teams have stars, everybody gets to play—any rider on any team can race in events endorsed by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which oversees NorCal and a growing roster of leagues across the country. Scoring is engineered to give a large advantage to co-ed teams. There is no bench. Nor are there cuts. These and other guidelines are part of a defiantly progressive approach that, as NICA board president Rick Spittler puts it, “creates a new definition of high school sports.”
Still, a race is a race, and for the Pirates anything but another NorCal championship will be a letdown. This season has been more challenging than most. A number of talented riders graduated in 2011 and 2012, and the team stands at 29 members, down from past highs of 40-plus. For the first time in five years, losing seems like a real possibility: the Pirates are in a virtual tie with Salinas High School for the season crown. Adding to the pressure, head coach Paul Chourre announced at last night’s campfire that he would be retiring after nine seasons.
As the 9:30 A.M. start time for the first girls’ race approaches, the coaches corral the riders for a pep talk. Chourre, a stocky 43-year-old with a goatee, black Pirates cap, and sunglasses, implores everyone to ride smart. “You lose more time crashing than being careful,” he says. A mom on the outside of the circle calls out, “This one is for Paul!”
“The most I can ask is for you to give your best,” Chourre says. “OK, hands in. One, two, three—”
COMPETITIVE HIGH SCHOOL mountain biking dates back to 1998, when Matt Fritzinger, a 42-year-old amateur road racer and first-year math teacher at Berkeley High School, put a note in one of the school’s daily bulletins: “Does anyone want to start a bike club?”
A bunch of kids came to his classroom that afternoon, and four ended up sticking with it for the year. In summer 2000, Fritzinger went to Italy for two months and was astounded by the community support for bicycling. When he got home, he called the managers of six Northern California mountain-bike races to see if they would add a high school division. All said yes, so Fritzinger created a poster advertising a new league and mailed it to 400 schools. Sixty kids showed up to the first event.
By 2005, Fritzinger had left teaching to serve as the executive director of the NorCal High School Cycling League, a nonprofit that staged its own events and attracted hundreds of racers from dozens of schools. After helping launch the SoCal league in 2008, Fritzinger says, he started “to believe we could spread this across the country.” NICA, which Fritzinger and others created in 2009, has since developed leagues in seven other states: Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Texas, Tennessee, Minnesota, and New York.
“Our biggest challenge is managing growth,” says board president Spittler. “We can build out only three leagues a year, and a lot more states than that are coming to us.”
From the start, both NorCal and NICA have operated outside the systems that govern most interscholastic sports. This makes teams ineligible for school-district funding but gives them the freedom to evolve without red tape. Teams pull together cash from a combination of local boosters, sponsors, and fundraising events. One NorCal squad from a low-income neighborhood in Sacramento is managed by neighborhood police officers. NICA also gets major support from bike brands, in particular Easton, Specialized, SRAM, and Trek.
This past April, at the Sea Otter Classic, a major cycling and trade-show gathering in Monterey, NICA hosted a screening of Singletrack High, a documentary that follows five NorCal riders over the course of a season. A number of big names were on hand, including Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey, and Specialized founder Mike Sinyard. Their enthusiasm for high school mountain biking would seem automatic, given that every new rider is a potential long-term customer, but earlier in the day marketers at two different bike companies told me that NICA had outsize expectations for sponsorships and was getting kids habituated to discounts. “They wanted $50,000 for logo placement on a race banner!” groused one.
Sinyard, who covered the entire production cost of Singletrack High, was dismissive when I mentioned these complaints. As he sees it, getting young people on bikes is a moral imperative. He cited new research that strongly suggests that cycling can have a therapeutic effect on kids with ADHD, which both Sinyard and his 31-year-old son, Anthony, suffer from. In 2012, Specialized funded research that looked at whether frequent riding could boost the focus and attention span of a group of Massachusetts middle school students. The results, which will be presented at a psychology conference in October, showed the kids making dramatic improvements—after a single exercise session and also over the course of the entire study. “This is me giving back to the world,” Sinyard said as we walked into the theater to watch the film. “I just want to get the kite in the air.”
Such passion is probably the best explanation for the sudden explosion in high school mountain biking. A few years ago, NICA created a T-shirt that read, I WISH THEY HAD THIS WHEN WE WERE IN SCHOOL. It was an instant hit with parents.
“Mountain bikers went from being rebels to being dads to being old enough to coach,” says Fritzinger. “It’s the natural evolution of a sport.”
IN THE LEAD-UP to Boggs, I joined the Pirates for an afternoon practice ride through Camp Tamarancho, a Boy Scout property with the best legal singletrack in Marin. A group of amped-up boys, including sophomores Ben Enbom, Carson Benjamin, and Sterling Guy, took off with a coach trailing behind them. I fell in alongside Sarah Starbird and Leah Lind-White, a long-limbed senior who was back on her bike after a bout of mononucleosis that had spiraled into pneumonia and a kidney infection. Ahead of us was Ryan McCarty, a stout junior who is autistic. “He’s one of the most committed kids on the team,” Starbird said. “Biking has changed his life.”
The crew also included a heavier underclassman who worked hard to stick with the pack, a senior boy with a ponytail, and a birdlike sophomore girl who seemed deathly afraid of her bike.
It was a decidedly mixed group of athletes for a dominant sports team, which is exactly what NICA has in mind. The organization refers to itself as a youth development program, and the glossy 138-page NICA Coach Manual kicks off with discussions of how biking builds self-esteem while fostering community. “High school kids are by nature disengaged,” says Spittler. “They need a family—the band, a team, a club. We’ve created a very inclusive way to do that.”
It helps that mountain biking is still seen as an alternative sport, even at Sir Francis Drake. “We get all the non-bat-and-ball kids,” says coach Chourre. “We’re a bit of an odd breed, and the team picks up on that.”
Of course, in Marin mountain biking is a major force. As of this year, all the larger public and private schools in the county have NorCal teams. Additionally, several local development programs train elite riders competing in UCI World Cup events. The programs offer pro-level guidance, but they also frequently pull talented students away from their school teams. Lucas Newcomb, who rides with the junior men Whole Athlete squad, almost never practices with the Pirates, and he misses at least one NorCal race a year. One of the Pirates’ best riders in 2012, a junior named Miles Lim who also trained with Whole Athlete, quit racing altogether after biking through an illness and exhausting himself.
During the Tamarancho ride, none of the Pirates seemed remotely burned out. When a skinny freshman flatted on a rocky straightaway, a junior helped him replace his tube. A few boys tried to name all the members of Aerosmith while cranking up a moderate climb. On a twisting section of soft dirt under redwoods, Lind-White and a couple of younger girls chatted about wheel sizes (“I’m still not used to the 29er”) and recent crashes (“Remember when I fell off that bridge and snapped my shifter?”).
The team gathered at the start of a new mile-long section of flow trail that had opened up just weeks before. One by one, we dropped onto the rollercoaster-like course, leaning into steeply banked turns and over tightly stacked berms. Riding near the back, I shot out the exit of the course into a swarm of hooting, fist-bumping Pirates.
“How fun is that?” asked Otis Guy, giving me a high five.
Another coach asked the riders, “Who wants to do that again?”
“I’m going to do it like five more times,” said a grinning freshman named Dean Lyons. And he did.
IF THERE’S A SINGLE indicator of how far things have come since Fritzinger launched the Berkeley High bike club, it’s the start of a freshman boys’ race at a NorCal event. At Boggs, 130 sweaty, jittery kids queue up, digging at the dirt like bulls. To the side, teammates and family shout names and clang cowbells. “These boys are ready to go!” a race announcer bellows over the PA. “Three, two, one—” There’s a chorus of cleats clicking into pedals, a cloud of dust, and they’re off.
Several fall almost immediately, having chosen the wrong gear for an uphill start. One boy’s chain comes off as he tries to shift. Mechanical problems are a regular occurrence at races, and riders are equipped to deal with basic problems. For larger issues they can get help, but it will cost them a five-minute penalty. Throughout the day, I see racers with bikes on their shoulders frantically charging into their pit zones. At a race earlier in the year, Sterling Guy was in the middle of a lap when his chain broke. Unaware that he was allowed to ask for trailside help and uncomfortable running in his clunky bike shoes, he hoofed six miles back to the start barefoot.
As the temperature at Boggs climbs toward a high of 85, kids come off the course in varying physical and emotional states. Nikki Lax, a Pirates junior, is ecstatic, having taken fourth in the JV division. “I’m so happy!” she says, her white teeth standing out in her dirt-smeared face. Her classmate Allie Jo Stanley never found her legs and finishes 14th. Returning to the campsite looking ashen, she brushes off Chourre but later cracks a smile when he and her brother sandwich her in a hug. I see a heavyset boy from another school give up at the start of his third lap. “I’m done,” he says, pushing his bike toward a coach, his face puffy and crimson.
At one point, an announcement comes over the PA that a large rattlesnake has been spotted crossing the course. A race marshal shoos it into the under-brush and returns to the start to show off pictures on her iPhone. Coaches and race officials regularly remind riders to beware of poison oak. Other hazards are less predictable. When Lucas Newcomb’s twin, Johnny, sets out on foot for a distant section of the course to cheer on his brother, he wanders into a shooting range.
The most thrilling moment at Boggs comes at the end of the JV boys’ race. The crowd, hearing that a tight finish is coming, clusters near the line. There’s a rising cheer as three leaders round a final turn and begin cranking up the last 200 feet. In front is a kid from Woodcreek, a Sacramento suburb, followed closely by Ben Enbom and Carson Benjamin. The Woodcreek rider comes unclipped from his pedal, allowing Enbom and Benjamin to pull almost even with him, but he clips back in and holds on to first place as all three sprint feverishly over the line.
For the varsity boys’ race, I take a seat alongside a technical section of downhill. The lead riders are at an entirely different skill level than the rest of the pack, and they fly past at furious speeds. Later, Otis Guy explains that a good number of senior racers opt to compete in the JV bracket. “For regular kids, racing varsity can be a trail of tears,” he says. “It’s gruesome.”
Newcomb is in fourth place for the first six-mile lap but soon moves into the lead. On the second and third laps, he’s yipping and hooting as he passes me. He wins by 14 seconds. “I was having so much fun out there,” he tells me when I catch up with him at the Pirates campsite.
After the last rider is finished, everyone gathers on a dirt slope facing a podium. Winners hobble up to accept medals and raise their arms. The Pirates had a triumphant day—seven top-five finishes—and win another NorCal title going away.
As the entire team approaches the podium, Nikki Lax grabs the mic. “We want to dedicate this trophy to Coach Paul!” she says. Moments later, as the Pirates arrange themselves for a photo op, Sterling Guy dumps a cooler of water over Chourre’s head.
BUT YOU CAN’T win them all. Three weeks after Boggs, the Pirates come up short at the state championships, which, ironically, is the only event of the season held in Marin, on a mostly fire-road course in Stafford Lake Park. From the outset, they’re beset by bad timing and bad luck. Newcomb can’t race because he’s in Germany for the first round of the juniors World Cup. (He’ll finish 29th, making him the top American; Kate Courtney, the only American girl to compete, will take third. In July, both will win national titles in cross-country.) Sterling Guy’s derailleur implodes on his first lap, and Carson Benjamin cramps up and finishes 14th. There are some bright moments—Enbom wins the JV boys’ race—but as a freshman boy later puts it to me, the day is full of “false hopes and crushed dreams.”
He’s referring to the fact that the Pirates were initially awarded another state trophy. The NICA team-scoring system uses a complicated formula to compute points based on the results of a certain number of top boy and girl finishers, with adjustments made for the size of the team and the boy-girl ratio. At the state championships, the scorers got the math wrong and gave the title to the Pirates. Only after the teams began packing up did they realize that the real winner was Redwood High, a Marin County school five miles down the road from Sir Francis Drake.
But if it’s a rough day for the Pirates, it’s another milestone for NICA: with 599 kids racing, the 2013 California State Championships ends up being the largest high school mountain-bike race in history. O