Proven Positive Results Through NICA
Editor’s Note: George Pastorino is President of the Elmhurst Bike Club and a Certified Mountain Bike Skills Instructor, as well as a volunteer Bike Medic, working many events with the Wisconsin Bike Patrol. He also volunteers with Project Mobility to provide specially adapted bicycles to physically challenged children and wounded warriors. A 20-year resident of Justice, IL, he has served in local government since 2008 as a Village of Justice Trustee and as Chairman of the Justice Police Commission, and has been certified by the Commissioners Training Institute. He retired in 2014 after spending 38 years as a surgical instrument repair specialist and master instructor for Prezio Health.
Members of the Wisconsin Bike Patrol enjoy all the events for which we provide on-course medical coverage. By far, however, the favorite events of most Patrollers are put on by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).
Founded in 2009, NICA develops interscholastic mountain biking programs for student-athletes across the United States. This is high and middle school mountain bike racing and is a fully supported school activity, like football or basketball. NICA, a 501(c)3 non-profit, is comprised of about 30 individual state leagues. NICA provides leadership and governance for regional leagues. Their mission is to produce quality mountain bike events, and to support every student-athlete in the development of a strong mind, body, character, and community through interscholastic cycling. The Wisconsin Bike Patrol makes sure all the kids get medical support on the race course; in turn, we are humbled and learn a lot from them as well.
Everyone who works NICA events knows there is a lot more being taught to these kids than mountain biking, such as respect, politeness, and thoughtfulness, and it shows in their interactions with the workers and spectators at the races. All interactions with the student racers are positive, and they are considerate and well-mannered. In a day and age where that is becoming rarer, it’s an uplifting experience to witness.
Mountain bike racing, in an era in which technology takes up so much of young people’s time, provides greatly needed exercise and fitness. It also provides much needed self-confidence and a sense of belonging for those who participate. Many of these kids were not interested in or able to make traditional high school sports teams, and instead found their happy place on top of a mountain bike. They also discovered the bond of cycling and making new friends among people who they may never have considered friend material. The result broadens their horizons and makes them better rounded members of humanity.
Unlike other high school sports, there are no cuts or pressure to make the team. Every student athlete who wants to be on their local team is accepted. All are allowed to race as much as they choose. No NICA athlete sits on a bench and there is no pressure to beat out a teammate to make the team. As a result, all the kids cheer their teammates on in raucous fashion and their emotion is genuine. Racers are consistently polite not only to each other, but also to event officials, medical personnel, and parents. In the heat of a highly contested race, it is common to hear kids checking on each other and politely asking to pass. They routinely stop to check on other racers who may be winded, injured, or having mechanical issues. Also, there is full participation for female athletes, who make up about 20 percent of all racers, and they are as skilled and competitive as the boys.
On any NICA event race day, up to 650 racers, plus parents, family, and friends, descend on the race site. Many have camped there overnight. There’s festive music and fabulous camaraderie all throughout the venue. Each race starts with the National Anthem and the student athletes are extremely respectful, with their helmets on their hearts and their gazes upon the Flag. It’s part of what they are learning that transcends racing. Several times, a student racer has either sung the National Anthem or played it on a musical instrument, including a tremendous rendition on the violin, with not a dry eye in house.
Once the gun sounds and the race begins, things get chaotic as hundreds of young racers fly out of the gate to the wild cheers of spectators. As racers disappear into the deep forest, the cheers don’t fade as family and friends are strategically set up in the woods in large cheering sections, complete with horns, cowbells, trumpets, and boom boxes. Spectators use old bike frames and tire irons to make an unearthly racket, and this encouragement spurs the racers to greater performance. Even if you don’t know a racer at a particular event, attendance is highly recommended because you will be impressed with the quality of racing and you’ll have the time of your life.
Coaches riding the course give instructions to their riders, and rovers make sure everyone is okay. NICA and the local High School Racing League provide many other volunteers, such as course marshals, finish line support crews, course setters, feed zone marshals, race announcers, and course sweepers who make sure every racer is off the course before the next race begins.
Each NICA volunteer coach has gone through an extensive training program that teaches well beyond mountain bike skills. Coaches are required to be licensed by NICA and undergo specific education that includes risk management, athlete abuse awareness training, team management, ride management, first aid, and youth sports psychology.
John Burke, CEO of Trek Bicycles, has been especially supportive of NICA, donating $1 from the sale of every Bontrager mountain bike tire, and $10 from the sale of every Trek full suspension mountain bike. He also offers pathfinder scholarships that provide 250 less-privileged kids with a Trek Marlin mountain bike, helmet, shoes, accessories, and a kit, as well as a stipend for NICA league and entry fees for a full season of racing and events. Trek is a platinum-level sponsor of NICA and has pledged over 1 million dollars to the organization. Trek also allows NICA to have races at their private Trek trails in Waterloo, Wisconsin, which is also the proving ground for new bicycles.
NICA inspires joy, adventure, team building, and friendship. These qualities show in the behavior and attitude of the student athletes, coaches, and parents. An inclusive organization, NICA makes sure that everyone who participates in their programs is made to feel welcomed and respected. Anyone who spends time around NICA events comes away impressed by the organization, feeling like they are developing great young men and women who will go on to be not only lifelong cyclists, but also great citizens of the world and future leaders.