The newly established Laguna Beach Interscholastic Mountain Bike Team, made up of three girls and seven boys from Thurston Middle School, will compete this season in the SoCal League of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. The team’s three-race schedule kicks off March 7 with the Vail Lake Challenge at Vail Lake Resort in Temecula.
The SoCal League, which added a middle school division last season, is one 15 NICA leagues in 14 states, and has grown to 71 teams from 15 since its inaugural season in 2009. About half of the teams offer middle school programs.
With hundreds of miles of world-class trails crisscrossing nearly 20,000 acres of open space in and around Laguna Beach, one might wonder why it took so long for the community to field a NICA team. “There were some prior efforts for sure,” said team director Tony Zentil, a long-time Laguna resident and 20-year mountain biker who works for Oakley.
“We definitely have loads of amazing trails around here to practice on, and it will just raise our experience as riders,” said Thurston eighth grader Caden Bencz.
Nearby schools in Corona del Mar, El Toro, Tustin and Trabuco Hills also established SoCal League teams since 2012. “It’s kind of funny because they actually come to Laguna Beach to ride,” said Zentil. “We’re sort of the last ones to get a team together.”
Bencz, who took to the trails two years ago after giving up water pole, competed in some downhill races last fall in Fontana. “It’s such an exhilarating rush when you fly down hills at top speed,” he said.
He and some of his fellow riders had been looking for a local outlet to nurture their love of this newfound sport when they got wind of the team’s kick off meeting last October at the local Boys and Girls Club. “We thought it was an awesome idea,” said Bencz. “It combines so many things that I love. It’s definitely the thing for me.”
As many as 50 middle and high school-aged kids turned out for that initial meeting. But fewer and fewer came out to practice over the ensuing weeks, leaving Zentil with his current crop of 10 middle schoolers.
High school athletes have many school sports and extra-curricular activities to choose from and “it’s hard to get them to switch,” Zentil said. But things are different when it comes to middle schoolers. “They’re still kind of figuring out what they want to do.”
There are no tryouts or skill level prerequisites to join the team. “If you show up and you commit to practice, and you commit to training and you put in the work, you’re going to see the result. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
The team practices four times a week, staging from Alta Laguna Park. For the beginners, who stay near the summit for the most part, “the focus is sort of fun, starting to build fitness, and safety,” said Zentil.
The intermediate and advanced riders, most of whom were recreational downhillers before joining the team, go for long rides into and out of Wood Canyon to build stamina and hone their climbing skills. “They really just need to work on their fitness to prepare for racing.”
Zentil hopes that more kids join the team in successive seasons and discover the fun of mountain biking and learn NICA rules, which apply not only to practices, races, and individual training rides, but also to every bike ride as league members.
NICA rules cover general safety, such as a ban on headphones and cell phones while riding, to “Leave No Trace” guidelines that promote low impact cycling. “It would be good to move kids in this direction,” said Zentil.
Perhaps one of the most significant benefits of being a member of a mountain biking team can be found not on the trail but in the classroom. A recent survey found that more than half of NICA student athletes have a GPA of 3.5 or higher, and one third reported academic improvement when they joined the league. In addition, 85% have plans to attend a four-year college or university.
For Zentil, physical demands that raise heart rates also raise mental attentiveness. “When you accept these challenges on the bike, you also accept these challenges as a student.”