One of the most exciting things happening in cycling right now might not be what you would expect. With the introduction of a mountain biking league for student cyclists, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) aims to create a nationwide cycling league that not only gets thousands of young riders outside and onto the trails but also gives them the tools to be educated stewards of the sport and the environment.
Founded in 2009, NICA develops interscholastic mountain biking programs for student-athletes across the United States. NICA provides leadership, services and governance for local leagues to produce quality mountain bike events, and supports every student-athlete in the development of strong body, strong mind and strong character through their efforts on the bike.
Aside from that mission, NICA also has a vision to promote the sport of mountain biking and the benefits of mountain biking as a healthy, low impact, outdoor recreation lifestyle as well as to advocate for the environmental conservation of natural areas and parklands, mountain bike trail access, and the development of sustainable trail systems.
With the goal of expanding coast to coast by 2020, NICA relies heavily on local and regional advocates to start new leagues and teams and continue to expand on the ideas and goals of the organization. As new leagues and teams continue to be added every year, it is with the support of these advocates that the goals of the organization are able to progress.
One such advocate is Casey Lajoie, a cyclist from Iron River, Wisconsin that has recently been working hard to start one of the first NICA teams in northwestern Wisconsin.
Lajoie started out cycling like most other kids, using it as a form of transportation and freedom to get to a swimming hole or a baseball game—going everywhere he could on a bike. As he got older this sense of freedom from riding turned into a love of dirt bikes and he progressed into motocross racing, where he competed for 15 years.
It wasn’t until 2012 that he purchased his first mountain bike as a means of cross training for motocross events and he ended up enjoying it so much that he decided to enter his first race in 2013—after that he was hooked.
Since motocross injuries had been sidelining him for years, he decided he would give it up and concentrate solely on mountain biking—he now competes in numerous mountain biking events throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota and sees the potential that the sport has to offer both mentally and physically—young and old.
At one point, Lajoie came across some information about the Wisconsin High School Cycling League on social media and it clicked—he decided that he wanted to start a NICA league team of his own. Like most of us, he wished there had been an opportunity like that when he was growing up. He figured that this was something that didn’t exist yet in his area and it would be a great way to involve and expand the young cycling community.
As added motivation, he had bought his son his first mountain bike in 2013 at age seven—they began riding local singletrack and he was amazed with his son’s skills and determination. His son loved it from the very beginning and Lajoie also noticed how it began to affect so many other areas of his son’s life positively including behavior in school. A once shy little boy had become confident and outgoing and began to make many new friends through cycling. Lajoie thought that if biking was able to help his son so much why not find a way to impact more kids and share his love and passion for cycling—the natural progression was to find a way to start a high school team and get those kids involved.
Since then, Lajoie has been working hard to start a NICA team in the northwestern part of the state. Currently known as the Northwestern High School Composite, the team encompasses students from a number of schools in the area. While the team is currently considered a club sport and is not yet affiliated with any particular school they are hoping to be recognized as an official school sport in the future as many teams throughout the nation are doing—allowing for the schools to participate in the planning, organization and financing as well as allowing for students to be able to letter in the sport.
The first step Lajoie took when starting out was to contact the co-director (Kathy Mock) of the Wisconsin High School Cycling League—with her help Lajoie was able to get a lot of questions answered and helped to put the wheels in motion for the addition of another team in northern Wisconsin. Mock was an invaluable resource and has helped him every step of the way—he urges anyone interested in starting a team or a league to reach out to similar organizations as they are more then happy to help out.
Lajoie also attended a Leaders Summit, held in Waterloo, WI, which allowed him to work toward attaining a coaching certificate. At these summits, NICA provides comprehensive coach training and licensing in order to establish and maintain national standards and best practices for leadership—something that will be beneficial in growing the organization effectively across the country.
In regards to their northwestern Wisconsin location, it doesn’t hurt that his team is central to some of the best singletrack riding in the region—if not the nation. They are nearby a handful of renown trail systems such as the CAMBA trail system in the Chequamegon National Forest, the COGGS trails in Duluth, MN as well as their own local cross country trails in Brule, Wisconsin. Thanks to the hard work of the trail organizations and advocates in these areas, the NICA teams and leagues throughout the region are able to use world-class trails for practices and events.
Lajoie’s team has also benefited from area events that helped out in the beginning phases of the process. In spring 2015, Advocate Cycles, the Angry Catfish and Twin Six held a gravel cycling event called the Hungry Bear 100 that raised the initial $4,000 in funding to start the team. Throughout the country, it is events like these and the support of companies that has helped to get many of these leagues and teams off the ground. Cycling events can be perfect fundraisers for leagues and teams as they get the local community involved toward a common goal and are often able to pull together enough capital to completely fund the start of a team—a very meaningful step to those involved. This common goal within a local community and the cycling community at large is one of the reasons the sport of cycling, and organizations like NICA, are doing so well today.
In the 2015 season, Lajoie’s Northwestern Composite team was able to participate in events throughout the entire state. With the addition of more teams in the Wisconsin High School Cycling League there will even be the possibility of a north and south league with a championship event held at the end of each season—allowing for more growth in the league as well as allowing teams to travel less during the season.
So far in the state of Wisconsin there are 24 teams with the upcoming 2016 season being only the third season of competition, which is a fantastic start to the league. Bordering Minnesota has also had success with 51 teams so far in their 5 years of existence with some teams even being recognized as school sports, giving students the opportunity to letter in mountain biking.
For anyone that is interested in starting a team in their own area, there is a wealth of information available on the national level and most states that already have a league set up will have more regional resources available. The organization (NICA) is set up in a way that will help provide anyone interested in getting involved with technical assistance and support for league formation, team formation, races, camps and other events.
With the addition of his team in northwestern Wisconsin there is much to look forward to. Lajoie tells us, “I am extremely excited to see and help this sport grow in our schools as the sky is the limit. I have enjoyed every step of this journey meeting and working with so many wonderful people in the cycling community. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the help and support of some amazing people.”
With so many young riders now participating in mountain biking and with more joining every year, the future of cycling and cycling advocacy looks to be very positive. For anyone interested in getting involved by starting a league or a team, head to www.nationalmtb.org to find more information and resources on how to get started or how to get in touch with an existing organization in your area.