My Experiences Coaching a High School Mountain Biking Team
When I started blogging last year, my brain was spinning from all the new experiences racing in Europe. I was shocked by how many people took a couple minutes out of their busy lives to reach out after reading some of my posts. I'm guessing that while they scoured their daily social media outlets, finding a short piece written by a familiar face actually creates flickers of warm feelings, inspiring them to write a nice note. And when I read their responses, I, too, got the warm fuzzies.
So here I am again, writing a post and secretly hoping it inspires some of you to say hi!
I haven't been completely off the grid for the past few months, but my new job back in emergency nursing has kept me busier than usual. I've also been spending some QT with Mike and Flint hanging out in our favorite San Francisco locations. One of them is Grove on Fillmore. Not only is their food made with love and homestyle goodness, but they also invite dogs to dine with their owners. Flint gets water, treats and tons of pets when he goes down there with us. It's a real family affair. Ha!
Playing Hard (in the dirt!)
Last fall, I started to volunteer as a coach for a high school mountain bike team comprised of students from several different schools in San Francisco. This team competes in races put on by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). There are NICA teams all over the US. In fact, when I first heard about NICA through my former teammate, Andrea Dvorak, she was finding ways to raise money for the high school team she coached and for the entire Virgina league. Watching her become so passionate about getting more kids on bikes made me think that I might enjoy it, too.
When I agreed to coach a mountain bike team, I carried with me little to no experience riding a mountain bike. To be exact, I can think of 2 times that I actually went for a mountain bike ride. The first time was over 10 years ago when I was working as a camp counselor at Gold Arrow Camp. The director asked me to fill in for another counselor who was sick. So, instead of teaching waterskiing, that day I went to shred a mountain with some teenagers. Despite being terrified coming down the mountain, I absolutely loved it. Then, in 2015, a cycling friend let me use his full-suspension mountain bike on a small group ride in Los Altos that looped up Alpine trail to Skyline. For anyone not familiar with that area, it's super technical going up and down. Of course I accepted the offer and again, LOVED it.
Fast forward to April, 4 months into the NorCal League season.
Indoor Spin Classes
It all started with indoor spin classes to get the legs moving during the rainy months. We held 2 classes each week that finished with a short core session. Unlike other high school sports, coaches get to play too, and that includes putting the work in. Full disclosure, none of the kids nor coaches were fans of indoor spin classes but the 10th Street Fitness SF is quite deluxe, making us all feel pretty priveleged to have their support.
Team Camp in Bolinas
Mid-February, the team spent the weekend on a gorgeous property in Bolinas, which is a small surfing and farming town just north of San Francisco. The cabin and its grand, woody acres reminded me of the open space in Maryland. So, of course, I was right at home. Believe it or not, the sun was shining all weekend. It may have been the only weekend in February that we could enjoy the sun, but hey, it worked out pretty well!
In brief, we spent Saturday slopping through muddy grass and farm roads, racing each other in circles, climbing 15% grades over and over and over. Saturday evening activities included dinner as a team, a bonfire complete with 2 competitive rounds of Mafia, and sleeping under the stars on a campground with views of San Francisco. Yes, this is real life for a high school kid in the Bay Area. ;)
Sunday morning, one of the students got up 2 hours earlier than everyone else to make 15 batches of pancakes. I know what you are thinking...he's my hero, too! Once we are carbed up, we went uphill for a long time, ripped down a descent and finished our ride on a flat "China rice patty" trail that had two river crossings. Adventurous indeed.
Two of the students and a graduate of the team created a video documentary of the weekend. It's guaranteed to make you go out and buy a mountain bike, or at least spend the weekend outdoors.
I have had people ask me, where in the world do you ride mountain bikes in San Francisco? Yeah, it is tough in a city, but the team's founders and current head coach, Kurt Wolfgang, have it pretty nailed. We meet at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park during after school hours, and head out from there, either to GG Park's unofficial/official cyclocross course or up the hill to Sutro trails, just behind UCSF. One of the biggest lessons during practice is teaching awareness of walkers, joggers, dogs and horses. It's not always about riding as hard and as fast as possible at practice. Using a high-traffic park makes our students hyper-aware of other people and thus, well-rounded riders!
Some days are just for skills and drills, where I often learn more than the students. With such a small team, we even had the chance to do 1:1 lessons where each kid was paired with a coach to practice a self-selected skill that they feel has been holding them back at the races. We use our city resources as best we can, and the gradual improvement at each race shows we coaches are doing something right.
NorCal League Races
What we've all been training for, the races! To accomodate the many different levels of riding within our team, each student enters races that suit their ability. There are freshman and sophomore races, JV levels #1 and #2, and Varsity. The cool thing about mountain biking is that even if you get dropped from the main pack of riders, in which case one you'd be riding alone, you still can have a great experience riding the trails. One of the riders on our team said that she rode alone for most of the race, but didn't really care because she still got a good workout in. I mean, the positivity of our students is noteworthy!
My impression of the courses may be influenced by my inexperience in the mountain biking world, but I think the courses are really challenging.
We coaches get a chance to ride the course with the kids before the race. It's an important time to scout out places to pass other riders, take a sip of water, eat a Clif gel or a GU block, and just simply take a breather. While the kids race all morning, we provide support by helping get their bikes all set up and help them get mentally prepared for the race ahead. We take turns at the feed zone, too.
The volunteer coaches for SF Composite are the best. Kurt Wolfgang and Heather Pugh recruited a rad group of mountain bikers who so kindly welcomed me to the other side of the cycling world.
Mountain biking with high school students is all about having a good time learning new skills, challenging yourself on local trails and race courses, and keeping the stoke high for the whole season. So far, we've accomplished all those goals.
This spring season of coaching has even inspired me to race a bit this summer. So, I'm taking my Scott bike to some local races to see how I do on the dirt!
Thanks for reading.