LEAGUE at­tracts stu­dents to trails.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - CHIP SOUZA On the Web NICA moun­tain bik­ing league video Chip Souza can be reached at csouza@nwadg.com or on Twit­ter @NWAChip.

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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.”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/SPENCER TIREY

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.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/SPENCER TIREY

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.

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