Riding off-road with a youth mountain biking team

The Rock Creek Composite MTB team practices skills at Butternut Creek Park in Hillsboro. (Photos: Shannon Johnson/BikePortland)

Out of the blue, I received an email invitation for my son to join a mountain bike club in our area. 

“It’s a good place for bike crazy kids,” the team director, Hiram Conley, told me. 

Would he be interested? Absolutely!

The organization is the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), a nonprofit that “develops interscholastic mountain biking programs for student-athletes across the United States.” The co-ed teams are for kids in 6th-12th grade and offer athletes the opportunity to compete in mountain bike races. Kids can also join the team without racing, just to have a fun group cycling experience. There are no try-outs and everyone is included and welcome at all levels (provided there are enough volunteer coaches to support the athletes). There are weekly practices and lots of weekend rides, which provide a great opportunity to develop new skills and new friendships. Refreshingly, it seems like NICA’s emphasis is on having fun, getting kids outside, and helping them grow to be strong and confident.

I was immediately interested, because I have been wanting to find a way to get started on mountain biking, with the hope of developing another fun hobby for our family. With our current love of urban biking, and all my energetic and adventurous kiddos, mountain biking seems like a natural fit. I even bought myself a mountain bike last summer, but never managed to try it out. 

“Can parents come too?” I asked. Yes! On this team, parents are encouraged to come along for the rides and teams may be looking for more volunteer coaches and assistant coaches. No experience necessary – NICA will provide training. 

Conley, who coaches the Rock Creek Composite team,  invited me to their first pre-season practice at Butternut Creek Park in Hillsboro. The park has a little gem of a BMX course that I didn’t even know existed. Unfortunately, my almost-6th-grade son was sick, so I ventured out to the practice on my own, hoping to learn a few first-time mountain bike skills, and get a feel for the community and team experience.

Coach Hiram led a few drills and games, and I nervously followed along, feeling all the awkwardness of navigating new athletic skills in a grown-up, perpetually postpartum mom-body (which is even more awkward than being in middle school). Despite my total lack of natural ability, I was welcomed and encouraged. My big victory was trying out the “pump track,” which I navigated quite un-gracefully (see video below). Turns out that trying something new at almost-40 is a victory I will relish. That said, my favorite part of the beautiful evening was just seeing a group of kids having fun, outside, goofing around on bikes. And I had so much fun, I wish I could join the team myself. 

If your kids are interested in joining, now is the time! In Oregon, practices start in the summer and the season runs through the fall. Go to the Oregon Interscholastic Cycling League website to find the closest team to you. There are teams in Portland, Lake Oswego, Beaverton/Hillsboro, Tigard, and beyond. Our family hasn’t decided if a team commitment is right for us this year, but with many bike-crazy kids, and many summers ahead of us, I expect we’ll become team members soon enough. In the meantime, my sons are eager for me to take them to the pump track (where they will immediately surpass me), and to nearby Chehalem Ridge, so we can test ourselves on new bike adventures. Maybe we’ll see you out there!

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Shannon is a 36-year-old mom of  five who lives in downtown Hillsboro. Her column appears weekly. Contact her via shannon4bikeportland@gmail.com

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13 days ago

Some things to remember:

  • Most NICA clubs have special “trail work” days and/or hour requirements to foster volunteerism in kids.
  • Most NICA programs have specific programs for young women designed to help them not only feel more comfortable on a bike, but also feel more comfortable with themselves. The later seems more important now with negative social media spirals that some find themselves in.
  • NICA keeps really good statistics on injuries. If you are hesitant about Mary or Jimmy hurting themselves, take a look at NICA’s numbers. You will be reassured.

Lastly, if you don’t understand why it’s so important to have trails in cities, look no further than the NICA programs.

Geoff Grummon-Beale
Geoff Grummon-Beale
13 days ago

I think this is great. I got into mountain biking when I was in high school through friends. If there had been a team for me when I was younger I’m sure I would have loved it.

jered bogli
13 days ago

I love the article.

As a Northwest Trail Alliance board member it has been awesome partnering with NICA on dig days for the kids as well as seeing the teams out practicing on our trails, the stoke is high, the vibe is positive and the laughter is contagious. NICA is doing amazing things in the community, empowering youth and giving them confidence on and off the bike. We can’t say enough great things about everything NICA is doing – get involved with them if you can.

If you’re looking for a lower commitment or just dipping your toes into the world of mountain biking Northwest Trail Alliance has a some great programming geared towards both kids (looks like those are already sold out) and adults just getting into riding mountain bikes – you can find more info here: https://anc.apm.activecommunities.com/portlandparks/activity/search?activity_select_param=2&activity_keyword=gateway%20green&viewMode=list

Given the high demand we’re trying to add more kids classes. And check the NWTA website for Group Rides and Youth Group Rides this summer. BIKES ARE FUN!