The River Cities Singletrack Serpents Build Strong Minds, Bodies, Character and Communities Through Interscholastic Mountain Biking
One of the positives of 2020 was the widespread rediscovery of the value of outdoor recreation. Attendance at municipal, state and national parks surged to record highs nationwide as people looked for alternatives to indoor venues that were no longer open and events that had been canceled. Public greenspaces and nature in general, with their inherent capacity for social distancing, fit the bill perfectly for millions across the country.
The citizens of the Mid-Ohio Valley are fortunate in that our region was perfectly suited for this reawakening to the physical and psychological enrichment that simply being outdoors offers. Parks, public lands and nonmotorized pathways are abundant in the MOV, and anyone willing to lace up walking shoes or hiking boots to go for a day hike could easily do so without having to travel very far. Likewise, anyone who wanted to strap on a helmet and go for a bicycle ride could benefit from the numerous rail trails, bike paths and trail systems spread out across our greater area.
In fact, the MOV has earned a growing national reputation for trail systems that are sustainably designed and particularly well suited for mountain biking. Parks at the eastern reaches of the MOV, such as Mountwood Park and North Bend State Park, along with the Wayne National Forest’s Marietta Unit in northern Washington County, have long been popular destinations for mountain biking, and their extensive trail offerings continue to improve and expand to this day. As well, the Marietta Trail Network and Parkersburg’s Johnson T. Janes city park trails offer these cities’ residents exciting mountain biking options within their respective city limits. Farther west, the Baileys Trail System just outside of Athens will feature nearly 90 miles of purpose-built singletrack mountain biking when completed.
Despite this fantastic mountain biking trail infrastructure, opportunities for organized local youth participation in this activity and sport have been limited. Aside from a relatively few races in the area affiliated with the West Virginia and Ohio state racing series and the River Valley Mountain Bike Association’s biannual Take A Kid Mountain Biking Day, there wasn’t much for kids to turn to if they wanted to learn to ride the MOV’s trails. And if parents did not make a specific effort to get their children involved, these youth typically gravitated to other sports and activities.
This lack of opportunity for young people is something that those involved with mountain biking nationwide have sought to address for some time, with limited success. However, in 2009, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association formed to meet this need. Since then, 31 state leagues have emerged under the NICA umbrella, and the activities and race series they promote have grown exponentially to include over 22,500 student-athlete participants across the U.S. as of 2019.
There are many reasons for this growth. First and foremost is the quality of the instruction and training for coaches and youth participants alike. All coaches are background-checked yearly and have the opportunity to acquire valuable knowledge and relevant experience as they advance as leaders through both online seminars and in-person training. They are trained in first-aid and rigorous safety and concussion protocols as well as an understanding of riding fundamentals and bicycle mechanics. NICA also requires continuing education for coaches, and parents can be confident that multiple, well-trained coaching staff will be present to instruct and supervise their student-athletes at any practice.
Likewise, NICA’s national curriculum for training student-athletes uses research-based practices that allow youth with even no mountain biking experience to progress safely and confidently through the fundamentals to more advanced skills. Student-athletes are taught bicycle safety, basic bicycle mechanics, riding skills, and those who join the MOV’s local NICA team, the River Cities Singletrack Serpents, have opportunities throughout the season to work on trail stewardship and maintenance with the River Valley Mountain Bike Association.
NICA’s mission is to foster youth development by building “strong minds, bodies, character and communities through cycling,” and this is a part of everything that the River Cities Singletrack Serpents do. Student-athletes have numerous chances across any season to practice on all of the MOV’s beginner and intermediate trails, with options for more advanced rides as their abilities grow. The Singletrack Serpents are members of the West Virginia Interscholastic Cycling League NICA state league. WVICL’s summer race series travels to a number of NICA courses at some of the most scenic venues across the Mountain State, which perennially ranks among the top states for mountain biking in the U.S.
While the annual race series is the highlight of the NICA season, there are also many other opportunities for cycling adventure within a given year. In fact, racing is not even mandatory for student-athletes, and NICA does not cut student-athletes. Student-athletes can play supportive roles on their teams or just ride for the fun and experience of it. The state league holds adventure weekends for entire families of NICA participants, and increasing female participation is a top priority through NICA’s auxiliary program Girls Riding Together and its GRiT events and camps.
Tony Styer is the new River Cities Singletrack Serpents head coach, and he has been involved locally with NICA since it came to the MOV four years ago. His enthusiasm is contagious. “I’m excited for the 2021 NICA season and what it can offer. We made the best of a bad situation last season with COVID-19 canceling our race season, but our team had fun doing virtual time trials, adventure weekends and our weekly practices,” said Styer. “This year, the team has new leadership with me as head coach and Adam Freed as team director, and we’re looking forward to working with the athletes and our fellow coaches to have a super-fun and adventurous year!”
Student-athletes in grades 6-12 from across the entire MOV are eligible to participate, and owning a mountain bicycle is not necessary to join. Longtime Singletrack Serpents supporters the Marietta Adventure Company work with the River Valley Mountain Bike Association to sponsor riders who need bicycles and equipment, and no student-athlete has ever been unable to participate due to not having a mountain bike. In addition, races are typically held on Sundays to allow student athletes who play other, school-affiliated sports the opportunity to do both without conflict.
The 2021 NICA preseason begins with events that run from April 1 through June 30, and the season itself extends from July 1 through October 31. Parents who are interested can send an email to Coach Styer at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to get their children’s knobby tires rolling. Scholastic mountain biking offers incredible experiences for local student-athletes and is a high-quality program for MOV youth. These student-athletes will develop the confidence and skills necessary to both mountain bike and progress through life with, as the Singletrack Serpents’ motto proclaims, their “Fangs out!”
Photography provided by River Cities Singletrack Serpents