Youth MTB racing in the USA
07 July 2015
The cross-country MTB scene here in the UK is very well-structured. Most youth riders soon find out how to get involved in racing and, if they’re ambitious, how to develop within the sport.
But how are things done in the USA, the original home of mountain biking? What are the opportunities for talented young American riders, and how do they compare to what we have in the UK?
We asked sixteen-year-old US national champion Veda Gerasimek (“Darth Veda”) to tell us all about it.
How do kids in America typically get started in MTB?
The United States is an incredibly large nation, so mountain biking is different from coast-to-coast and even between neighboring states. In the west, California, Colorado, and Utah contain the largest mountain bike communities. It was in these three states that the first ever high school mountain bike leagues were set in motion by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). NICA’s mission is to help student-athletes develop a “strong body, strong mind, and strong character through their efforts on the bike.” There are currently fifteen established leagues concentrated mostly in the west, so interscholastic racing is not yet available in many of the 50 states (a goal that NICA hopes to reach by 2020).
I happen to live on the East Coast and my hometown doesn’t have a cycling community. The trails are incredibly technical and demanding, which can be daunting, intimidating, and discouraging to first-timers. I was lucky enough to have supportive, patient, and protective parents who introduced me to mountain biking in a safe and encouraging way. I rarely saw any other children on these trails, so I spent most of my time riding with adults. Eventually, I was inclined to sign up for my first mountain bike race when I was ten and I’ve been racing ever since. I am sharing this with you to prove that, even if you’re not born into a cycling community with convenient resources and programs, you can still discover your passion.
What is the racing & competition structure like?
In the United States, we have what is called the Pro MTB Cross-Country Tour (Pro XCT). This series “offers cross-country Olympic-style (XCO) and short-track cross-country (STXC) racing. All eight events in 2015 are UCI-sanctioned, allowing elite riders the opportunity to earn valuable UCI ranking points.” The more UCI points a racer has, the higher their world ranking. A high ranking grants a better start position at these races and at World Cups. The only racers eligible to earn these points are juniors in the 17-18 age category and elites/pros.
For juniors that aspire to reach the level mentioned above, we have the Mountain Bike Development Race Series (MDRS). Anyone between the ages of 15 and 18 must place in the top-fifteen in one of these races to compete at Nationals (whether you are in category 1, 2, or 3). However, there are very few qualifying events, which makes it difficult for unsupported individuals to find a race that is close enough to attend. I would love to see the growth and improvement of this series, so more kids can get where they need to be in order to experience national-level competition.
How does talent development for young MTB’ers work in the US?
The first step in the USA Cycling development pathway begins at the regional level. Anyone with adequate racing experience between the ages of fourteen and nineteen can attend a Regional Talent ID Camp. This grants juniors the opportunity to be recognized and to be given the basic, yet necessary tools needed to move up the ranks.
The primary goal of these initial camps is to evaluate talent and provide attendees with the right resources to improve. I have been to one and my experience was exceptional. The coaches and staff were incredibly knowledgeable and I learned a great deal. Not only did we receive useful riding tips, but guidance on nutrition, injury prevention, strength training, and stretching.
Furthermore, if a racer shows enough potential and promise, he or she can then be asked to attend a National Talent ID Camp. Here, riders can be selected to represent America at an International or European Race Camp. I recently attended an International Race Camp and it opened my eyes to competition outside of the United States, giving me a completely new perspective.
What is the best (and worst!) of being a youth MTB racer in the US?
The worst thing about being a MTB racer in the US is also the best thing, in my eyes. That is, the fact that the sport is undiscovered by most Americans and not considered mainstream. I believe its unpopularity makes it a hidden gem. The US race scene is a tight-knit community where everybody knows everybody. When you’re competing at the national level, chances are, you’ll run into familiar faces no matter where you are in the country. Every race feels like a family reunion where both old and new friends come together. I feel at-home even when I’m thousands of miles from home. That’s the magic of our little mountain bike society. Our numbers are few, but the friendships are immeasurable.
Are there any opportunities for female racers in particular?
As an elite junior racer, I have always had aspirations to make a career out of my passion like many of my professional role models. However, I had to accept the fact that this was not a realistic life choice. In many cases, women were paid up to ten times less than males with the same placing in their respective classes. When I became aware of this discrepancy, I was upset that pursuing my dream could never pay the bills.
However, last year, the US Cup Pro Series (consisting of five events) became the highest paying cross-country race series in the world with an $81,000 prize purse. The big milestone was that the top 15 elite men and women would receive equal payout for each individual round in the series as well as for the overall winnings.
This recent cash incentive will surely draw more elite women to the forefront of American XC racing and increased attendance will create more competitive fields. This also provides juniors with more role models and mentors to look up to, thus aiding in the development of the next generation of elite racers. It is crucial to have up and coming talent when many of the pros begin to retire. Aspiring pros, like myself, will have something to strive towards as opposed to previous years. I no longer have to sacrifice my passion of the sport for a more sustainable career that doesn’t improve my quality of life or satisfy my need for speed and adventure!