Editor’s Note: Thanks in part to organizations such as the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, there has been explosive growth in high school mountain bike racing all over the country. There are competitive leagues in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, California, Alabama and many other states and regions, including northern New England, which is the focus of this post. Thanks to Scott Allenby of Proctor Academy in New Hampshire for sharing yet another success story in the bid to get more kids and young adults on bikes.
In 1998, Kimball Union Academy mountain mike coach Bill Farrell and Kennett High’s Chris Darling put their heads together to figure out how they could create a high school mountain biking race for New Hampshire schools.
Soon, the Northern New England Mountain Biking League was formed. It started with five high school teams, but by 2006 about 100 riders were showing up at races. Coaches were ecstatic about the opportunity they were able to provide their riders, and over the course of the next decade, the Northern New England Mountain Biking League grew to encompass over 330 riders from 29 high schools in four New England states.
It’s a long way from the inaugural race at Bear Notch in Bartlett, New Hampshire, where 30 riders were timed on a stopwatch and had finish positions recorded with pencil on a notepad. “Now we have a fully electronic timing system, GoPro cameras at the finish line, and a custom number plate for each rider,” said Darling.
Indeed, the Northern New England Mountain Biking League has grown to be one of the most comprehensive high school mountain biking league on the East Coast with riders from Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts.
“Our main goal is to teach kids to be safe, competitive, and enthusiastic mountain bikers,” explained Proctor Academy mountain bike coach Josh Norris. “Every year we strive to be as competitive as we can at the races, but more importantly to teach kids about how fitness, nutrition, and sleep can affect their performance on and off the bike. While we want the kids to find success on the race course, ultimately we want them to have fun and become life long advocates for the sport. As coaches, we are all so excited to watch mountain biking grow into a mainstream high school sport.”
In late September, Proctor Academy hosted the first race of the 2016 season, which saw 240 riders from 29 public and private high schools lined up at the starting line.
“The league has the most motivated group of riders that I’ve seen over the past four years,” said Proctor rider and senior Scott Johannen who took third in Boys Class A. “It seems like everyone on our team and on the other teams are just super excited to be on their bikes, and are having so much fun learning how to get faster and stronger. That’s what it’s all about at this level.”
The Northern New England Mountain Bike League serves top level riders like Johannen with elite competition, some of whom will go on to compete at the college and perhaps even professional level.
What makes the league successful, though, is its ability to introduce novice riders to the sport of mountain biking. At that same race in September, over 100 riders competed in the Class C category for beginner riders. Over time, these beginners will gain the confidence, strength, and technical ability to compete in Class B, and potentially Class A. It is this unique ability to provide challenge and competition to every rider, no matter his or her experience or skill level, that has so many high school students and coaches excited about this league and the sport in general.
Throughout its growth over the past decade, including a split into East and West Divisions for the 2016 season, the league’s mission and impact has remained constant.
“Our league is driven by coaches who are invested in the culture of mountain bike racing, and parents quickly see that mountain bike racing is the best thing that ever happened to their child,” said league co-founder Farrell. “Mountain bike racing and training embraces an endurance sport philosophy that values commitment to learning, citizenship, character, and giving back to the community. And perhaps most importantly, there are no benches in mountain biking. It is suddenly inclusive. Everyone races at his or her level and there’s no worry about playing time or coaches playing favorites. Riders simply get to ride their hardest and improve their conditioning and technical ability each time they race or train.”
It’s also worth noting that while mountain biking may be classified as an individual sport, it is anything but. “Rigging up and loading trailers with 30 bikes, getting lunches and fluids ready, tires pumped, frames washed, cow manure scrubbed out of knobby tires, chains degreased and convoying vehicles over the Kancamagus Highway to races in North Conway, New Hampshire, or Fryeburg, Maine, on a beautiful autumn day represents team at its highest level,” added Farrell.
To learn more visit the Northern New England Mountain Biking League website and Proctor Academy’s MTB team page.