NICA’s Comprehensive Top to Bottom Approach to Diversify the Sport of Mountain Biking

We speak with the staff and volunteers who are working to make youth mountain biking more inclusive and accessible to all.
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Florida’s NICA League is on a mission to grow and diversify the sport of mountain biking in the state. Photo courtesy of FICL.

Imagine only being able to buy one type of mountain bike, or only being able to ride one kind of trail. The breadth of diversity in bikes, gear, and trails makes mountain biking enjoyable for all riders.

Unfortunately, there has not been much diversity in mountain biking when it comes to riders. As Jeff Barber noted in a September 2016 article, most of Singletracks’ audience, fairly representative of mountain biking as a whole, are white males. Compared to the overall population, women and minorities are greatly underrepresented in our sport.

The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) is working hard to create more diversity in mountain biking by focusing on the next generation of riders. I want to showcase NICA’s efforts on a national, state, and local level.

Creating diversity starts at the top with NICA

Kristine Urrutia is the Vice President of Development & Strategic Partnerships at NICA. She has nearly 20 years of leadership experience in global, community and foundation development with a particular interest in social entrepreneurship. Urrutia explained how NICA is working on a national level to help create more diversity in mountain biking.

“NICA recognizes the value of participation in NICA League events for all student athletes, free from discrimination based on race, religion, or gender identity. Our mission is to build strong minds, bodies, character, and communities through cycling. Our core value of inclusivity demonstrates our belief that everyone should be able to participate in our programs and feel welcomed, respected, and supported.”

Urrutia believes that “a diverse environment allows for more ideas, a broadening of perspectives, and familiarity that leads to a more engaged and welcoming community. This diversity means a broader range of skills among employees and a diversity of experiences and perspectives, which increases the potential of productivity.”

NICA is using different programs to achieve its diversity goals

Urrutia highlighted a few different programs NICA has implemented. One of them is the Girls Riding Together (GRiT) program that NICA started in 2018.

“GRiT is NICA’s focused effort to bring more girls and women into the cycling community to close the opportunity gap for current and future generations. NICA aims to increase female student-athlete and coach participation rates in our programs to 33% by 2023.” 

Urrutia also mentioned that NICA began working with diversity and inclusion expert Risha Grant, LLC in 2019. Risha Grant has surveyed 800 people around the organization about their experiences with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and reviewing findings with a random group to more greatly understand DEI at NICA.

Additionally, Urrutia noted NICA’s work to provide welcoming and safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. In the fall of 2020, NICA had the staff and board of directors attend a training program called Safe Zone, through the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill’s LGBTQ Center, to learn concepts and terminology related to sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

Finally, Urrutia highlighted the work of one of NICA’s outside partners, Trek. The major bike brand is helping 250 student athletes with a Marlin hardtail and gear as well as NICA League entry fees for a season through the Trek Pathfinders Scholarship.

Positive results: Representation works

When asked about the results of NICA’s efforts, Urrutia said they have been encouraging so far.

“We have learned much from our GRiT initiative, which has gone a long way toward increasing equitable access to NICA for girls and women and has informed our efforts to increase diversity more broadly. We have learned that it is easier to attract younger girls to cycling. While girls currently represent 20 percent of all NICA student-athletes, middle school girls represented more than 25 percent of middle school student-athletes in eleven NICA leagues.”

Being able to recruit female coaches and role models has helped GRiT’s success. “We have also learned that increasing youth female participation is aided by having women as coaches and role models. Targeted outreach and events to increase the number of female coaches is working, with women currently representing 25 percent of coaches nationally.”

The lessons learned from GRiT can be used with other underrepresented groups. “As we develop strategies to support increased participation from other underrepresented communities, we know that having coaches from these communities as mentors and role models will support student-athlete recruitment and retention. We know that if youth and adults see themselves represented in the mountain biking community, they will feel comfortable participating. By providing a safe space to be with peers, supported by people who believe in them while teaching them new skills, mountain biking will become a lifelong activity that builds confidence and self-esteem.”

Urrutia pointed out that, while NICA has grown significantly over its ten-year history, there are youth that have not had access to its programs. “The challenges and barriers we are working to overcome include diverse representation in mentors and role models, access to trails, awareness of the opportunity, and the cost of participation.” Still, NICA seems to be on the right (single)track. 

Florida’s League was created with diversity in mind, especially when it comes to female riders

To see how NICA promotes diversity on a state level, I spoke to Maxwell Gledhill, the director of the Florida Interscholastic Cycling League (FICL), which was created in 2018, and just completed its first full season of racing this past spring. 

“As a child of the 80s, I grew up on bikes, using them for transportation and for fun. I discovered mountain biking when I was in college in the 90s and got hooked.” Gledhill heard about NICA while he was teaching high school and was intrigued by it. “I had students at school who didn’t fit into traditional sports. I knew they would be interested in it.”

For Gledhill, NICA’s mission, vision, and purpose closely aligned with his own beliefs. “Inclusivity is crucial and diversity in anything leads to a more beneficial community. It opens people’s awareness. Experiences build personality. When we have teams come from all over the state to a race, you hear different languages and see different cultures. It allows people to grow respect for each other, and it ultimately leads to better communication.”

FICL is diverse, especially when it comes to female riders. As of January 2021, 21.5% of FICL’s student athletes were female, which was higher than the national average of 17.3%. As of October 2020, 32.8% of FICL’s licensed coaches were female, which was also higher than the national average of 24.6%. Still, more can be done according to Gledhill, who wants to increase the diversity of FICL’s coaches and core staff.

Gledhill believes that FICL’s greatest challenge to becoming diverse is awareness. “It’s hard to make parents and kids aware of the league’s existence, and even that mountain biking is a sport. We just completed our first full season of racing, so that should help us tremendously.” 

The Tallahassee Thunder Composite Team gives student-athletes of all backgrounds the opportunity to race and ride together

Members of the Tallahassee Thunder Composite Team at FICL’s Twisting Through Twister Race in Ocala, Florida. Photo courtesy of the Tallahassee Thunder.

Led by Head Coach Bree Van Oss, the Tallahassee Thunder just completed its first season as a member of FICL this past May. Van Oss was eager to share his love of mountain biking with kids. “Riding a bike is a universally loved pastime. When you see a young person on a bike, they are often smiling. When was the last time you were in a worse mood after a ride than when you started?” 

He also wanted to make sure that the team he coached was open to all. “The love and enjoyment of cycling is not affected by gender or skin color, but it is well known that there are stark differences along those lines in competitive cycling. I started a NICA composite team in Tallahassee, Florida with a question: what can I do to help create the kind of change our sport needs?” The answer was to decrease barriers to entry and increase representative role models. 

For Van Oss, inclusivity and representation are important goals because every student athlete should have the opportunity to benefit from the NICA experience. “Participation in competitive cycling today is not representative of our Tallahassee community and this results in a barrier to entry because student athletes have limited exposure to cycling role models that they can identify with. Focusing on inclusion and representation by lowering barriers to entry, providing equity, and actively seeking out riders and coaches in underrepresented populations will hopefully serve as a catalyst for change. When young people in these underrepresented demographics see themselves reflected in our team, we believe they will be more likely to participate.”

Van Oss was able to celebrate some successes in his inaugural year as head coach. “This year we created a sponsorship program that provided new bikes and safety gear for four student athletes who would otherwise not likely have been able to participate. We closely engaged with two organizations that were already serving communities of color. We recruited coaches who identify with the underrepresented demographics. We selected a location in Downtown Tallahassee to ensure that families on any given side of town weren’t at more of a disadvantage. We ran practices with clockwork precision, same time of day and days of week. We were up-front with our fees, committed to a ‘no surprises’ policy for the entire season and offered financial assistance. We also set a tone of unconditional support between coaches. We believe that teams reflect their leadership. When the coaches are completely supportive of each other, the team will follow suit.”

MTB is better when everyone can ride

My first season as a NICA coach was a memorable one. When I volunteered to be an assistant coach with the Tallahassee Thunder Composite Team, I had no idea what to expect. I was blown away to see such a diverse group of student-athletes come together and become a strong, cohesive team in a matter of weeks. We celebrated a lot of firsts, and a lot of successes, including having one of our female riders win first place in her age group in every race she entered. 

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James, a student-athlete with the Tallahassee Thunder Composite Team. Photo courtesy of the Tallahassee Thunder.

For James, one of the student-athletes, his first and only season as a rider (since he was a senior in high school) was unforgettable. “I truly enjoyed my experience being on the team. It showed me another side to biking and I appreciate having the opportunity to participate. It was a very positive environment, and the staff did a great job with the team. When I asked for help, they helped and gave extra tips. Besides not being able to participate in a group race I still enjoyed the time trials and experience racing. The experience makes me feel like being a part of the team but as a coach one day.”

The team surprised James at the end of the season by giving him the team bike he used all season. More importantly, James received the gift of mountain biking, which he’ll enjoy for the rest of his life. There are many more riders like James out there, and they need to be a part of our sport too. Let’s do our part to include them.

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