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SALT LAKE CITY — One of Utah's fastest growing high school sports doesn't play its games on a typical hardwood court or grass field. Mountain bikers prefer the scenic trails found around the state for their competitions.
On Aug. 20, the Utah High School Cycling League kicked off its eleventh season that continues every weekend until state championships in late October.
The league is divided into six regions based off a variety of factors but mainly by school population. Each weekend the league holds three races where half of the six regions ride. The following week the other three regions race, and the regions continue trading off weekends until the championships. During the season, each region rides in four races.
Participants earn points based on the position they finish in the race and their overall times. Riders eliminate their worst race of the four and the average score of their three best races will determine who makes it to the championships in a two-day event in St. George.
Earning a shot at the podium or a chance to go to the championship at the end of the season is a fun goal, but for many athletes, mountain biking is simply a sport to have fun with friends while getting some exercise.
"It's just really fun to be with my teammates and ride together," said Noah Crockett, a junior from East High. "It doesn't matter what skill level you are, you can all just go out, ride and have fun.
"I'm not a huge team sports guy. I don't like the idea of maybe letting the rest of my team down. (In cycling), I feel like everybody just builds each other up. And no matter whether you win or get last, everybody is always cheering for each other, and I think it's pretty awesome."
The mountain biking league provides a unique opportunity that not every other school sport offers: everyone gets to ride.
"There are no tryouts and there are no cuts," East High head coach Shawn Rossiter said. "So we take kids from all over. Basically, anyone who wants to join can join.
"A couple of these kids are fast enough to get podiums and the rest aren't, but that's not what it's about. We've had kids stop their own race to help someone who has mechanical issues, or they went down with an injury. There's just a different attitude."
Mountain biking combines a fun, athletic challenge with the social atmosphere that many young people crave. Maya von Arnim, an eighth grader on the East High junior devo team, shared what makes mountain biking special for her.
"It's a community that's really special," von Arnim said. "And then there's also the adrenaline rush that you get right afterwards. The mountain biking cocktail, which is a mix of endorphins, dopamine and adrenaline."
The league focuses on its five core principles: fun, inclusivity, equity, respect and community. These principles drive every action that directors of the league make as they continue to grow in interest and popularity.
While mountain biking may not draw the same fan base as sports like football or basketball, the cycling league has quickly grown into one of the largest sporting organizations in the state of Utah. The league held its first races in 2012 with about 300 riders, and that number has increased significantly since then.
"When I started (in 2018), the league was roughly just about 3,000 kids," said league director Dallen Atack. "And now this year we just hit 7,000. Our 7,000 by far makes us the biggest league across the nation."
As a nonprofit league, members of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association are not sanctioned by the Utah High School Activities Association; the cycling league has to fund every part of the sport through sponsorships and participation fees. The fees paid by parents and riders fund the races and events during the season, while sponsorships help provide one of the various programs offered by the league.
"We do tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships each year to lower those financial barriers that some kids may have to come and ride," Atack said. "We also have loaner bikes. We have a fleet of about 80 bikes that are good for cross-country racing that we loan out to kids for the season.
"We have a program called Elevate where we're assisting students with disabilities to be able to participate in the sport. Every year we have a number of kids that are diagnosed along autism spectrums, Down syndrome; last year we had two that were missing limbs. We have a blind student this year that's racing; we've had deaf. We cover a whole gamut of kids and we work with the coaches and assist in getting those kids to be a part of a team."
The Utah High School Cycling League rides into its second decade of existence, with a focus on providing a quality outlet for students of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. For coaches like Rossiter, watching kids succeed is the ultimate goal.
"When you see a kid who can barely mountain bike at the beginning of the year, and at the end of the year can tackle this five mile, 500-foot course, yeah, I get a kick out of that."