New York NICA Beginnings
17 years ago a high school teacher named Matt Fritzinger decided that Northern California’s wildly popular sport of mountain biking should be available to high school students, as an alternative to traditional ball & stick sports, and the usual extra-curricular activities most students participate in (track, chess club, whatever else the kids are doing these days).
So he founded the Berkeley High School Mountain Bike Club and some years later, the program had expanded across multiple schools and eventually developed into an entire NorCal league. Northern California is an ideal spot for a high school league, with plenty of trails and amenable climate conditions that work well with high schools’ spring schedules.
From there, NICA (the National Interscholastic Cycling Association) has only grown, especially in the western United States where favorable weather conditions (read: lack of winter) make for a racing season that fits into a school semester.
Until recently, no such program has existed in New York, where fluctuating winters make for unpredictable springs, and often, a very limited amount of time in which students can ride before the school year ends in June.
So how did NICA’s New York league get started? A few years ago NICA pioneer Matt Fritzinger came out to Windham for the World Cup race and with Sammy Bryant hatched the idea to expand NICA into the Empire state. Around the same time, Jason Cairo was looking for an opportunity in addition to owning his bike shop, Endless Trail Bikeworx in Dobbs Ferry.
Plans aligned and in 2011 Sammy and Jason headed up the registration process which included submitting a proposal to the NICA’s national committee. The first season took place in 2013, with a mere two races and 40 riders. Interest and involvement has almost doubled in each year since and 2015 will see over 160 riders from 17 teams competing in five different races between Yonkers and Schenectady.
I can’t take any of the credit; the coaches are really doing a good job at getting out and getting the middle school kids interested, getting their freshmen to move on to sophomores and they’re not losing anyone. – Jason Cairo
Unlike many sports, NICA teams are not specific to one school. In fact, the league is comprised of several composite teams – groups of riders from an area that may not have the size, resources or interest to put together a unique team for each school. Consequently, a team might have riders from several different schools, and one coach that guides them all.
The Oneonta Composite Mountain Bike Team, coached by Mike Maben.
Teams generally make an effort to include every student possible, regardless of capability or what kind of bike they own. The intimidation factor is lowered and works to foster a love of cycling in students who may otherwise have been marginalized or discouraged from participating.
The diversity present in the league is also encouraging. It’s no secret that mountain biking as a whole generally lacks diversity, but that’s not the case here. Students of different genders, ethnicities, economic & geographic backgrounds come together with a common interest. The sense of community is strong here.
2015 Race 2: Lippman Park
Which brings us to this past weekend’s race at Lippman Park in Wawarsing. Lippman is by no means a walk in the park – these are mostly technical trails littered with roots and rock gardens at every turn.
The Ellenville-based Renegades mountain bike club takes great pride in building these trails and deserves all credit for both their fun design and sustainability. Smart design combined with rocky terrain means the trails dry quickly, even following sustained wet conditions, as has been the case recently.
Sometimes, you just hunker down and climb.
Lippman Park’s layout effectively has two types of trails – the lower elevation trails immediately around the park are characterized as smoother and flowier, with names like Tadpole and Crazy 8s reflecting their less menacing nature. Viper, Devil’s Drop and Cyclone are just a few of the more technical and rugged higher elevation trails built into the adjacent hillside.
The Lippman Park Trail Map, by the Renegades Mountain Bike Club.
The NICA race utilized both, with younger riders sticking to flatter ground and older, more experienced riders venturing up into the blue square and black diamond trails before returning back to green square territory en route to additional laps.
The sense of camaraderie here is reassuring and unlike any other mountain bike race I’ve ever been to. The first rider in a group of six crashes and all five riders behind him (from different teams no less) ask if he’s OK before continuing on. Riders work together to look for the best places to pass and thank each other for doing so. Riders who’ve completed their race cheer on those who are still on course.
As noted, there’s a great bit of diversity here. Sure there are riders on multi-thousand dollar race rigs, but there are also riders on entry level bikes or hand-me-downs. The bike value doesn’t seem to make a difference in the fun factor though, and while plenty of racers are here to win, the competition isn’t so fierce that everyone forgets how to have fun.
A NYCranks rider puts some air between his wheels and the ground.
The Lippman course was clearly challenging and not only required technical skills, but also aerobic fitness. Trail conditions were generally favorable, with some areas experiencing tacky trail conditions that would be considered “hero dirt” on the west coast. The majority of trails were dry and traction was excellent. Intermittent bursts of sunlight and temps in the high 50s and low 60s made for short sleeve riding conditions.
An HRRT team rider rides the roots through Lippman’s tacky Grand Junction trail intersection.
With Junior Varsity and Varsity categories racing four and five laps of a three mile course, the Lippman race is no casual Sunday ride. There were crashes (but no serious injuries) and everyone spoke very favorably of the trails.
More photos from the race are available on our site. Make sure to go check them out!
Kudos to Jason Cairo for what can only be described as relentless commitment to the New York NICA mountain biking program. Without his tireless efforts securing funding, organizing races and recording results, 160 kids wouldn’t get to have this experience.
These trails are freakin’ awesome! – NICA Racer
Special thanks to Douglas Nikkila and the Renegades Mountain Bike Club for their continued efforts maintaining, clearing, and improving the trails that we all enjoy. These folks have really done phenomenal work and have even more planned in 2015.
There are three more races in the NICA series, culminating in the June 13th-14th championships at the Bavarian Manor Inn in Purling, NY. Check NewYorkMTB.org for full schedule and race details.
If this is the future of mountain biking, rest assured, we’re in good hands.