A new trail is being forged in youth sports, and Missouri is joining the pack. The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), the governing body for interscholastic mountain biking in the U.S., announced in April that it has welcomed Missouri to its roster of 27 state leagues. The Missouri Interscholastic Cycling League (MICL) will host middleand high-school mountain biking races across the state, with its inaugural season expected to kick off in the fall of 2020.
A Long Road
League Director Chris Mileski is excited to partner with NICA, so more kids can experience firsthand everything mountain biking has to offer, including being outdoors, overcoming
challenges, making friends, and building community. He first learned about NICA in 2011 while head coach of Lindenwood University’s cycling team. During a junior’s cycling conference at West Virginia University, he attended a breakout session hosted by NICA.
“When I heard how they planned to get kids off of electronics and outside on bikes, their objectives and strategies to achieve their goals, I thought, ‘These guys get it,’” said Mileski.
“NICA sees a future where kids have an opportunity to build strong mind, bodies, character, and communities through cycling,” Mileski continued. “Their core values promote skills development, excellence, teamwork, and respect.”
NICA was two years old and growing, and while he saw the potential, Mileski wasn’t convinced Missouri was ready for a league at the time. He continued coaching Lindenwood’s team until 2013/2014, then moved on to coach Hannah Finchamp of the Clif Pro Team (and Lindenwood student) full time.
“Coaching was rewarding, but I realized the collegiate athletes were mostly developed,” he said. “Missouri just wasn’t developing cyclists at an early age. There are programs for kids to run, swim, and play baseball, but there aren’t cycling programs for kids. Nor do we have a lot of kids racing in Missouri. I had recruited more kids from Wisconsin than Missouri during my time at Lindenwood.”
In 2016, Mileski founded Missouri Interscholastic Mountain Biking (MIMB), a non-profit dedicated to bringing NICA and a mountain biking league to Missouri. At that time, awareness of the sport and kids’ involvement was quickly growing thanks to Bentonville, Arkansas, booming as a mountain bike travel destination; Arkansas’s own NICA league; and an infusion of groups and programs across Missouri dedicated to getting families to spend more time outside.
“Although awareness and demand for the sport was increasing, formal development and structure was lacking,” said Mileski. “In Missouri, there isn’t an existing model for junior cycling like other sports have. There’s a need for guided skill progression amongst middle and high school student-athletes. The new Missouri Interscholastic Cycling League will help establish that structure, so kids receive training, development, and support from certified coaches as they grow with the sport.”
Since founding MIMB, Mileski has been strategically recruiting its founding committee and leadership team, both of which include outdoor- and bike-industry veterans, professional racers, Bicycle Instructor Certification Program (BICP) coaches, and business and non-profit professionals throughout Missouri. Under Mileski’s leadership, they’ve been working together to plan, define, and build the MICL’s infrastructure, determine processes and procedures, outline the race season, and select potential race venues. Between now and the inaugural season in 2020, MICL’s leadership team will also be recruiting and training teams, coaches, and volunteers across the state.
The Big Leagues
Today, Missouri has a vast cycling culture and community. There are eight collegiate-level cycling clubs and dozens of organizations focused on getting more kids and families on bikes. Mileski and his team of regional coordinators are tapping into these resources as well as Missouri’s 566 high schools, 51 junior high schools, and 285 middle schools to develop the league.
The MICL will be anchored around five major metro areas that are also home to superb trails and cycling hubs: East Region – St. Louis; West Region – Kansas City; Central Region – Columbia/Jefferson City; South Region – Cape Girardeau/Independence; and Southwest Region – Springfield. Regional coordinators will lead local program planning and development, fundraising and sponsorship development, community relations and outreach, and more.
“I’m excited to help build a friendly mountain bike community for kids and introduce them to the sport in a way that fosters healthy competition,” said Team and Coach Development Chair Amanda Lappe. “The cool thing with MICL and NICA is there’s a place for everyone. The racing structure is built around individual and team competition. Everyone’s time will count [in the team score], and everyone will add value to the team. That’s something that’s missing from a lot of sports. This type of environment is much more attractive to some kids than other team sports, where they may be part of a team, but not participate in each game.”
Lappe brings a wealth of knowledge to her role and the league. She has more than 10 years of experience working with children and adolescents — three years as a coach with St. Louis Mountain Bike Camps — and has raced mountain bikes since 2014. She is also a BICP-Certified Level 1 Ride Guide.
Additionally, Lappe will lead MICL’s Girls Riding Together (GRiT) program, which is focused on increasing female participation in the sport of mountain biking, whether it be racing, coaching, or volunteering.
“NICA’s goal is the have girls and women represent 33 percent of participation across all of their programs,” said Lappe. “I’m hoping to incorporate my experience leading girls-only rides and skills clinics into the GRiT program and recruiting for the league. I’d love to have some of the riders from Lindenwood’s women’s cycling teams come talk to the girls and boys about riding and racing in college.”
Renee Thierry shares Lappe’s sentiments and enthusiasm. “Cycling is a sport that families can do together,” said Thierry, regional coordinator for the West Region and based in the Lee’s Summit area. “Sports like soccer and baseball are popular with kids, but it’s not as easy to play as a family. Many of my friends with older kids are getting into mountain biking and even planning destination vacations around it. That’s a neat aspect of the sport.
“A lot of kids in our area are trying to land a spot on competitive athletic teams, but it’s oversaturated,” she added. “This league offers them an opportunity to try something different, maybe even earn scholarships to college.”
Thierry was involved in sports growing up. She ran cross country in college and will tell you she “enjoyed the camaraderie, training, and setting goals — then pushing myself — but was never top-notch.” She started riding mountain bikes in 2012 and entered her first race in 2013/2014 because she missed the competition.
Thierry is also a member of Roots Mountain Biking’s instructor team. Roots hosts beginner and intermediate skills clinics throughout Missouri and across the country.
Each of the five Missouri regions will host one race weekend per season, which is anticipated to be September through mid- November to take advantage of fall’s cooler temperatures and infrequent rainstorms. Mileski is also working with the Arkansas Interscholastic Cycling League on the possibility of the two leagues using one race each season as an invitational.
“Arkansas races in the fall as well, and it would be wonderful once a year to invite them to our race in Springfield and then the next year Arkansas would invite us to one of their races,” he said.
Together, Mileski and MICL’s Venue Development Chair Jay Thomas have selected potential race venues.
“With so many great trail systems and state parks in Missouri, narrowing down venues wasn’t easy,” Mileski said. “But they’re perfect for MICL events. They’re built in short loops, provide elevation gain, offer a mix of double-track and single-track trails, and are close to major cities and trauma centers. Jay travels all over Missouri, and he knows these venues well.”
Mileski recruited Thomas to join the league’s leadership team due to his love of mountain biking, professional career in the bike industry, and his coaching and education background as owner and founder of Roots Mountain Biking. Plus, he is the only BICPCertified Level 3 Skills Instructor in the state.
“Bringing NICA to Missouri and launching the Missouri Interscholastic Cycling League puts us on par with other states around the country that have these programs, such as California, Minnesota, and Arkansas,” said Thomas. “These leagues build kids’ confidence and gets them and their parents involved in a sport in which they can excel but may not have considered before.”
Author: Nick Brennan is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Photo: Lead image by Linda Guerrette, courtesy of NICA.