In 2009, Kate Rau merged her love of mountain biking and working with kids and founded the Colorado High School Cycling League, which brings together teenage mountain bikers from across the state to ride and race several times a year as they represent their schools. The Colorado league is the first league outside California and has sparked a movement with 10 other states joining together to make up the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).
Kate’s job as the Director of the Colorado League is an example of crafting your life around your passion. In 2008, Kate met Gary Fisher and they had a brief discussion about starting a league in Colorado. He told her, “Oh, that’s easy,” and sent her a documentary about the Northern California League. From there, Rau took the initiative and made high school racing in Colorado a reality just one year later.
In her own words, Kate tells us about her dream job and how mountain bike racing can help young girls find confidence and passion.
Tell me about how you came to start the Colorado Mountain Bike League.
Many paths led me to starting the Colorado League. My primary motivation is to provide positive opportunities for youth to shine. My background is varied from environmental consulting to youth intervention programs to outdoor education as a ski/snowboard and mountain bike coach. I have a Masters in Education and believe that high school can be a very challenging time. We encounter so much physical, intellectual, and emotional changes from age 14 to 18 it seems like four decades of development crammed into four short years that are instrumental in establishing our behaviours and lifestyle choices. Adolescence is a fascinating time period where you change so much and many kids get lost or derailed. The more opportunities we have for youth to develop passion, become self-sufficient, set goals, create a strong sense of affiliation and belonging, while maintaining and expanding their unique individuality the better – whether it is playing the saxophone, building robots, gardening, photography, etc.
Immediately prior to starting the Colorado League, I was the training coordinator at Eldora Mountain Resort and program manager of the Singletrack Mountain Bike Adventures (SMBA), a junior mountain bike program that is celebrating 21 years! I worked there for 15 years. My experience in the mental health arena guiding teens, young adults, and families in various stages of transition provided me with a lot of insight. I believe that being in nature while engaged in positive healthy activities surrounded by great role models (coaches and peers) where your parents may choose to get involved is a fantastic method to build a strong foundation during a tumultuous time period. One of the most rewarding comments I heard was from a parent who said, “The Colorado League series guarantees that I will spend 4 weekends in the fall camping and riding with my teenage son.”
What is the percentage of boys/girls?
80/20 and changing toward more parity .
I saw in a recent press release that NICA has grown 30 percent since last year. Is participation by girls growing?
Participation from girls is steadily increasing. In 2013, we hit a solid 20 percent with 120 girls racing. Obviously, I want to see this increase and more teams are actively recruiting girls. The team scoring formula requires that both genders are represented, if not you forfeit points. For example, if you are a Division 2 team of 15 or less riders and you do not have any girls, your team only earns points for three of the possible four riders who can score.
How can mountain biking help high school students?
I am biased, of course, and I think there are infinite ways interscholastic mountain biking positively impacts youth. First and foremost you are outside having fun! Oxygenating your brain is critical to healthy functioning. Three books that strongly influenced my path are: “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by John J. Ratey, and “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv. The theories and observations demonstrated by these authors reflect the importance of establishing a strong sense of self, exercising, and being outside for healthy human development.
Many student athletes and parents state how being involved in the Colorado League helped them with a variety of issues from losing weight, being more focused, becoming more self-confident, finding a welcoming community of friends, to overcoming depression.
What is the family dynamic for training and races? Is it similar to soccer or different? How?
I cannot speak for soccer because that is an arena I know little about. What I do know is many parents are coaches or ride leaders for mountain bike training. At races the parents are often instrumental in getting the team organized with food, lodging/camping, travel, and providing mechanical support. Parents are critical volunteers during the races and we use over 100 volunteers every race. They are course marshals, help with staging, assist at the finish line, timing tent, course marking, registration, and venue set up and tear down. The parents are very involved and take ownership in the event running smoothly, that all riders are safe, and they cheer for everyone – not only their team or individual racer. The camaraderie and mutual support that develops, regardless of your skill, is special.
Also, NICA recommends a ratio of 6:1 athletes to coaches or ride leaders. This engages many community members, often parents, with local high school students. Adults and teens engage in a positive, healthy, outdoor activity. I strongly believe in the benefits of mentoring and the League team format fosters that environment on several levels: between adults and teenagers, seniors and freshman, and experienced and novice riders.
What do you love the most?
This is a tough one and seeing teenagers and their parents outside having a blast creating incredible memories is probably the best! It brings me so much joy to witness this at races because often teenagers and parents or adults can be at odds. I am a huge believer in the power of mentoring. Observing the interactions between adults, teenagers, and the older more experienced athletes guide and support the younger novice riders is so heartening. When a rider has a bad day and their entire team surrounds them and meets them at the finish – regardless of their placement – it is so heartwarming. They are acknowledged and validated for their extreme effort not the points they earned. Every race there is a story of a rider or team digging deep, overcoming a challenge, or learning from lack of preparation, and getting back on the bike. I think every situation is a teachable moment and the culture of the community allows that to occur in a safe environment. There is no shaming or criticism of competitors or rival teams.
I also love supporting the development of teams throughout the region, and meeting so many incredible people who are committed to trails. Looking for race venues and the Coach Summit are extremely rewarding. Dedicated coaches and welcoming land managers are integral to providing this amazing opportunity for all involved.
Can you comment on how NICA is different than other team sports? Example: Does everyone participate, how do you handle super competitive and talented riders with novice riders?
No one sits on the bench when you are on a high school mountain bike team. Everyone earns individual points even when you come in last. The only time you do not earn points is if you have a DNF. The more competitive riders typically race in the varsity category similar to cross-country running. The race crew and coaches make every effort to instill a sense of courteous competition as this is not a World Cup race after all. The more experienced riders know how to pass and the less experienced riders typically allow them to without much friction.
Are they any girl specific camps or training or is everyone mixed together?
At the Coach Summit, we guide coaches on how to make team practices welcoming to girls by suggesting some girls-only fun rides and/or skill sessions where the girls may be less self-conscious. We make efforts at recruiting female coaches as well. Typically, after a few weeks of practice the girls and boys are mixed. Every team is different based on the individual make up. Most teams divide the practice according to skill and endurance versus gender.
Can you give me an example of a girl’s life that was positively impacted by joining NICA?
There are many of these! After the first season a female rider’s mom wrote me and expressed how her daughter never viewed herself as an athlete until joining the mountain bike team. She lost 20 pounds over the season and ended up going out for the Nordic team. Another female rider was struggling with adjusting to high school, and her participation on the mountain bike team became a lifeline and she blossomed.
Jennifer Charrette is the creator of pedaladventures.com. She lives under the San Juan mountains of Colorado, with her husband, son and baby on the way. Her family is also dedicated to getting young kids interested in biking and health through their non-profit, axelproject.com