BY NICOLE FORMOSA
MATT FRITZINGER USED TO laugh off suggestions that he grow his NorCal High School Cycling League to a national level. After all, he had enough on his plate as it was running the first-ever high school mountain bike league, an idea he conceived more than a decade ago while teaching math at Berkeley High School.
But, slowly things progressed. The NorCal League, established in 2001, ballooned from fewer than 100 riders in its first year to 500 kids on more than 40 teams by 2008. That year, the SoCal High School Cycling League formed with 14 teams and 100 riders thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Easton Foundations. Word started spreading and requests for leagues flooded in from nearly every state.
It became apparent to Fritzinger that some sort of national governing body would be necessary to facilitate new league development and promote and establish mountain biking as a legitimate interscholastic sport.
Armed with a three-year promise of funding from Specialized, Fritzinger announced the formation of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) at Interbike last year. Over the summer, NICA incorporated as a 501 (c)(3) and formed a board of directors, and on Aug. 1, Fritzinger officially stepped down from his position as executive director of the NorCal League to take over leadership of NICA.
“It’s just each year you can see what would the next natural steps you can take. It was a very organic evolution,” Fritzinger said.
And this is likely just the beginning of that evolution.
Colorado has already been tapped as a project league with races starting this fall, and Fritzinger will announce two more leagues at Interbike.
By 2015, NICA is expected to have grown to 10 chapter leagues, each of which would include about 200 riders, with a five-year plan for an additional 20 leagues. Total ridership is pinpointed around 5,000 kids across programs in California, Texas, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, New York, Wisconsin, North Carolina, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Pennsylvania.
“This isn’t just another racing program. These are in our public schools. It’s a cultural shift; this is cycling truly landing in the mainstream. It’s going to change the way all those kids think about the sport for the rest of their lives,” Fritzinger said.
There will be challenges, though. Many public high schools don’t have the funding to support a team or are concerned about the potential liability involved if a kid gets hurt (NICA has its own insurance) and it takes an enormous volunteer effort to make a league successful. And, with a small annual budget of just $300,000, NICA only has the capacity to take on a limited number of projects each year or else it risks sacrificing the quality of the programs.
But, advocates of interscholastic high school racing say it could be the change agent the industry needs to fuel future growth.
Gil McCormick, advocacy czar at Wheat Ridge Cyclery, an early supporter of the Colorado High School Mountain Bike Racing League, has seen many ideas come and go during his two decades in the industry, but strongly believes NICA’s vision and mission has legs.
“We see it as a huge opportunity not only to attract young people in the sport, but their parents,” McCormick said.
A 2009 NICA survey of League parents showed families spent $1.25 million on cycling gear last year and 73 percent planned to purchase one or more bikes for themselves or family members in the next three years.
As a shop owner, missing out on that potential and the chance to be part of a growing kids racing program would be silly, as Matt Adams, co-owner of the Bay Area’s Mike’s Bikes eight-store chain put it.
Mike’s Bikes jumped onboard about five years ago, and invests more in the NorCal League than any other event except for the California AIDS Ride, dedicating thousands of dollars a year through race neutral support, shop discounts and donations. The NorCal League sponsorship is far more lucrative than sponsoring a cycling club or local team with 30 riders, Adams said.
It’s difficult to quantify the actual return, but “I know it’s been a success for us. Just when I go out to the races and see the number of our bikes on the trail,” he said.
For Steve Bowen, owner of PV Bicycle Center in Palos Verdes, California, the choice to sponsor the fledgling SoCal League last year was a way to increase mountain bike business at his shop, which has traditionally been dominated by road sales.
After both local high schools turned down a league due to liability concerns, Bowen took on the project himself. He recruited a regular customer to coach and used the shop’s email list to find riders.
In the first year, five kids joined and 8 to 10 rode the second season. This year, Bowen plans to make a bigger push and hopes to attract 10 to 15 kids.
He provides jerseys and holds an end of season party for the team. It’s not a huge investment, but one he suspects will pay off in the long-term. So far, the impact in terms of dollars back into the shop has been minimal.
But, anyone involved with the league will tell you it’s not really about the money anyway. It’s about spreading the passion of cycling to a younger generation and supporting NICA.
“Matt’s a great story,” Wheat Ridge’s McCormick said. “Here’s a school teacher all about getting kids on bikes. He’s a visionary. He thought, ‘Well, we can grow this thing.’ I captured that vision and I think many people did. It’s exciting to see something gel in the industry.”