Benefield: Competitive mountain biking not a typical high school sport

The speeds are fast and the competition robust, but the mood can be decidedly light in the world of competitive high school mountain biking.|

Not in too many prep sports will you find a yeti suit and a banana costume as part of the team uniform.

But mountain biking is not like too many other prep sports. And that’s the way they like it.

“Being out on the trail, in the open, not really worrying about anything and going super fast, that is the best thing ever,” said Nick Tribble, a senior at Casa Grande High School and a four-year member of the Gauchos mountain bike squad.

He’s also a part-time banana.

Before Tribble suits up for his varsity boys races, he’s taken to donning a banana suit and running around with a buddy in a yeti costume and another in gorilla garb and cheering on other riders. Apparently, this takes the edge off.

“Races can be really stressful,” said Tribble, Casa’s fastest racer.

“Having some kid in a banana costume and a yeti costume really lightens the mood,” he said. “I get a lot of people thanking us.”

Welcome to prep mountain bike racing, where the speeds are fast and the competition robust, but the mood can be decidedly light.

“Everyone is very supportive,” said Tami Cramer, who with her husband, Jeff, coaches both the Kelseyville and Clear Lake high school teams. “It’s not like going to a basketball game where you see parents going at it.”

Maybe it’s that community feeling, maybe it’s the party vibe at races or maybe it’s the sheer awesomeness of riding bikes on trails, but prep mountain biking is booming in popularity despite its status as a club sport.

The 15-year-old NorCal High School Cycling League that stretches from Fresno in the south to Humboldt in the north is so big - 73 teams and approximately 900 student-athletes - that organizers broke it into two conferences. It takes two days to stage enough races to accommodate all of the competitors.

Last weekend, hundreds of racers converged on Five Springs Farm in Petaluma for two days of racing in 11 categories from freshman to varsity.

“We have been growing at 20 percent for the last five years, every year,” said Vanessa Hauswald, executive director of the league. “I feel like cycling, in the past few years, went from an anomaly or outlier of a sport and now it’s become more of a mainstream thing.”

Just not so mainstream that a yeti costume wouldn’t fit in.

Coaches and riders talk of the camaraderie of the sport - not only in practices, but at races. Riders are as likely to focus on beating their own best times as they are a rival.

But that’s not to say kids don’t want to win.

“They are turning themselves inside out. We tell them it doesn’t get any easier, you are just getting faster,” said Miguel Crawford, co-coach of El Molino’s mountain bike team. “It’s thrilling afterward, but it’s so hard. I tell the kids, ‘It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.’?”

Mountain biking, despite its growing popularity in prep circles, is still a club sport, which means coaches aren’t paid, athletes don’t get varsity letters for participating or excused from class for away races, and racers largely have to come up with their own gear and transportation.

But there is an upside.

They can hold races on Sundays. They can camp for out-of-town races. They can run a season well longer than that of “official” spring sports. And there are fewer layers of school bureaucracy.

Area coaches are mixed on whether they’d like to see the sport become official.

But all agreed that to be seen as equal to other teams would be nice - some acknowledgment of what kind of effort and time these athletes are putting in wearing their school colors.

“I’ve been a mountain bike racer since I was 13. I wish I had the opportunity to race on a school-supported team when I was that age,” said Kevin Gambini, who coaches not only the Maria Carrillo High squad but the so-called A-Team, a composite team made up of racers from a variety of schools including Santa Rosa and Montgomery that don’t have enough participants to field a full roster.

“It’s basically just being supported by your peers and having people be aware of what you are doing,” Gambini said.

Many coaches said they are left cobbling together support systems - mainly from the cycling community. Insurance is typically offered through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. Bike shops and major bike makers have provided bikes to the league and to schools so coaches can offer seasonal loaners. But entry to the league’s five races typically cost $50 a pop and registration for the season is another $50. And athletes have to purchase their own uniforms.

“It’s not a cheap sport to get into,” said Bryan Davis, who coaches the Healdsburg Hounds. “It’s not ‘Pick up some running shoes and there you are.’ ”

The NorCal league has a “robust” scholarship program, Hauswald says. And veteran coaches like Casa’s Scot Wigert have a classroom closet full of donated shorts, jerseys, vests, arm warmers and extras that can be perks to a young rider.

“There is nothing official, but the bike community is pretty supportive,” he said. “They want kids to ride.”

And coaches gush about the welcoming aspect of mountain biking. A girl who is rocket fast can still suit up next to the guy who is just getting the feel for the trails.

“If you come to practice, you race,” Hauswald said. “There are not bench warmers. There are not cuts. Kids can come to it at really all levels and have success.”

El Molino’s Crawford said it has the benefits of both a team sport and an individual endeavor.

“Kids write down their goals for the season,” he said. “For some kids, it’s learn what it’s all about, others it’s placing. Being a teacher, it’s about the process, the little victories along the way.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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