By zach alvira, GSN Sports Editor
It is a scenic mountain-bike ride along desert trails but it is not necessarily leisurely.
A unique sport, interscholastic bicycling, including high school athletes from schools in or near Gilbert, is growing rapidly across Arizona.
Some teams, such as East Valley Composite, are composed of riders from multiple schools. Other schools have their own teams. Desert Vista, Mountain Pointe, Arizona College Prep, Campo Verde and Perry are among those fielding teams.
Desert Vista and Mountain Pointe haven’t yet built a rivalry like the Ahwatukee Bowl between their football teams. You don’t see a lot of taunting or trash talking in prep cycling.
Yet it is competitive.
The Arizona Interscholastic Cycling League was founded in 2013 as an affiliate of the National Interscholastic Cycling League, which has 25 leagues across the nation. The Arizona league is a 501(c)(3) non-profit youth-development organization to promote interscholastic mountain bike racing, provide training and education to new teams and coaches and offer a comprehensive infrastructure to grow youth cycling in a professional, safe and engaging manner.
Five years later, Arizona has 67 teams representing 157 schools with nearly 1,000 racers ranging from sixth- to 12th-graders. Some schools have their own team.
“We have five to eight schools represented,” East Valley Composite coach Curtis Barrett said. “Our first year, we had six kids, second year we had 12, third we had 20 and now, the fourth year, we have about 35 kids.”
Races consist of 15 to 25 miles.
Barrett preaches to the team is that it isn’t all about winning.
“We emphasize that winning is important but it isn’t our primary focus,” Barrett said. “We want to make it about being a lifelong hobby and lifestyle.”
Wanting his riders to continue the sport is more important to Barrett. Consequently, his team embraces new riders, especially those who never have ridden a mountain bike.
“We are thrilled when we get someone who just bought a mountain bike but maybe has never ridden before,” Barrett said. “We love it because we know they will love it.”
East Valley Composite, which practices at Usery Mountain Regional Park, competes in races at parks all over the state. Each rider is responsible for paying $300, which goes toward race fees. The team asks for sponsors to help with food and other necessities during the two-day events.
Barrett said there are about a dozen sponsors. Their contributions also help the team ride as an independent in the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona in the spring.
“We have a really nice-running system after a few years of working out the kinks,” Barrett said. “That makes it all worth it for me, even though it is a lot of work. I think this is something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”
Caleb Robinson, a senior at Imagine Prep in Apache Junction, found East Valley Composite after seeing information on Facebook. He’s been on the team for three years. Being among the few seniors, Robinson is a leader for younger riders.
“It’s been amazing and really fun,” Robinson said. “I’ve learned a lot through all these years of riding and anything I can do to help them is great. Everybody has a different skill level but you all have the same thing in common and that is biking. Everyone loves to ride.”
Macie Waldron, a freshman at Red Mountain, began riding with the team two years ago after she heard about it at a bike shop. She gave up gymnastics to bike full time.
“I would walk the path first and then ride it slow. Now, I’m pretty comfortable doing just about any ride,” Waldron said.
Racing in JV1 this past season against 11th graders two years older, Waldron placed second.
Austin Phillips, a sophomore at Red Mountain, won the JV2 division. He had experience in motocross and BMX but found a love for mountain bikes after his neighbor convinced him to give it a try. Two years later, he is among the best riders in the state. His motocross background helped but he said that mountain biking was a challenge.
“The technical aspect is still the same but the amount of effort you put in is greatly increased,” Phillips said.
More information: www.arizonamtb.org or www.evcbiketeam.com.