Commentary: The future of American cycling looks dirty

Junior participation at USA Cycling's mountain bike national championships is soaring. Why is this so important to the overall picture of U.S. bicycle racing?

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My friends, I saw the future of American cycling at this weekend’s U.S. mountain bike national championships in Winter Park, Colorado.

The future of our sport was hard to miss, in fact. That’s because, every few minutes, it whizzed by and popped a wheelie or bunny hopped a puddle or executed some other impossible stunt on a mountain bike.

Teenagers, hundreds and hundreds of glorious teenagers, filled the trails and expo area at the U.S. mountain bike nationals. They zipped by on all varieties of mountain bikes, and rode stunts and berms and hopped over rocks.

And, while the professional races produced plenty of drama—kudos to Chloe Woodruff and Keegan Swenson of the Stan’s No Tubes-Pivot team for winning the cross-country titles—it was these teenagers who were the real story of the 2019 U.S. mountain bike nationals. That’s right, the future of American cycling is racing along on the dirt.

The Bear Development Team (center) had multiple riders at USA Nationals. Photo: USA Cycling

This year USA Cycling hit soaring participation numbers at nationals, with 2,518 total race starts and more than 1,600 total riders. That’s a 32 percent increase in participation from last year’s event in Snowshoe, West Virginia. There are practical reasons for this uptick, namely that Winter Park is easier to access than Snowshoe. Beyond this fact, however, there are signs from the 2019 U.S. national championships that speak to a bright future for American cycling.

The growth at U.S. Nationals was driven almost entirely by junior participation. There were 147 starters in the boys 17-18 age group cross-country championship, and 137 starters in the 15-16 age group. The girl’s fields were smaller than the boys, with 55 in the 15-16 and just over 60 in the 17-18 field. But both of those numbers represented an uptick in participation from recent years.

And these kids were really good at racing, too. Longtime racer Pete Webber, now coach of the Boulder Junior Cycling team, said he was most impressed by the high quality of racing he saw in the junior fields.

“I’ve never seen quality like this in the junior races—in my opinion, that’s what really stood out,” Webber said. “What you saw at the front of the races was really high ability in bike handling and racing.”

A decade ago, when I was VeloNews‘s mountain bike editor, junior participation at U.S. nationals was plummeting, and the entire mountain bike industry was wringing its hands over the sport’s potential impending death. How do we save mountain biking was a conversation I had again and again.

At the 2007 U.S. mountain bike championships in Mammoth, California, there were 32 starters in the 17-18 junior expert championship race and just 16 in the 15-16 age-group race. For the junior women’s race they actually combined the 15-16 and 17-18 age groups. Guess how many starters there were?

Ten. Yep, 10 total starters.

It’s no secret why U.S. mountain bike racing is booming. The National Interscholastic Cycling Association has become the official point of entry for young people who pick up cycling. NICA’s stats boggle the mind: 18,000 high-school kids, 26 state leagues, 9,000 volunteers. Hockey stick-like growth.

And while NICA races often attract far more participants than the junior fields at U.S. nationals, the league’s impact on USA Cycling’s premiere mountain bike race is important. The hundreds of kids who traveled to U.S. nationals are, generally speaking, serious racers, some of whom may progress through the ranks to become lifelong racers, elite athletes, industry professionals, and maybe even the stars of tomorrow.

Remember that column I wrote about the country’s beleaguered system for developing pro riders? It’s becoming extremely evident that NICA is the strongest component of our development system right now.

The juniors speed off down the trail. Photo: USA Cycling

Everyone I spoke to at U.S. nationals brought up NICA, from Ned Overend, to Dave Weins, to even Jerry Dufour, the winner of the Under-23 national championship race. Dufour hails from Alabama, and started racing when he was seven years old.

“Before NICA it was me and three other kids in Alabama racing competitively, and now it’s 500 kids,” Dufour said. “It just naturally steers kids to race the local series and then nationals. You see so many kids racing now who got their start in [NICA].”

If you’ve picked up an issue of VeloNews magazine in the last few years, you have likely read our coverage of NICA’s growth. We have covered the league’s innovative structure and model, to the way in which NICA is reviving regional racing series in various states, and funneling more elite riders into the pro ranks. Just this year I wrote about NICA’s success in launching a program in the inner-city community of Richmond, California.

So, what can the U.S. development system do to transform this uptick in junior participation into overall growth in American cycling, and success at the top?

In my opinion, we’re already building strong infrastructure to help steer these kids into the next steps in cycling. Structures are growing up around NICA to help kids stay in the sport. There has been a rapid increase in the number of local, regional, and even national-level junior programs to work with NICA riders.

Across the racing expo I saw jerseys from dozens and dozens of junior and Under-23 development programs. Think of the U.S. cycling scene like youth soccer. NICA represents the YMCA and school leagues, and these teams are more like the club squads, which provide coaching, guidance, and travel to competition. Boulder Junior Cycling, Bear Development Team, Rouleur Devo, Durango Devo: these are just a few of the dozens of teams I saw.

Marc Gullickson, USA Cycling’s high performance director for mountain biking, says these teams can play an important role in the greater pipeline of U.S. development as more kids enter the sport through NICA.

Photo: USA Cycling

“We have the infrastructure within USA Cycling for the very best juniors to get to the biggest races in the world. We need those organized junior devo teams out there to help us find the best kids,” Gullickson said. “They are organized and better funded, and a lot of the best high school kids end up on those teams. It’s a really nice bridge between the high school leagues and the world championships.”

What comes next? That’s the tough part, of course. If I could wave my magic wand, I’d create new events and regional racing series to provide more competition opportunities for these kids. I’d create devo teams with the budgets to send these kids overseas to the World Cups and junior road events. And then, I’d bring in outside sponsors to fund professional squads to hire these kids when they step into the pro ranks.

I hope it happens. The future of our sport is riding on it.

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