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Idaho Mountain Biking League Creates Teams for Teens

It's an 'edgier' high school sport

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When joining the Eagle High School Mountain Bike Team, teenagers do a lot more than mountain bike: They become immersed in the culture of the extreme sport.

"It's not all posh," said team director Bob Shannon. "We want the full mountain biking experience, and part of the culture is just being outdoors, camping, braving the elements."

When the team traveled recently to compete in races in the Teton Mountains and up Galena Summit, staying in a hotel wasn't an option.

"I personally make it mandatory: no motorhomes of camp trailers," he said. "They're sleeping in a tent."

Eagle High School launched its Mountain Bike Team in July. No such team existed until the Idaho High School Cycling League was created this year. Since then, nearly 250 teens representing 17 schools across the state have joined the league.

With 30 kids, Eagle High's team is one of the largest. Members practice every Tuesday and Thursday and race every Saturday.

On a recent Thursday evening after a thunderstorm, two dozen kids wearing shiny helmets, riding gloves and hydration packs sat on their mountain bikes. The foothills behind them were lit in a spectacular gold.

Eagle High senior Quinn Stockwell cast aside the football helmet he has worn since he was a kid in order to get on the mountain biking team. Now, he's a team captain.

"I was on the Eagle High School football team until junior year. I decided to give it up and try this, and it was worth it. I thought it would be more fun," Stockwell said. "It is—it's 500 times more fun.

Stockwell said playing football was brutal, but he didn't leave the sport because he was worried about concussions.

"I'll get a concussion out here just as easy," he said. "You can get pretty hurt out here doing some of the trails that we do."

It's a different kind of hurt, according to fellow team captain, 17-year-old Brad Walden.

He played lacrosse for eight years until this past spring, when he suffered a knee injury during practice.

"I haven't been able to play," Walden said. "I might be able to go back next season, but I don't want to risk it. If I break it again, I'm done for life with everything. Biking is really beneficial and I've loved it since I was 2. Once I found out there was a team, I was in."

He's had a few scrapes since joining the team, including once when a rider in front of him crashed, which sent Walden over his handlebars. With his foot still clipped into the bike pedal, he slid down the rest of the hill.

The kids on the team are proud of their scars. One girl was quick to show off a fresh gouge on her elbow. Another talked about the permanent scars on her knees and arms. Stockwell once broke his thumb and couldn't shift gears for the rest of the ride.

Coach Shannon thinks it's important for the sport to challenge the teens. He pushes them to ride almost 30 miles per practice over a mix of terrain.

"I'm a firm believer that there's no way to discover who you are or what you're made of than dealing with adversity," he said. "Life dishes plenty of that out, but sometimes these endurance sports provide that for you in a concise package. You find out what you're capable of. These kids, they're always capable of more than they thought."

Getting the high-school mountain biking league up and running dished out its own amount of adversity. Dylan Gradhandt spent a year and a half creating the Idaho league under the National Interscholastic Cycling Association; Idaho is the 15th state in the nation to join NICA.

"We're a state full of people living here for this exact reason," Gradhandt said. "It's edgier than cross-country running. The terrains are on the edges of the world. Two years ago, I met some career goals and quit my job to focus on this."

Gradhandt, who has mountain biked for 37 of his 41 years, wanted to create an inclusive sport. The mountain biking teams take bikers of all skill levels, including people who have never ridden before. Gradhandt also wanted young women to be involved in an extreme sport.

"Girls might be cheerleading on the football team," he said, "but with our program, they can be out there participating equally with the boys."

About one-third of Eagle High's team is made up of girls.

The teams aren't yet seen as official school programs, which means they aren't entitled to any of the school's money, Shannon said. It costs $125 to join the Eagle team, plus $45 for a jersey, plus league dues and race fees. Scholarships exist through businesses like George's Cycles. Mountain biking can also earn teens large scholarships for college.

The league has two more races in October at the Eagle Bike Park and behind the Avimor subdivision. The official season ends then, but not many of the high schoolers plan on dismounting their bikes. For Shannon's part, he's helping his team develop a lifelong sport.

"How many people actually keep playing football [after high school or college], and what does that do to your body?" he said. "This has the opposite effect. It creates something you can enjoy for your whole life."