ARLINGTON — As most of us know, cycling is great recreation, great exercise and, above all, great fun. But a handful of Arlington and Lakewood high school students are finding out that it can be a great sport, too.
This spring, the two schools are fielding competitive mountain bike teams for the second season. A combined team a year ago, the squads are competing separately this year because of growing numbers, although they still train, travel and fundraise together.
And, they all seem to agree, cycling is hard to beat.
“The more you do it, the more you want to do it,” said Chris Nelson, a junior at Arlington who is also a member of the school’s wrestling team. “This is fun for me because I’ve always loved to ride my bike.”
Being on a bike, “you just lose all the worry and the stress of the day,” said Nicholle Ayres, a Lakewood sophomore. “You can just (relax) and think about nothing.”
Two of the team’s three coaches are Kristi Berg and Heidi Klippert, both of Arlington. Berg is a professional cyclist and cycling coach while Klippert, who is more of a recreational cyclist, is a counselor at Lakewood.
The two women pooled their time, energy and know-how a year ago, and put together a team that debuted in the Washington High School Cycling League, a part of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). This season’s first race was March 25 with 18 teams and nearly 100 cyclists competing in the Furious Fort Classic at Whidbey Island’s Fort Flagler State Park.
Other races are scheduled for later in the spring at Washougal, Fort Steilacoom and the state championships in late May at a site to be determined.
“We’re really trying to grow the program in the state,” Berg said. “The fact that it’s so new, I get people every day who say, ‘What’s that? I’ve never heard of that.’ But we have so many avid cyclists in the state … and we’re trying to let all these kids know they can participate in a cycling sport through high school.”
The team trains two or three days a week, and team members turning out for spring sports are excused from the weekday workouts. But on Sunday everyone shows up for the week’s longest and most strenuous practice, which might be in the Arlington area, although other times the team travels to Bellingham, Anacortes or other places where there are good trails.
According to Klippert, a few team members would be non-athletes if not for the mountain bike team.
“Some of these kids have never been in an organized sport,” she said. “They’re kids who have not been labeled as athletes, but now they’re competing. … So many kids go home and watch TV or play video games (after school), but now there’s a niche for some of them to compete.
“We have a lot of camaraderie,” she added. “The kids all say that it’s not just about the ride, it’s the people. And the feeling of exhilaration you get.”
It helps to be good on a bike, but no one gets turned away because of inexperience. In fact, no one gets turned away at all. The team does not cut, and everyone receives proper training in bike skills and safety.
“Absolutely anybody can do this sport,” Berg said. “We have every level of kid, including some who are brand new and barely know how to ride a bike. But we work with each of them, and the goal is to get them where they can do their best at their ability level.”
Lakewood freshman Antino Bellizzi, for one, was a virtual novice when he started. “My biking experience,” he said with a smile, “was riding down to the end of the driveway.”
Likewise, Hannah Mendro (she is Klippert’s daughter) never considered herself an athlete. An Arlington sophomore, she was born with ocular albinism and is almost legally blind.
“I’ve never been (someone) who does sports,” she said. “So when my world history class found out, the whole class was like, ‘You ride a mountain bike? On a mountain?’ … It’s a completely different way of having people see you.”
The team competes on courses that are the equivalent of cross country skiing. That is, sometimes up, sometimes down, and often on level ground.
“It’s more about endurance and lower speeds,” Berg explained. “Yes, there are sections where we’re going fast, but it’s more about climbing hills, also descending hills, and flat riding.”
Still, there are occasional falls and team members can describe — and often embellish — their scrapes and bruises. Helmets are mandatory, which cuts down the risk of head injuries.
“With every sport comes a risk,” Berg said. “But as a league we’re trying to teach skills so we can limit the amount of crashing and getting hurt.”
Team members pay $240 for season fees (need-based scholarships are available), and the team tries to acquire mountain bikes for anyone who is without.
Some team members are hesitant to race, Klippert said, but with a little encouragement they usually come away with “a feeling of accomplishment from having started a 10-mile course, and finishing it, whether they have a high place or not.”
Added Berg, “At the end of the day, it’s not about a result. It’s about finishing and about the gratification you get from doing something like that.”