It may not be commonplace for teenage boys and girls here to race competitively in mountain biking, but the sport is emerging as a popular youth activity that very well could take off over the next decade.
Andrew Myrick, 14, a student at Mile High Middle School, and Will Hughes, 15, and Jared Samuelson, 17, of Prescott High are already on the cutting edge.
Myrick began mountain biking seriously in March 2012 and subsequently registered for Prescott's annual Whiskey Off-Road 25-mile (proof) race. He said he loved the ride, which spurred him to start training for other events sponsored by the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona (MBAA), a nonprofit group for amateur and pro enthusiasts.
"I rode that (Whiskey) for the first year, and I had only been mountain biking a handful of times on little rides," Myrick said from Thumb Butte Park this past week, where he trains with Hughes and Samuelson.
Myrick subsequently rode in the "8 to 80," a series of Prescott Mountain Bike Alliance (PMBA) rides designed for those ages 8-80, and competed in The Old Fashioned, a 10-mile sprint in Flagstaff.
"I've been on the podium ever since," Myrick added.
After winning several races, Myrick was invited to join the five-member AZ Devo team. Sponsors who are affiliated with the team come together to develop their riders.
This weekend, Myrick is riding in a 20-mile National Championship Series Fontana Pro XCT (cross-country tour) race with AZ Devo in Los Angeles. It will be his longest ride since he won the 21-mile White Tank Whirlwind MBAA Race No. 2 in 1 hour, 40 minutes and 51 seconds Feb. 9 in Goodyear.
Hughes took his first mountain bike ride at age 10. For a while, he would cycle only on weekends. But when he raced in the Whiskey Off-Road this past year, he devoted more time to the sport.
In last year's MBAA state finals, at the Flagstaff Frenzy, Hughes finished third in his category.
This year, he's racing in the MBAA's full series with the assistance of his coach, Ray Sullivan, a mechanic at Bikesmith Cycle & Fitness in Prescott who designed training plans for him.
"I like being outside and on the trails," Hughes said. "I want to keep continuing racing and getting better to the point where I could do this someday as a living for a little bit."
Samuelson's family sparked his interest in mountain biking. They initially rode in 2-mile loops on the trails at Thumb Butte Park before progressing to 5-mile and 10-mile rides.
Like Myrick, Samuelson soon realized he wanted to race and entered the Whiskey Off-Road's 15-mile ride last April, which he thoroughly enjoyed.
Samuelson's first intense, technical race was The Old-Fashioned in Flagstaff, where he captured first place in his category.
"After that, I got addicted to racing - just being in a group and the competition," he said. "It keeps you fit, too, and gets you out of the house. If I wasn't racing, I'll be like, 'I don't want to ride today. I'm just going to sit on the couch.' But because of the training plan and trying to be better, you have to."
Eventually, Samuelson hopes to turn pro and continue improving. Riders appreciate Prescott because of its varied terrain, mile-high elevation and moderate climate.
"It's really diverse," Samuelson said of the Prescott mountain biking scene. "It's not the same thing every day."
Next weekend, Samuelson will ride in a new MBAA race called the Prescott Punisher on the Brownlow Trail near Pioneer Park. He'll follow that up with the Whiskey Off-Road 25-proof (mile) in late April.
"It sounds really exciting, and everybody talks about it," Samuelson said of the Whiskey. "It's huge. I talked to this person in Idaho that was riding the trails, and all of his friends heard of it in Idaho."
This fall, Hughes said Prescott High will form a team in the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA)'s new Arizona high school mountain biking league.
"Nobody around here does mountain biking, especially at the high school," Samuelson said. "So, I feel like it (NICA league) is gonna expose people to racing, and they're gonna check it out and be like, 'Hey, this is cool.' "
Myrick, Hughes and Samuelson, who met at the "8 to 80," have formed a close bond and often ride together on the local trails on the Prescott National Forest.
"We're all riding buddies," Samuelson said.
Samuelson trains six days a week, excluding Mondays, and figures he rides anywhere from 5 to 20 miles per day. Like Myrick and Hughes, he has the support of his parents in this endeavor. But he does hold down a job that helps him pay for bike parts and plates for his races.
"You have to stay on top of it, and you have to be on top of your bike, too," Samuelson said of the challenges in mountain biking. "You can't let your bike fail on you during a race or training."