Turning an “activity” into a “sport” is no small task. It was done a long time ago with skiing and driving cars, more recently with fishing and poker, and in the last decade or so it’s happened with mountain biking. Racing up, down, and around the peaks has created a new outdoor avenue of fun and bonding for teens in a wide area, including Basalt, Carbondale, Aspen and Glenwood Springs.
The Colorado High School Cycling League (CHSCL) got its start in Boulder in 2010. The organization offering teens a club in which to race their mountain bikes, not just ride them, quickly established itself in a handful of communities, one of which was Carbondale, home to the Colorado Rocky Mountain School.
The league took off, increasing its reach by double digits every year. It reported growth of 77 percent after that initial season, and still showed a healthy 10 percent increase following its 2018 campaign. Now it boasts a three-state span from Wyoming into New Mexico, with about 170 high schools and 80 teams involved, split into Northern and Southern Conferences by Interstate 70.
CRMS, the most established Roaring Fork Valley team, fields 20 student-athletes this year. Glenwood, the biggest local high school, has 26 on the trails. Basalt and Aspen have smaller contingents, currently at eight and 13 riders respectively, but they’re just as competitive as their friends from the other schools. CHSCL founder and current Executive Director Kate Rau would tell you the competition’s not even the point – it’s the friends.
Rau got the idea from northern California, while working as a ski instructor and mental health advocate in Boulder, as well as in a fledgling youth mountain bike program, seeking a way to advance “positive youth development.”
She says, “I realized prevention is way more fun, and likely more effective and long-lasting, than getting to the point of needing an intervention in a family with teenagers.”
It’s proven effective indeed, with Rau and other officials saying some of the biggest successes in the league’s “Decade of Dirt” so far have been instilling in the young riders better self-esteem, a sense of team camaraderie, and validation. When they’re not racing, coaches offer teens the chance to serve the community and build their character, with projects like rebuilding the trails they ride on. The league offers the team that does the most trail work its “Golden Pick” award, plus $500.
The most recent CHSCL races were part of the “Snowmassive Chase,” held on Snowmass Village’s Discovery and Village Bound trails on Sept. 22. It was the third event in this year’s four-race Southern Conference series, with 623 high schoolers riding.
Rau says the league had been courting the town a long while. “It had been on our wish list for seven years, so it was very exciting to have it come to fruition. Now we hope to return in 2020.”
Other locations have included Frisco, Nathrop, Leadville, Steamboat and Granby. Eagle will be the site of this weekend’s conference championships, Northern on Saturday and Southern on Sunday. Top qualifiers there ride on, to the state championship meet at Durango, Oct. 19 and 20.
One key, Rau says, is that if you’re on the team, you’re never idle – you’re riding in the races. “There is no ‘bench.’ The teams don’t cut, and we don’t require the kids to finish laps in a certain time. We also have spirit contests to bring focus to the teamwork, rather than just the competition.
“In Snowmass that weekend, the theme was ‘Disco.’ We did a little dance-off contest at our awards ceremony. We really try to imbue that fun factor into it all, since Rule #1 is fun,” she says.
Not being an “official” school sport sanctioned by the Colorado High School Activities Association hasn’t hampered mountain bike racing at all. Rau says despite being a club sport, “teams are being recognized by administrations. We’ve had principals, athletic directors, and school board members experience the races. Then they understand how dedicated these student-athletes are, and what tremendous representatives they are, for their communities and schools.”
Locally, another non-profit, Roaring Fork Cycling, works with young riders all the way from kindergarten through high school. Its lead coach, Ben Gottlieb, says the Basalt and Aspen high schoolers practice together, with RFC providing logistical help like shuttles up and down the valley. It also trains racers at five middle schools, getting them ready for the high school league with summer camps and private coaching. Gottlieb adds that all 21 AHS and BHS racers who took part in the Snowmass events will be entered to compete at state in Durango.
RFC holds its second annual fundraiser including a silent auction, plus food and beverages for adults, Tuesday, Oct. 8 at 6 p.m. at Capitol Creek Brewery in Willits.
Kate Rau is gratified, proud that her passion project of 2010, uniting her own interests, has blossomed into something fun and exciting, that boosts families. She says, “It’s very rewarding to see parents and kids creating long-lasting memories, at a critical time in any family’s dynamics with kids in high school. We try to create an exceptional environment, where all youth can shine, strengthening family bonds and fostering healthy habits.”
Rau urges families who’d like to get their teens involved to check the league out, at coloradomtb.org.