OGDEN — Two years ago, Lori and Dave Harward were at a summit for cycling coaches when they realized that Utah would be a prime location for a high school mountain biking league, something that already existed in several states across the country.
They got to work organizing a bid, and a year later, submitted it to the national organization that oversees such leagues. The fruits of their labor were realized several months later, when Utah was chosen over several other bidders to be awarded the next league to join the National Interscholastic Cycling Association.
The trails on the benches and canyons of the Wasatch Mountains have long been a haven for mountain bikers, and now they’ve become a training ground and race track for the country’s newest competitive racing league.
The Utah High School Cycling League will hold its first race this Saturday, with more than 30 teams representing schools from throughout the state at Round Valley in Park City.
Lori Harward, who along with her husband has been a mountain bike enthusiast and racer herself for years, said the process was comparable to an Olympic bid. She said there are certain requirements such as gaining sponsorships, designing courses that meet NICA standards, developing management practices and organizing coaches, among others.
“It was pretty intensive,” said Harward, who is executive director of the Utah league. “My racing has suffered with this new job, but it has been totally worth it.”
Leaders with NICA said the new Utah league furthers the organization’s goal of taking high school mountain biking coast to coast by 2020. The chain of high school cycling leagues now includes Washington, California, Utah, Colorado, Minnesota and Texas.
“We were very impressed by the strength of the Utah bid and the groundswell of support for high school mountain biking in Utah,” said Matt Fritzinger, NICA’s executive director. “Lori Harward and her team are doing incredible work and the opening season is going to be fantastic for Utah youth.”
The Utah High School Cycling league received a NICA grant and a wide range of support services as the successful applicant from several groups in the ongoing NICA bid process, which challenges organizers to surpass requirements for community and financial support, Fritzinger said. The newly formed NICA grant program helps new leagues cover start-up costs and is made possible by NICA’s sponsors.
There are three types of teams:
•School-Based Teams: Comprised of full-time students from the same high school, public or private.
•Composite Teams: Comprised of full-time students from more than one high school within the same district or other geographic proximity. Home-school students may also join composite teams, which are intended to be temporary solutions toward building school-based teams.
•County-Based Home-School Teams: Home-schoolers may organize teams of students (home-schoolers only) who live within the same county or other geographic proximity.
Students without a team can also compete as independent racers in the league series. While they will not be eligible for the team overall title, they are eligible for the individual race and overall titles.
So far, the following schools/areas have formed teams and are set to compete beginning this weekend:
•Brighton/Hillcrest/Juan Diego Composite
•City Mountain Bikers (Salt Lake area)
•Davis Composite (Layton area)
•Golden Spike Composite
•Mound Fort Junior High
•Salt Lake Center for Science Education
•South Davis Composite
•St. Joseph Catholic High School
After this Saturday’s race in Park City, there are three other events scheduled for this season: Sept. 22 at Sherwood Hills and Oct. 6 at Lambert Park in Alpine, with the championships scheduled for Oct. 20 at Soldier Hollow in Midway.
Alex Lizarazo, coach of the Ben Lomond team, said his squad of six riders (five boys and one girl) have been training every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in the Ogden area in preparation for the races. The team assembles at the school, then rides out to nearby trails.
“Ben Lomond is close to the trails, so it works out great,” Lizarazo said.
While the riders are competitive, there is also a sense of camaraderie among all the riders, and different teams sometimes train together, he said.
“It’s just cool to ride with different people sometimes,” he said.
Like some others, the Ben Lomond team has several bikes that were donated by local businesses. In their case, Autoliv donated seven bikes and the Utah league used some of its NICA grant money to donate three more.
Harward said competitive mountain biking continues to expand, and three more states will announce new leagues later this month, bringing the total number of states with their own leagues to 10.
While states like California and Colorado have more well-established leagues, she said Utah’s is the biggest debut of any state yet, with about 300 riders signed up in the first year.
“We’re right up there with leagues that have been around for several years,” she said. “The level of interest and support has just been incredible.”
She said plans are already being made for next year’s courses, and Snowbasin will play host to one of the races.
Utah’s new mountain biking league will only serve to get more kids interested in the sport, exercising in the outdoors and making new friends, she added.
“This is going to impact Utah and its youth for generations,” she said. “I wish we had had this when I was in high school.”