LEAGUE attracts students to trails.
BENTONVILLE — Cate Mertins pedaled her mountain bike through the twists and turns of the Slaughter Pen trails, bouncing down a narrow dirt and rock path, a steep mountain on one side, a drop-off on the other.
This fall, Mertins will be a junior at Haas Hall, where her father, William Mertins, serves as a coach for the school’s mountain biking team. William has been an avid mountain biker for a number of years and has helped build miles of trails in Northwest Arkansas.
Cate Mertins said she started riding mountain bikes around age 10, recalling how she struggled with the fear of racing over the rough terrain of rocks, tree roots and dirt. Falling is a part of the sport, and most of the riders have scars to prove it.
Then the National Interscholastic Cycling Association was introduced to local schools, and she learned how to leverage and lean into turns and other nuances of the sport.
“It changed my life,” she said. “I didn’t like it until I joined NICA. But when I didn’t have to focus on not falling off my bike, I could actually have fun doing the sport.”
The association launched an Arkansas chapter in 2015 and held its first racing league season last fall with five competitions, culminating in a state championship event at Slaughter Pen. More than 160 bikers and 15 teams from across the state participated.
Those numbers are expected to increase to more than 200 bikers and more than 20 teams this year, said local league director Kyla Templeton. New teams will be fielded in Fort Smith, Little Rock and Russellville.
Teams can be schoolbased, such as Bentonville High School’s team, or may be a group that forms independently. Individuals may also compete. The league is open to riders starting in the sixth grade.
Templeton, who founded Girls Bike Bentonville, has been a driving force behind the chapter along with Alan Ley.
“Alan helped me get Girls Bike Bentonville off the ground, but I told him I didn’t mountain bike. I was a road biker,” Templeton said. “But he started teaching me, and we gathered community support to bring this to Arkansas. We’ve done it one person at a time. You just find one person who wants to bring mountain biking to their school, and they can make it happen.”
Around 25 riders from three schools recently trained together at the Bentonville
park on a warm July morning, something Templeton said makes mountain biking in the association different than many team sports. Riders took off in groups down the steep open grass hill, learning the proper way to lean into turns, then pedaling back up to improve their endurance. They gathered briefly to stretch and cool down after the training session.
“The friendship is one of my favorite parts,” Templeton said. “NICA is about competition, but it’s about more than that. We consider ourselves a youth development organization, more than a mountain bike organization.”
Connor Phillips, a junior at Bentonville High, has been racing mountain bikes for about six years, gradually seeing improvement in his skill level.
Phillips, who helped Bentonville win the first Arkansas Cycling League state championship last year, said competing for state honors on a mountain bike was something he never dreamed could happen.
“We just thought it was something people did on the weekends” until the association came along, he said.
Cate Mertins said mountain biking has opened doors for her in all aspects of her life, boosting her confidence as well as her physical stamina. Climbing steep, often rocky hills and navigating the natural mountain terrain in a race format built her endurance.
She tried and failed at a number of sports prior to mountain biking simply because she lacked the stamina
to compete, she said. Now she participates in multiple school sports including track and cheer.
“Because of this, I’m not afraid to try something new,” Cate Mertins said. “It’s just really increased my confidence, and it’s changed my life.”
The teams practice from July to November, and there are five races starting in September. Cate Mertins said she and her Haas Hall team practice two days per week, and one day on the weekend, on the average about six hours per week. Most of the training is done on the bike, although several riders said they also run to increase their endurance.
One area Templeton hopes to see an increase in is the number of female riders.
“We have the highest percentage of women’s coaches and the lowest percentage of female riders in the country,” Templeton said. “My focus is serving a community of women and girls to get them involved.”
Cate Mertens is working to get more girls into the sport as well.
“We need to convince them that it’s not a sport for boys and anyone can do it,” she said. “I was scared I would get left behind, and that’s not the case at all. There are all types of skill levels. Anyone can do it. It’s really easy to learn.”
The coaches are all volunteers, and they all must go through a certification process and pass a background check, Templeton said. There are three coaching levels, each one requiring in-depth knowledge, including first aid.
Templeton said all students are welcome to join a school team, or they can compete as an independent rider, like Austin Morris of Gentry did last year as one of the top-rated mountain bikers in the U.S. Morris won the first varsity boys division state championship last fall, beating his nearest competitor by almost seven minutes.
The only items needed to get started are a bike and a helmet, Templeton said. No students are turned away since there are no limits on how many racers can compete in the events. Riders are slotted in the races by grade and ability level.
If a student does not have the means to afford a competition-level bike, several school teams have bikes to loan, and organizations like Pedal It Forward NWA can also help provide bikes, she said.
Stuart Brune, a teacher in Bentonville and the coach of the Bentonville team, came to mountain biking after he and his wife moved to the area from St. Louis. He’d been a road biker but convinced his wife to rent mountain bikes and try the trails. He loved it immediately, he said.
“What I really enjoy about NICA is that it is a very leveling playing field,” Brune said, adding that riders are free to choose how many or how few events to compete in during the season. “No one rides the bench. All of our athletes can race at every single one of our events. They get to be involved.”
Cate Mertins of Haas Hall Academy practices with her NICA mountain biking team July 13 at Slaughter Pen mountain biking trail in Bentonville. Mountain biking has exploded in Northwest Arkansas as well as across the state. More than 20 NICA teams, including a host of single-school teams, across the state will compete in the second year of the program.
Members of several NICA mountain biking teams practice July 13 at Slaughter Pen mountain biking trail in Bentonville. NICA begins its second year in September with a five-race schedule.