Hundreds of mountain bike racers will descend on the Brand trail system north of Moab Friday and Saturday, Nov. 8 and 9.
They will all be high school students.
Forty-two high school mountain biking teams will compete for the state championship.
Mountain biking is a relatively new high school sport, with the first league started in 2001 in Northern California. Leagues across the country are organized under the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. Utah started their first mountain biking league in 2012 and claimed the title “The Largest First-year League in NICA History.”
In 2012 the Utah league had 325 registered student athletes, 28 teams, and 230-240 racing student athletes.
“In 2013, the Utah League continues to make history, doubling in size, as more and more students discover the fun and life-long sport of cycling,” said Melissa Nerone, who coaches the Grand County High School mountain biking team with Christa Green.
Approximately 500 student-athletes from 42 programs in Utah will be represented at the state championship. Moab’s own Grand County Red Devils are ranked fifth out of 29 Division 2 schools. Thirteen programs in the larger Division 1 schools will also be racing.
“The Moab team is looking to race well on its home course,” Nerone said.
Freshman Bjorn Nicolaisen is currently ranked second among the Freshman boys. Junior Jamie Marshall is ranked fifth. Sophomore Preston Bagley-Gurtner is ranked ninth among the junior varsity boys.
The race course for all freshmen, sophomores and junior varsity girls will be 14 miles long. Junior varsity boys and varsity girls will race for 21 miles. Varsity boys will compete over 28 miles of classic desert riding.
A fundraiser will be held 7 p.m., Friday night at the high school. Two mountain biking films, “Not Bad” and “Arrival”, will be screened. It is $3 for student-athletes and their coaches. The public is welcome, with a $5 ticket.
Ashley Korenblat, the owner of Western Spirit Cycling, sits on the 12-person board for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. She said that they plan to have their national board meeting here in Moab the same weekend.
She considers the high school sport to be the “greatest thing ever.”
“There are so many great things about it. All the teams have to have at least one girl, and everyone earns points, no matter whether you finish the race,” Korenblat said. “Mountain biking connects you to public lands. All our kids today, even kids in Moab, are suffering from nature deficit disorder. To have a sport that requires them to go outside is pretty exciting.”
Both coaches Nerone and Green have mountain bike racing experience.
Nerone did mountain bike racing in California and Utah. She is now the day tour manager for Rim Tours. Green raced with a local club when she graduated from high school in St. George and ended up mountain biking in Moab.
“I came as river guide and mountain bike guide and never left,” Green said. She found a full-time job with benefits as an art teacher at the high school. “I’m one of those lucky people.”
Nerone started recruiting team members within her own home, asking Jamie Marshall, the son of her partner John Marshall, if he’d be interested in racing.
“He’s mountain biked with us,” Nerone said. “He’s gone on trails I’ve guided.”
The two started riding up the steep road to the Slickrock Trail east of Moab.
“Four times later he was flying past me,” she said. “He has improved tremendously. He has won two medals so far.”
Nerone and Green held a mountain biking camp in Moab during the summer for high school mountain bikers. Twenty-five kids from across the state arrived to learn skills.
Nerone said it inspiring to watch the students support one another during races, even those who race for other schools.
“It isn’t a crush and destroy. They want to win, but they respect others’ efforts,” Nerone said.
The Grand County High School team is small in comparison to other teams with only eight racers. The two are already recruiting for next year’s team.
“We have to bring this here. It is something you can continue the rest of your life,” Green said. We want to reach out to those kids who don’t want to play football or basketball. We have a place where they can belong.”