OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) – A marginal sport in the 1970s, mountain biking continued to grow in the United States, even joining the Olympic Games in 1996 in Atlanta.
The kids at the Try Out Mountain Biking event at Swanson Park in Bellevue didn’t seem to care about any of it. They are there to learn skills and have fun.
“I love seeing it, so many kids, just my age,” 13-year-old Taylor Jarrett said. “It’s nice to talk to them, to see how long they’ve been mountain biking.”
“It’s kind of weird seeing cameras at a cycling event because I don’t really see that (very often),” 12-year-old Mallory Mosely said. “So that’s pretty cool.”
“The kids are always excited, always fun,” said Papillion Area Composite (PAC) coach Jennifer Greer. “We play bike games to help build skills, you know you’re learning everything you need to know to be able to ride the trails safely and efficiently and you’re having fun while you do it.”
The event is a call to class for boys and girls in grades 6 through 12 by the adults who started the Nebraska Interscholastic Cycling League (NICL). The organization started in 2019, seeking to promote the sport and develop teams in schools and towns across the region, and to create a competitive network to increase support.
“Over the past two years with the pandemic, the kids just needed to be outside and more active,” said NICL chief executive Bree Campbell. “(We founded NICL as) an organization more focused on youth development and not necessarily competition or performance.”
Eleven teams are listed on the NICL website, several from Metro Omaha as well as Lancaster County, Norfolk and Des Moines. As of 2022, they are one of 31 National Interscholastic Cycling Association project leagues.
The Swanson Park trails served as a Try Out Mountain Biking classroom, with newcomers learning the basics of mountain biking, as well as a proving ground for students wishing to join a mountain bike team.
Taylor Jarrett comes from a family of mountain bikers, so he’s been on the trails for more than half his life.
“I like to have fun, enjoy my race, do my best and it works out in the end,” Taylor said.
The 2022 fall competition season begins in August with a race at Blair and ends in October at Raymond. Teams often hold fundraising events and races to help defray costs. For example, Millard West hosts the third annual Tranquility 50 at Tranquility Park in Omaha on Saturday.
Competitions give athletes the chance to be part of a team and work towards improving their personal times, but league coaches say NICL has more to offer.
“There is no trying and it takes no experience to get started,” said Southeast Metro Area Composite (SMAC) coach Joseph Collins. “It’s 100% inclusive. There’s no bench, there’s no rest, you ride as much, as hard, as often as you want, and when you want to relax and do the fun things, you do too.
“There’s the competitive element to it, but we also have the adventure side for kids who don’t want to do competitive stuff,” Collins said. “but no matter what trail they take, they take the skills to ride a bike with them, and they take it with them.”
NICL officials also stress that the league strives to be inclusive. Events like Try Out Mountain Biking are free.
“We have a fleet that kids can use at events like this,” Greer said. “We also have bikes that can basically be checked for the season to use if they don’t have their own bike and can’t afford one. There are also scholarships available, for kids to join the league if they couldn’t otherwise.
There was a time, around 125 years ago, when Omaha was a hub for the burgeoning world of bicycle racing, competing at Charles Street Cycle Park. Now, mountain bike trails are created, maintained, and maintained, usually by volunteers in places like Swanson Park, Tranquility Park, Black Elk Park, Maskenthine Lake Recreation Area, and Branched Oak Area 7 in eastern Nebraska.
“You don’t have another sport out there that builds and nurtures the area that they’re going to train in or they’re going to ride in,” Collins said. “It’s unique for us as mountain bikers.”
“We’re here to get the kids to ride bikes,” Campbell said. “We’re here to have fun and we’re here to show kids that they can feel empowered and they can feel like they’re part of something and we’re using the power of two wheels to do that.”
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