BERKELEY, CA (BRAIN) — The National Interscholastic Cycling Association is launching a pilot program this fall in Minnesota to introduce middle school students to mountain bike racing. The goal with the pilot is to learn best practices and to develop curriculum specific to the sixth- through eighth-grade age group that can be shared with other leagues.
NICA executive director Austin McInerny hopes that a year from now NICA can formally launch a middle school program across all nine of its state leagues.
“We wanted to pick one league and trial it and learn from that experience. We’ll see how it goes and what kinds of questions we get from middle schools,” McInerny said. “But people are hungry for this, and if we set it up right it will be a really strong training opportunity to set these kids up to want to continue the sport when they go to high school.”
Gary Sjoquist, chair of the Minnesota High School Cycling League, is heading up the Minnesota pilot. He anticipates it will draw about 40 to 50 kids in its first year from about a dozen schools, but believes there’s potential to double or triple that number.
“As with any NICA league, there are challenges, like having the parents get kids to the facilities and organizing the races. But we have such a healthy mountain biking community here and a great trail network and lots of schools. I think the right elements are here to make this work.
“I think our middle school program will grow pretty quickly and that will fuel future growth as they become high school kids,” Sjoquist added.
Sjoquist plans to tap Nordic ski coaches who currently work with middle school children. Many of these coaches are mountain bikers and see cycling as an off-season cross-training activity. Plus, the kids can easily take to mountain biking because they already have a certain fitness level from the Nordic skiing. “There’s a lot of crossover,” Sjoquist said.
“When you put programs together you realize how competitive other sports are in recruiting middle school children. Kids are being asked to be involved in sports at an early age. If mountain biking isn’t at the table, we lose those kids. We want kids to get involved earlier than high school,” he added.
In communities with robust high school programs, like the NorCal Cycling League, parents have asked if their middle school children can participate in practice rides. NICA hasn’t allowed that because they wouldn’t be insured under the league.
McInerny is currently working with NICA’s insurance provider to come up with coverage that’s affordable for middle school teams and clubs.
The Minnesota pilot program will allow students to practice with high school teams. They will also be able to participate in the third race of the season for the high school league in a 45-minute to one-hour event that would only be open to middle school athletes but allow them to race on the same course as high school athletes.
As with NICA’s high school leagues, coaches for the middle school program would need to become licensed through NICA and adhere to its risk management program.
“The level of professionalism for how NICA runs its leagues is high and we want to make sure we keep that,” said Sjoquist. “I know mountain bikers who are teachers or coaches at middle schools and are waiting to jump on this. We will expand our racing population but also our coaching population.”