Originally Published: October 6, 2013 6:02 a.m.
The scars on Phoebe Teskey's knees from her nasty wipeout last spring on a patch of sand serve as a reminder that competitive mountain biking is not for the faint-hearted. In single-track racing, a horde of bikers weave up and down bumpy, rocky trails as narrow as 18 inches wide.
"Mountain biking," says her coach Tim Connolly, who was one of the first kids in Prescott with a mountain bike in 1989, "is about learning your limits and then breaking them."
Teskey's diminutive stature belies her inner strength and drive. Last month in the first of four races scheduled for the inaugural season of the Arizona High School Cycling League (AHSCL), the junior from Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy won the junior varsity girls race on the Pemberton Trail at McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Maricopa County. She's been riding mountain bikes for only nine months.
Heidi Madler, a senior from Bradshaw Mountain High School, trailed Teskey by only 71 seconds. Her mother Tracy, a chemistry teacher at BMHS, coaches the team. Heidi's sister Hannah finished third in the sophomore race.
Tracy Madler and her assistant Emily Streeter have motivated five other girls with no racing experience to try this male-dominated sport. Bradshaw Mountain has more girls riding than the four other schools from the tri-cities in the AHSCL combined.
Prescott High School, under the direction of Ray Sullivan, finished with the highest team score (6th) among tri-city participants followed by Chino Valley (7th), Bradshaw Mountain (8th), Northpoint Academy (10th), and Canyon View Prep (16th). Two of Prescott's boys - Andrew Myrick (3rd out of 44 riders in the boys' JV race) and William Hughes (7th out of 28 boys in the sophomore event) - along with Northpoint's Kyle Johnson rank among the most experienced male high school mountain bikers in the area. Johnson - the only rider from the five schools to compete in the boys' varsity race - finished ninth.
Sullivan is quick to point out the inclusiveness stressed by the AHSCL. "We don't just cater to the top riders," he says. "It's extremely important that everyone on the team gets equal attention no matter what their experience level is."
None of the five boys on the Canyon View squad have much experience. Their coach Pat Fraher, a former chair of the Prescott Mountain Bike Alliance, lauded the boys' effort in the races, especially that of freshman Jason Lajeunesse, who overcame a crash at the start of his race to finish 10th.
The first two finishers ever in an AHSCL race provided the most thrilling moments of the day when Chino Valley's Zoe Dunn peddled neck-and-neck with Tristen Musselman (Northland Prep, Flagstaff) over the last eighth of a mile of the girls' sophomore event. Dunn's description vividly captures their all-out effort as well as the intensity and potential dangers of mountain bike racing.
"I rode next to her [Musselman] heading into the S turns before finishing the chute," recalls Dunn, who has raced with the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona (MBAA) the past two years. "She took the inside of the first corner and I took the outside. When we came into...the last corner...we bumped tires and my handle bars hit a race course barrier pole which almost made me crash. I saved it [her balance]. We sprinted hard to the finish, but she beat me by two seconds. I have to give her credit because she raced so hard she threw up right after we crossed the line."
There are a lot of stakeholders in the Arizona High School Cycling League.
AHSCL founding chair and executive director Mike Perry is working to create, nurture and expand the high school racing community in Arizona. The initial AHSCL event was the second most successful kickoff race in terms of participants (behind Utah) in the history of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), the National Governing Body for grades 9-12 interscholastic biking in the U.S.. Created in 2009, the NICA has developed 10 mountain biking leagues from California to New York. Georgia will join in 2014.
Perry points to Arizona's geography and outdoor culture as two of the reasons why high school mountain biking has caught on so fast throughout the state.
"Arizona is an outdoor state," says Perry, who has created a first class, well-organized league [based in Scottsdale] in its first year. "There's lots of open land and easy trail access. ... If we can gain interest in every community like we have in the Prescott area, this league will become huge. For 90 percent of the participants it was their first race ever.
"I want our riders and coaches from across the state to get to know each other and work together. We strongly encourage all participants to pre-ride the course Saturday afternoons before the races on Sundays. We plan to organize group cookouts on Saturday nights and show movies so that it becomes a fun social event, not just a bike race."
"Empowering" is how Teskey and Johnson describe their mountain-biking experiences with the Raven Riders.
Johnson, a junior, first became exposed to mountain-biking several years ago. His first choice, "World Religions," was unavailable so he signed up to learn the sport from Alison Zych, who started the school's mountain biking program six years ago and presently serves as team manager, activities and adventure coordinator, and Spanish teacher at the school.
Zych has witnessed students' transformation in the classroom once they become dedicated mountain bikers. "I've seen kids who have struggled academically begin to thrive," she says. "They learn to focus on a goal. 'If I did it in mountain biking,' they say, 'I can write that five-page essay.'"
Johnson exudes the benefits of the sport. "Mountain-biking has become a way of life for me," he says, "physically, spiritually, and socially. It really relieves stress to get out into nature."
Teskey nods her head in agreement. "It's boosted my self-confidence," she says. "I didn't expect to love mountain biking as much as I do."
One of the most gratifying parts of coaching is to see inexperienced riders driving themselves to achieve times they may have thought impossible. The riders in the JV races had to complete the first lap of the two-lap event faster than a cutoff time in order to be allowed to complete the competition.
Chino Valley team director and coach Janice Dunn - whose daughter Zoe rides on the team and husband Chris also coaches - worried that beginner Nicole Linebaugh might get pulled from the race. Instead, Linebaugh finished fourth overall, completing the first lap with 15 minutes to spare.
"I've never been so proud of a student," Dunn gushed. "She gave the race her all and more. Nicole has never done anything athletic before, but high school mountain bike racing has changed all that."
Prescott High's coach Sullivan owns Bikesmith, a cycle shop on North Montezuma. He has seen first-hand the changing demographics of his customers through the years.
"In the early 1990s, mountain biking really picked up steam," he recalls. "In the last 10 years, I haven't seen as many younger kids involved. I don't know if it's video games or what. We want to see more 15-to-20-year olds involved in the sport by exposing them to it. They're not going to seek it out on their own."
That's one of the priorities, too, for Perry. "Kids involved in traditional 'ball and stick' sports usually stop competing after high school," he says. "Mountain biking can last a lifetime."
Sullivan can attest to that. "I see cyclers in here all the time who are well into their 60s, 70s, and even 80s," he says.
The AHSCL and high school coaches have tried to remove any financial barriers that would prevent a student from joining teams. It is not an inexpensive sport.
The AHSCL has sponsors who have enabled the league to purchase a fleet of 24 bikes that are loaned to kids whose families can't afford to buy them.
The bike manufacturers hope they get hooked on the sport and become lifetime customers. "It's a win-win for everybody," Perry says.
The Prescott Kiwanis Club has donated funds for the specific purpose of helping kids who couldn't join the Prescott High team for financial reasons to purchase bikes and equipment.
Meanwhile, cycling on a dirt trail for the first time can be overwhelming, Teskey observes.
"Sometimes it's overcoming your fear of keeping up with everyone," she said. "(You) need to be brave, step out, and let their love for the sport carry them on without worrying about their skills or speed. Hopefully more (high school students) will find mountain biking as exciting as I do."