The number of American kids riding bicycles dropped precipitously between 2000 and 2010.
Alarms sounded within many circles, resulting in the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), which was founded in 2009. Nearly 10 years later, there are cycling leagues in 25 states, and Pennsylvania is one of the states leading the pack.
“We were the second-largest state in terms of student athlete sign-ups in year one ,” said Mike Kuhn, executive director of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League (PICL). “We had the best-ever growth rate of a program from year one to year two, and we were the first league to fully integrate trail stewardship [students volunteering to maintain trails].”
NICA’s goal, #morekidsonbikes, has created a network of state leagues that rely on volunteer coaches heading up teams based upon school districts. Most teams begin as composites, combining student athletes across neighboring school districts. As composite teams grow, school districts spin off into standalone teams.
Kuhn knows firsthand how cycling can transform a teen’s life. A former road racer and semi-pro mountain bike racer, he “fell in love with the sport” during his teen years at Susquenita High School. Today, he oversees the state league from his hometown of Marysville in Perry County.
“The competitive experience was formative for me, but it doesn’t matter if students pursue that,” Kuhn said. “We just want them to experience the power of bikes to have a positive impact on their lives. That bike is not just about sport. It’s freedom, exploration, adventure.”
Heading into Pennsylvania’s fourth season this fall, Kuhn said that about 1,000 teens are pedaling for 50 teams across the state. He predicts continued momentum with at least one team in every county by 2025.
Part of the appeal is that kids of all abilities are welcome, from middle- to high-school age. And kids can decide if they want to compete during race weekends or simply ride for fun.
Harrisburg area teams include Adams County Composite, Carlisle Area Composite, Chambersburg, Elizabethtown, West Shore Composite and York Area Composite. Kuhn says three new teams are launching this fall—Ephrata, Hershey and Lancaster Mennonite.
Lee Gonder, owner of Camp Hill’s World Cup Ski & Cycle, coaches West Shore Composite, comprised of 25 students from Camp Hill, Cumberland Valley, Mechanicsburg, Northern and West Shore School districts, plus those home-schooled and enrolled in private and parochial schools.
He formed the team during PICA’s first year with three athletes—two were his own sons and the third participant was his fellow coach’s son. He said the team has “grown organically,” but last year was “a breakout year.”
“The Mechanicsburg School District created a mountain bike course on campus, a .6-mile loop, and phys. ed. teacher Jason Minnich started a mountain bike unit as part of phys. ed. classes,” Gonder said.
The team also hits area trails—Lebanon County’s Swatara State Park, York’s Rocky Ridge County Park and Harrisburg’s Capital Area Greenbelt.
“The idea behind #morekidsonbikes is, ‘How do we get kids away from screen time, lift their heads up and look around?’” Gonder said. “We took the team to the Allegrippis Trails at Raystown Lake over the summer. There were wildflowers, and it was beautiful.”
The sport comes with a price tag. Beyond the cost of a mountain bike and helmet, the annual state league fee is $300, which covers all bike races. West Shore’s team fee is $125, which includes a jersey and tech tee.
“Versus soccer or ski racing, it’s cheap, but it’s still $400,” Gonder said. “If kids want to be involved, between coaches, businesses and contacts, we can help kids who want to try it out. We don’t want the cost of a bike to be a barrier.”
Into Their DNA
Fundraising and corporate sponsorships have helped Adams County Composite Mountain Bike Team defray costs.
The team formed in the fall of 2017 with students from Adams County’s districts. Coach Michael Connelly said that biking has always been part of his life whether he was competing in Texas cycling leagues or commuting via bike in Washington, D.C.
Now, he transfers that love of biking into coaching.
Practice sessions, on the slopes of Liberty Mountain Ski Resort, teach kids core mountain biking skills— the mechanics of biking uphill versus downhill, braking and how to get off the bike. The team also visits Michaux State Forest trails. The fall 2019 season includes five races, three to five miles each.
“After the first couple of practices, kids are dead so to speak—they’re not used to exercising that hard. But biking gets into their DNA, and they start looking forward to riding as a team,” Connelly said. “They also realize that everyone can be an athlete even if they don’t have the traditional look of an athlete.”
Kerry Urcuyo of Gettysburg has two children on Adams County’s team for the second year, a 13-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son.
“My goal is to make bike-riding more of a lifestyle for them,” she said. “As adults, they’ll be more comfortable riding bikes on errands for example.”
Her son Breslin is one of the oldest team members.
“I like that it’s not that competitive—you’re really racing the clock and not other people,” said Breslin. “I’m a tech person, and I’ve come to realize it’s healthier to get outside.”
Connelly said one of the most rewarding aspects of NICA and PICL is being able to reach kids who likely wouldn’t compete in traditional high school sports.
“Biking is reaching and resonating with kids who don’t identify with being jocks,” he said. “It’s giving them an outlet, an identity and an activity to call their own.”