Is this America’s Fastest Growing High School Sport?
I’ve wanted to check out a NICA race for a couple years. But between the pandemic and being busy, I had not made it happen. Until today, and I’m so glad I took the time to see it in person.
NICA, in case you’re not aware, stands for National Interscholastic Cycling Association. It’s the high school mountain bike league, and it takes place in 28 states. There are an additional two states — Colorado and Georgia — that broke away from the league and function as independents. But overall almost 30,000 kids participate in NICA events. If you squint your eyes and look into the not-too-distant future, you can see this sport nearing 100,000 participants. And yet it’s largely off the radar, even within the world of bikes.
I attended a race at Castaic Lake, just north of Los Angeles, and I found it tremendously inspiring. First of all, it was family-oriented, with lots of RVs camping for the weekend. Mom, dad and little brother hanging out in folding chairs under a canopy with a cooler. Secondly, it’s social, and kids meeting kids from other schools is built into the sport. Lastly, mountain biking is fun. And hard. But riding on dirt with big tires with your friends is an immensely enjoyable activity.
This last part — the fun — really is NICA’s secret sauce. The founder of the league, Matt Fritzinger, told me that he originally wanted to get kids at Berkeley High School (where he was a math teacher) on road bikes. But they just weren’t into that. So he pivoted to mountain bikes in 1998, and the rest is history. A 15 year old sees a fat tire bike and asks, “Can I get air on that thing?” And they’re sold. Come for the fun and stay for the aerobic fitness.
The league was exploding even before the pandemic-induced bike boom took hold, and now it looks set to grow even faster. Arizona and New Mexico were just added as new regions, and I can imagine both of those states cultivating huge numbers of young cyclists. However, NICA does face some challenges that will take time and resources to overcome. Here are the five areas that will make NICA an even better and more popular nationwide sport:
- More diversity. This is something NICA has been working on, but it’s a huge challenge. At the event I went to, I did not see a single Black rider. Mountain biking is predominantly a white suburban sport available to those who have access to wide open spaces. NICA is about getting kids on bikes, the base of the pyramid of two wheeled transit and recreation. And everyone, no matter where they live, should have the opportunity to change their lives with bikes. Getting communities of color, and their high schools, out on bikes will take lots of things: transportation (to MTB trails from landlocked urban schools), equipment (mom and dad probably don’t have a garage full of Stumpjumpers), maintenance, coaching, and support from high school administrators. I’ve been collaborating with the first Black college cycling team for the last 18 months, and I’ve seen firsthand how much work it takes to start a program from scratch at an urban school. But it can be done and it should be done. I am inspired by the growing NICA team on the Navajo Nation. That’s an exciting development that will be great for that region and an example for other places. Trek’s Pathfinder scholarship also funded 250 kids of color in 2021. But we need more than this.
- Build a pathway for NICA athletes to a life in cycling. As a middle aged cyclist who’s been riding my entire life, I look at NICA as the gateway drug to a life of inspiration on two wheels. It would be terrific to see intentional bridges built between high school MTB racing and other disciplines within cycling. Not every high school kid out at this weekend’s race will want to continue with cycling, but many will. I know USA Cycling and NICA have started to work together, but there’s so much more that can be done. How can we introduce these kids to gravel, road racing, cyclocross and even track cycling? How do we let them know there are dozens of universities with college cycling teams? How do we give them scholarships to local gravel races? How do we let them try a criterium race? Or even a low pressure Friday coffee ride on the road? Is there a structure and an onramp to each of these things? The NICA season is typically 3–4 months long (in spring or fall depending on the region), which leaves at least 8 months for other kinds of cycling. What resources are needed to get kids out on bikes the rest of the year?
- Work with more brands to improve the overall NICA experience. I’ve spent a good part of my career building sports marketing activations. I was shocked to see zero brands of any kind out at the race this weekend. The best cycling brand partnerships align with the user experience and make the rider’s day better. Why wasn’t there a bike brand sponsoring bike repairs? What about a sports nutrition business filling water bottles with electrolyte drinks? Why couldn’t Zwift or Strava have a big demo area set up? Could a brand sponsor an ice cream social or barbecue just for the athletes? There’s tons of potential to bring value to the students and their families on race weekend and beyond.
- Better storytelling. NICA is incredibly impactful, but I rarely meet anyone who’s heard of it. Even my friends who ride and race bikes ask me, “What’s NICA?” when I bring it up. And that’s a shame. Why keep something this good a secret? NICA is a non-profit, and like many 501c3 organizations, resources have not been allocated for expert content creation. I understand that. I also believe NICA would be much better off — more participation, more cash donations, more brand partners — with an effective multi-channel communications plan. This will require staffing, money and a commitment from the leadership team. But it’s critically important if NICA wants to make the leap to the next level of youth sports leadership. When I look at their website, their social media, their LinkedIn page, it all feels very homemade. That’s gotten them this far, but they’ll be far better served with a professional approach to marketing and communications. Why have I not read about NICA recently in the New York Times? Where’s the compelling video campaign highlighting the countless lives that have been changed by this program? Why don’t they have a Tik Tok channel — their customers are HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS?
- Decrease the cost. Bikes are expensive, and that’s a huge barrier to getting all families involved with NICA. The sport should not be limited to the wealthy. It’s not just a new bike that can cost thousands of dollars, it’s the spare parts, the shoes, the travel to races, the helmet, the eyewear, the repairs at the local shop, and so on. I know from first hand experience how expensive bikes can be, and all the little things add up. Because most NICA tracks are not particularly technical, a less expensive hard tail bike works perfectly for most young riders. I’d love to see a brand step up with a just-for-NICA $599 bike aimed at entry level riders. Or a package of bikes and equipment priced sensibly that could form a demo fleet at a school. So families don’t have to commit to buying a bike until their athlete has fallen in love with the sport. Maybe a consortium of different bike brands could collaborate on a NICA-specific low-cost level bike. See the Buffalo Bike created by World Bicycle Relief for reference. Collaboration could be the new competition. And to be clear, the entire bike industry will benefit from robust NICA participation. The organization essentially mints new cyclists. And that’s something I can get behind.