By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Getting outdoors with the family makes mountain biking fun, but nothing beats high school competition for Casa Grande High’s Liz Maguire, a favorite in the top girls’ race at the California championships Sunday.
As the state’s best prep riders take to the Stafford Lake Park course in Novato, the world’s top road cyclists will be rolling toward Santa Rosa in the Amgen Tour of California’s final stage. The Bay Area has become a cycling hotbed with Maguire and other Empire racers riding a wave of growth in the sport’s off-road prep discipline.
“There’s more every year. That’s added competition,” Maguire said. “There’s room for recreational riders. The top riders really get after it. That’s why the sport is so cool. It’s up to you how hard you want to push yourself.”
An inclusive, challenging and adventurous sport, mountain biking is drawing a new and burgeoning generation of high school racers. Northern California has been at the forefront.
“By focusing on fun and teamwork first and then competition, kids have fun on their bikes. Everyone participates. No one sits on the bench,” said Miguel Crawford, a former professional mountain biker and El Molino High School Spanish teacher who coaches the school’s team.
“Everyone has an opportunity to contribute and strive to improve on their skills and endurance.”
The El Molino program, in its second season is another addition to the NorCal High School Cycling League. In its 13th year, the league brings together an ever-increasing number of teams with the number of riders doubling in recent years. Empire teams are club level programs that might garner some financial support from their school but mostly rely on fundraising and grants.
NorCal stages five races in a season that runs from February through May. Teams often train several months before the official season begins, preparing for rigorous races featuring six-mile loops of varying numbers, from two circuits for freshmen to four to five for varsity.
Riders typically put in 40 to 80 miles or more a week depending on racing levels. The top competitors will ride in small groups or on their own to get in a handful of training runs weekly.
Taking to trails since soon after balancing on a bike, Ezra Acker recognized he needed to steadily increase mileage to place high in his first year on the El Molino team. He is ranked fourth in NorCal for freshmen in Division 2.
“The league opens up racing to people who may not have raced. I like the competition,” Acker said. “I’ve been training hard, more miles, more climbing, much longer weekend rides.”
While races come down to a rider and his wheels, high school mountain biking is a team sport. From training rides as a group to pushing for race points, riders contribute to a team’s success.
“You push yourself, but you’re racing for your team,” Acker said. “It gives you more willpower. Your team relies on you.”
Coaches emphasize the sport’s dual goals. Attracting new riders is a result.
“If you come to practice and try your hardest, you race,” said Mike Harrison, the Maria Carrillo coach.
“We have recreational riders that compete for fun and therefore don’t put in a lot of mileage training. And we have a number of elite athletes that follow strict training regimen.”
As a licensed cycling coach who races professionally in mountain bike endurance races, Harrison represents the often high quality of coaching for prep teams. Many coaches have been elite riders.
Others, like Tami and Jeff Cramer, are enthusiasts. The Cramers, owners of a Lake County bike shop, started a team at Kelseyville High School two years ago and added a Clear Lake High School team this season. “We’ve grown considerably and expect to do so next year,” Tami Cramer said.
“Biking gets you in fantastic shape, gets you out in nature, and is something you can do for the rest of your life.”
Leading the Clear Lake team is Nathan Barnett, a sophomore who with Maguire joined Levi Leipheimer to win an eight-hour mountain bike endurance race earlier this month at Boggs Mountain in Lake County. After a training ride in Annadel State Park, the team took Bike Monkey’s three-person co-ed race the next day. The team’s name was High School Express.
“It was awesome,” said Maguire, the Casa Grande rider. “The fact that he did a race with two high school kids showed that he does a sport he really loves.”
Casa Grande is one of the Empire’s most established teams. The sport’s growth is not surprising to coach Scot Wigert, who seven years ago started the team with NorCal director Vanessa Hauswald.
“The growth of high school racing is a factor of the popularity of cycling in the Bay Area in general,” Wigert said.
“I think we have sort of forgotten that as we drive our kids to school. Once kids have the opportunity to ride, it just takes off naturally. Mountain biking is really fun.”