There was a lot to celebrate at the fifth annual Colorado High School Mountain Bike League State Championships last October. All told, the competition drew a record 613 Colorado high schoolers from schools large and small across the state to Eagle. And, of course, there were the faces of hundreds of volunteers, mostly parents, beaming with pride and a bit of envy as they muttered the sidelined singletrack mantra heard so often: “I wish they had this when I was in high school.” All those racers and spectators meant there were countless stories born here, each reflecting the thrill of pedaling.

The tales of victory were enough to get any fan excited about the future of the sport. There were the junior varsity riders from Boulder High who took home the school’s fourth state title thanks to mega-lunged pedaling. There was the gifted pair of seniors who tied for first after four races on the Haymaker Classic trail. And there was Durango’s impressive Christopher Blevins who transformed a surging start from the back of the pack into a four-minute lead and a state championship title.

The most compelling narratives, however, came from the back of the pack, from the kids who weren’t aiming for a podium but were clearly winning. Some of them wore jeans and inexpensive, not-too-cool helmets. Some pedaled hand-me-down rides. Some brought families generations deep. Many found answers—and even futures—behind the handlebars.

“I plan to do this for the rest of my life,” says Rita Gutierrez, an 18-year-old who was born in the Vail Valley but only discovered singletrack four years ago when she was enlisted by The Cycle Effect, a pro-coached, 60-girl team that uses mountain bikes to empower young women from every background.

In January, Gutierrez won the 5,000-student National Interscholastic Cycling Association’s student-athlete leadership award, largely based on her passion for cycling; a two-wheeled lifestyle she has embraced and shared. She often takes her friends onto singletrack for the first time, exposing them to a world they never knew. More often than not, they start racing too.

“I’ve been trying to get a bunch of girls to join. I tell them how good it feels to finish a race and not finish last. They see how much fun I’m having and they want to be a part of that,” she says. “They are like ‘Oh my God, this is so cool. I didn’t know this was here.’ It’s like they are discovering a new arcade in town. It’s a whole new place to play. I don’t think a lot of us knew how lucky we were to live here until we started riding our bikes.”

The Greater Good

The Colorado High School Mountain Bike League was the third league to join the nascent NICA in 2010, with 190 athletes from 19 teams. The spectacular growth of Colorado’s league over the past four years (it now boasts 711 athletes from 54 teams and several high schools lining up to award varsity letters to top mountain biking athletes) is mirrored across the nation as leagues explode with festive races featuring pro-level riders and kids competing in their first-ever contests. Utah had more than 1,000 student athletes racing in its third annual state championships last October, including the 107-athlete Corner Canyon High School Mountain Bike Team, the largest high school mountain team in the country.

“There is just huge, huge demand,” says Austin McInerny, the executive director of NICA who oversees 15 leagues in 14 states. Most of McInerny’s work consists of cajoling sponsors and pushing merchandise to support not just the association’s growing leagues and 1,800 coaches but the $165,000 in scholarships the association awards to different teams to support their racing.

Asked if he is shocked by the spectacular growth of high school mountain bike racing, McInerny starts to nod his head. But then he stops.

“Yes, it can be overwhelming but really, I’m not surprised,” he says. “This is about riding with friends and challenging yourself. All the things that we love about cycling are amplified by these student athletes.”

Pedaling Through

Colorado’s now-burgeoning league was born on the back of Kate Rau. An indefatigable champion of kids and bikes, Rau bounds across dusty racetrack parking lots high-fiving everyone she sees. Many of the young girls stop for a trademark Rau bearhug.

“Kate is probably my biggest role model,” says Aaricka Johnson, a Leadville senior who raced against seven girls in 2011 and 60 in last October’s state championships. “Everything she does is for the greater good.”

At an awards ceremony before the race last October, Johnson tearfully bid farewell to the league that had defined her high school experience.

“You are changing the lives of the kids you coach,” she told the dozens of coaches who were in attendance from across Colorado.

Garrison Hayes is one of those kids. The 15-year-old’s first-ever mountain bike race was with the Highlands Ranch Composite Team in 2013. There were five racers on his team back then. Last October the team fielded 20 riders. And every one of those riders, once they finished their own races, hiked their bikes up the singletrack to cheer on Hayes and pedal across the finish together.

“It’s so cool how everyone supports me on the trail,” says the cancer survivor, who, in 2005, underwent Van Ness Rotationplasty procedure as an alternative to traditional amputation required for a cancerous bone tumor. Hayes skis, plays soccer, runs track and field, all with an ankle joint that serves as a knee. At the Leadville race last September, Hayes pedaled through the finish beneath a canopy of raised arms.

“I get to compete against everyone in Colorado,” he says, “I’ve been on the bike now for two years. I love it. I’m so glad I have this opportunity.”

Then there is Kelsay Lundbergh who finished second overall in the 2014 series, fueling a third-place finish for Salida, a 300-student high school with a 24-student mountain bike team that rivals those from the Front Range’s 2,000-student Fairview and Boulder high schools. A graduating senior, the sage 17-year-old credits the team with floating her through rough waters, including the death of her father to cancer in 2010.

“I’ve had some hard things in my life in the last four years and, just like climbing a hill on a bike, you have to push through and persevere. You push through so much pain and then slowly, you get better and you keep getting stronger and stronger,” says Lundbergh, whose older brother Garrett raced for Salida and is now emerging as a national powerhouse on a mountain bike at Durango’s Fort Lewis College.

“There are a lot of connections you can draw between riding a bike and life,” says Lundbergh.

PHOTO: TED VIC

PHOTO: TED VIC

The cycle effect

The coaches feel the power of the bike, too. Many of them are veteran riders, hardened from years of racing. Giving back to the sport and witnessing the transformative power of pedaling resonates with them. Professional triathlete Tamara Donelson has seen The Cycle Effect, which was founded by her husband Brett, grow from a handful of Vail Valley girls to more than 60 competitive athletes in Edwards, Eagle and Summit County. The Cycle Effect rules are strict. Dry land training begins in February. Miss a training session and you’re out. Make every meeting, and you get a bike and a kit.

“They are believing in themselves and they are recognizing that they are really capable of achieving things they maybe never considered,” Donelson says. “They say to themselves ‘Hey, I’m pretty good at this. I’m able to beat other kids.’ They are learning they are stronger than they think they are.”

That is really the goal, asserts Rau. It’s not just about sculpting champions and hoisting trophies. The league is about developing a skill that will linger through all phases of life.

“If we give kids a passion and guidance, they will flourish,” says Rau, who shares countless stories from parents who credit mountain bike racing with changing their kids’ lives. After a couple of those retellings, her eyes well up.

“The mountain bike team has been the right side of the tracks for so many kids,” she says. “I really want to make this more accessible to more kids. Feed the fun so they can go live in Detroit or Chicago or Delta and have an identity and a tribe. Something they can go and do and leave the worries of the world and recenter.”

The kids get that in Eagle. With dust creasing their sweat-stained faces, they flank the finish line of every race. The back-of-the-pack riders dig deep as they approach their teammates and the racing late in the day heats up in the final 100 yards. Everyone, from every team, is cheering, hugging, high-fiving. It’s quite a spectacle.

“Keeping this widespread appeal is so important,” says Dave Wiens, the Gunnison ambassador of all things mountain biking who directs the mountain sports program at Western State Colorado University. “If this starts catching, and I don’t see how it couldn’t, we are going to explode and every high school in the state will have a mountain bike team. But the most valuable thing here is introducing kids and even their parents to the bike. That can be a life-altering introduction.”

The cycle keeps growing.