Article and photos by Michael Mejia, Coach for the Mountain Bike Team at Albany High School.
Newspapers lowered at the barber shop the other day when Jerry paused during my crew-cut and asked about the Mountain Bike Team. The customers, many old Cougars themselves, understand football and wrestling – but racing mountain bikes as a high school sport? You’re kidding, right? Mountain biking doesn’t enjoy the support bestowed upon traditional sports with a nested prospect in the high school tradition. It has no court or the dedicated spaces of a ball field with fences to keep out the Volvos. Yet in the fall of 2005 Albany High Freshmen Connor Chapman and Ian Breunig heard about the NorCal High School Racing League and thought it might be cool to race bikes. They were right in the end, but at the beginning it meant building something from scratch. With guidance from neighboring NorCal folk, interested athletes and their parents were provided a basic structure for how to get ready for racing.
Bringing this idea to Albany High School administrators for permission to proceed revealed that mountain biking seems to enjoy a reputation for being a troglodyte’s do-it-yourself careen into the beyond sort of thing followed by trips to the emergency room, making it a hard sell to a liability-phobic school district legal department. It puts off girls who think it is dangerous and parents who fear the certainty of a broken neck will jeopardize admission to Stanford. The reality is quite different; it is a discipline of measured efforts, gradually accumulated power and skill, cooperative group riding, and a love affair with a steel, carbon fiber, and rubber creature that only remotely resembles that wheeled sledgehammer rusting on flat tires in your garage.
Equating bike programs with emergency rooms is as ridiculous as equating Swim Teams and drowning. The fact is that this sport has fewer injuries than most all the other high school sports except golf. Ultimately, the jaundiced eye, still leery, conceded. Though arguably one of the most athletically demanding activities at the high school sport level, the mountain bike team couldn’t be a part of the Athletic department and was told it must be a club. There are no “coaches” from Chico State, no uniforms or equipment provided by the school and, of course, no money.
All the while the Albany parents did what they do best; support their kids. Thomas Breunig and Francis Chapman, both fine cyclists, took point and established rich logistical methods. They organized to find sponsors, volunteers, and raise funds. They helped transport riders to off-site workouts and co-ordinate with other parents to make sure that we do what we have to do to get to the starting line.
On March 5, 2006 Connor and Ian had their wheels on the starting line at the first race of the season at Ft. Ord. At mid-season the small team had its own jersey designed by Francis. By the next Thanksgiving, we had the historic addition of Jennifer Breunig, Aviva Pager, and Charlotte Perry-Houts, the first female mountain bike racers at Albany High.
This year, with Ian and Charlotte as our first Varsity racers and three racing Junior Varsity, the team competed at the highest levels of the NorCal League. With the help of eight new adult mountain bike volunteer riders and developed talents in the sophomore ranks, the team of 12 secured a 5th place out of 28 teams statewide in Division Two mountan biking. In addition, Sophomore Miguel Mejia came in second statewide.
With all due respect, the nature of the efforts made by the mountain bike athletes on race day exceed most other sports and demand high-intensity high-speed skill. The marvelous thing about this is that these racers generally start as beginners. Through careful dynamic training and deft support from seasoned cyclists and mentors, they develop into skilled, powerful, smart riders. And that is the norm, not the exception. Why? It is because what we offer can be compared favorably to anything offered anywhere at the high school level. Anything. Full speed for two hours uphill into the wind and still keep your head? We call it AP Mountain Biking. Albany has created something great.