Benefield: No pressure to race in Petaluma mountain bike competition
Henry Moore does not like to ride alone. That should be no problem Saturday.
Moore, a junior at Analy, and as many as 1,000 high school mountain bikers, are expected to compete in cross country races spread over two days of riding at Five Springs Farm in Petaluma as part of the NorCal High School Cycling League.
It's the last conference race before the NorCal race May 7 and the state championship on May 22.
“It's just great being able to get out and be out in nature,” Moore said.
If the weather holds, the course should be spectacular, according to league officials.
Moore, who rides for the so-called A Team, a group comprised of athletes from a handful of high schools including Santa Rosa, Montgomery and Technology, will ride in the Northern Conference competition Saturday along with teams from Clear Lake, Summerfield Waldorf, Kelseyville, Maria Carrillo, Middletown, Casa Grande, Petaluma and El Molino high schools. Southern Conference racers take to the trails on Sunday.
It's as close to a home-field advantage as Empire riders are expected to have in the NorCal league this season, but it's enough. Just sleeping in your own bed the night before a race can be enough.
“The other venues have been great,” Cardinal Newman coach Taylor Greenleaf said. “But we can sleep in our own beds rather than a hotel room.”
Or a tent.
This is not your mom's high school sport. This is a club sport where a pre-competition meal might be fired up on the grill and where camping is encouraged. They race on Saturdays and Sundays, they have combo teams from different schools and they have a blast.
The NorCal High School Cycling Leagues takes all comers. No bench warmers, no first team or second team. Everybody rides and everybody races - but only if they want.
“You don't have to,” Vanessa Hauswald, the league's executive director, said. “You can be on your team and just go to practice and get better and if you choose not to race you don't have to.”
“We created the league to be a development program, really,” she said. “The racing is the carrot, it's not everything we focus on.”
For most, it's about getting out there and riding together. Practices are group rides with an interval or two thrown in, or maybe some work on descending. Race day? Think family picnic with racers whizzing by all day.
“The actual races are really a big family affair,” Hauswald said. “All the little brothers and sisters come with their little bikes.”
And that feeling makes racing more enjoyable, said Xander Sugarman, a junior at Santa Rosa.
“It's a lot easier when you have people helping you out at races,” he said. “It's just a lot of people to cheer you on and help you out.”
“It's really building community, it's fun,” said Kevin Gambini, team director for both the Maria Carrillo squad and the A-Team.
The people involved just love to ride bikes. And they want to share the love by inviting more people out on their rides.
“The level of stoke goes through the roof,” Gambini said of watching kids hit the trails with their pals.
Or, in some cases, parents.
“I'm a biker, I love biking,” Greenleaf said. “For me, it was ‘Wow, my kid's a teenager and I can still go out and do things with him.'?”
And the draw of doing that thing not only with friends but teammates is real, he said.
The Newman riders had in the past competed with the A-Team but had enough interest on campus this year to form their own squad.
“In sports, representing your school is a big thing,” Greenleaf said. “They wanted that connection to really be part of Cardinal Newman. We could have joined A-Team or El Molino, but I think it's pride more than anything - wanting to represent your school and do well. They wanted to race for Newman.”
The growth of the NorCal League is allowing more kids than ever to suit up for their school.
The 16-year-old organization is on a 10-percent annual growth rate of late. Not a bad return.
There is typically no direct affiliation with the school. And that can be good and bad. You won't see pep rallies for the mountain bike team, but you also won't see any rules barring team camp outs.
It's a balance organizers say they are happy with, so despite the growth, there they are in no hurry to become a CIF-sanctioned sport.
“We are not looking into that,” Hauswald said. “We're still super happy doing well and experiencing lots of growth as a club sport.”
“We want to share that stoke with kids,” Hauswald said.
You can share the stoke, too, all weekend long.
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”