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Why high school mountain biking through NICA might be the best sport for your kids

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The NICA Experience

Just over 3 years ago, our two oldest kids started high school mountain bike racing through NICA. We didn’t know it at the time, but this sport and program was about to change our lives. From a distance, NICA doesn’t look like much more than the average high school sport. You go to practices a few times a week, try to get better and faster for a while, and eventually have some games, or in this case, races. And that’s exactly what NICA is, but the way it is done is unlike any other sport that kids can participate in. Mountain bike racing is by far one of the best ways for kids to make friends in high school. It’s super supportive, including, and most importantly, fun. It’s also a great way for parents to get involved with their kids, as well as make loads of memories. NICA does an awesome job at supporting anyone, if that be someone who’s a competitive racer, or just wants to be there for fun.

What is NICA?

The National Interscholastic Cycling Association, better known as NICA, is high school mountain biking. While it may be a smaller sport in some states, in places like Utah and Colorado, NICA teams can comprise up to 150 kids, with thousands and thousands participating statewide. The typical structure involves training sessions from June to August, followed by four regional races, leading up to a state championship in October. Most teams practice 2-3 times per week, with additional events and activities outside of practice. What makes NICA practices truly unique is the involvement of parents as ride leaders. For every eight kids on the trail, it is required that at least one parent is riding alongside them as a coach for various groups, fostering a sense of community and family engagement. So not only do you have plenty of kids riding mountain bikes, but it’s also an awesome way for parents to get out and do something with their teens. Ride leaders are coaches for different speed groups and different skill levels. Usually, teams will have about 3-10 different ride groups, depending on the size of the team, all based on speed, where multiple ride leaders will lead each group at the practices. 

More Than Just Racing

Although NICA is founded on mountain biking, it has become a whole lot more than that. Yes, most of the kids start coming to practice because of the biking and racing, but throughout the season a culture and respect is developed for and from everyone involved. Kids who were just learning to ride trails at the beginning of the season are now organizing group rides or hangouts with friends from the team. NICA focuses a lot more on athletes being involved than just about any other high school sport. Not only do they do this on the bike, but off the bike as well. Most teams will support a program called G.R.I.T (Girls Riding It Together) where girls will have activities and hang out outside of practices. Several teams also have Saturday group rides, orientation events, team dinners, and get-to-know-you events. Teams also have group pre-rides of the race courses and seminars on how to fix your bike when it runs into mechanical issues. Throughout the season, teams will have principles that they focus on for on and off the bike. One of our team’s favorites from this year was “Work Hard, Play Hard”, another one that we like to use a lot is “Be Greater Than”. Every practice has a focus on one of these principles and it helps the kids grow in a lot of ways, not just in riding, but for life in general.

The Races

Probably the most amazing thing about NICA is the races. There is nothing quite like a high school mountain bike race. Before the season even begins, each rider is placed into a race category based on how fast they race, ranging from Varsity, boys JVE-JVA, Freshman, Girls JVA and JVB, and middle school, which ranges from beginner to advanced. Each team sets up tents with their team colors all over, every kid wearing a colorful team jersey. Brands come and sell gear to the athletes, while mechanics tune bikes while racks of hundreds and hundreds of bikes fill the area not being used for tents. But the most amazing part happens on the side of the trail. A NICA race course usually consists of multiple laps on a 5-8 mile mountain bike loop. Usually, regional races will consist of anywhere from 30-100 kids in each category. For every kid on the trail are at least five times that many cheering to the sides of the trails. Parents, siblings, Grandparents, Ride Leaders, and Coaches run around, trying to find the next good place to cheer on their athletes, while people who have raced and are about to race do the same for their teammates. The starting and finish lines are packed with people cheering off to the sides. Any areas where the trail comes close to the pit zones are swarming with people supporting their friends and family. Ride leaders warm up with the athletes before their races start throughout the day. The finish line is packed with people helping the tired kids with their bikes, and congratulating them on their performances. So much is going on that there is never a dull moment at a NICA race. At the end of the day, people work together to take down all of the tents and race-course markers as things slow down. And then to wrap everything up, a podium ceremony is held to congratulate the top 5 athletes from each category. During this, most riders are present, even if they didn’t even come close to the podium. As the names are called, team members sometimes carry their riders up to the podium while everyone cheers for their support. 

The Competitive aspect

High school mountain biking is probably one of the least competitive sports out there. With up to 100 kids racing each category, most people aren’t expecting to podium. People get out there and do their best and don’t compare themselves to others. But the competitive aspect is still there for those who do care. Kids will use an app called Strava to see and share what they and their friends are riding. Most teams make it a competition to see who on their team can ride the most miles in a week using this app. Once kids start riding and training outside of practice, some can even go on to race professionally straight out of high school. So one of the things that’s great about the sport is the spread in skill level, how some kids pick it up as a secondary sport, while for some others, it’s their life. 

How to get Involved

Chances are, if you live in an area with trails and mountains, your kid’s school has a mountain biking program that participates in NICA. Usually, mountain bike sign-ups are sometime in March or April. Once signed up for a team you’ll need a mountain bike. Mountain bikes used in NICA are anything but cheap. A good place to start is to go to your local bike shop and ask about what types of bikes they’d recommend for a NICA racer. New bikes can run you anywhere from $900-5k, depending on the weight, materials, and parts used. However, for someone just starting, a used bike will do the trick just as well, usually for a much cheaper price.  Used bikes are often sold by team members, or they can be found easily using platforms like Facebook Marketplace. A bike used for NICA is required to have the following things:

-Gears. 1x drivetrains usually work best but 2x and 3x will work as well.

-Suspension. While you don’t need a full-suspension bike, NICA requires you to at least have a front shock.

-Front and rear brakes

-No bar ends

-No drop bars, like what you might find on a road bike.

You’ll also be required to have a good helmet. Mountain biking is a very intense sport and crashes are a very common occurrence. Choosing the right helmet makes a massive difference in how kids can be protected in a crash from things like concussions. When helmet shopping, look for safety ratings and lean towards helmets that have certifications like Mips; Multi-directional Impact Protection System. Later in the season, bike teams will also have you purchase a race kit representing the school’s team.

Conclusion

In conclusion, high school mountain biking through NICA offers an extraordinary experience for students and their families. It combines the thrill of competition with the joys of making friends and personal growth. NICA isn’t just a sport; it’s a way of life that enriches the lives of high school students in plenty of ways. Whether your child is an aspiring cyclist or simply seeks an inclusive, supportive community, NICA might just be the best sport for them. Consider NICA as more than just a high school activity – it’s an adventure that will shape their character and create memories that last a lifetime.

About Jessica Averett

Hi, I’m Jessica, a mom of 5 kids and married to my favorite adventure partner. I love to bike, ski, camp and hike. We've visited over 40 countries with our kids, but are equally happy on the road as we are exploring our home state of Utah.

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