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Claremont students take to the mountains

Mountain biking started about 40 years ago when a ragtag group in Marin County started bombing down Mount Tamalpais’ dirt roads on converted beach cruisers they called klunkers.

Since then it has become a multi-million-dollar sport with sophisticated full-suspension bicycles, an international race scene and, since 1996, been included in the summer Olympics.

As a result, it is little surprise that middle and high school athletes across Southern California wanted to get in on the action, forming a league that has grown to 64 teams and a five-race series. The SoCal Cycling League, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, is part of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), which establishes guidelines for participation, training for coaches and technical assistance among other services.

Claremont High School joined the fun four years ago when the former owner of Jax Bicycles, Jonathan Chang, approached some of his teenage customers about starting a team.

Beginning with just four riders, the team has grown to 18 today, ranging from sixth to twelfth grades with six riders on a middle school team. It is not officially sanctioned by Claremont Unified School District, but is a club sport much like AYSO. High school age participants must be enrolled at CHS. Claremont’s team is currently all boys but the league is coed and the coaches would love to have some girls join.

The sole remaining charter member is Noah Libeskind, 17, a senior at CHS and one of the team’s captains.

He had been riding for several years when Mr. Chang asked if he wanted try racing and Noah thought it sounded cool.

“It’s very rewarding and an all around hard sport that requires a lot of skill,” Noah said. “You have to be very fit, you can’t just jump on a bike and be good.”

His strength is climbing, which is the skill you want to have, but he was apprehensive at first about the downhill segments. However, with practice he has gained confidence.

His top finish was ninth place last year at a race in Tehachapi, but hopes to improve on that this season.

There are several types of mountain bike racing including downhill, enduro, and freeride. The SoCal league competes in cross country races on closed courses with equal amounts of uphill and downhill riding. A typical race is 5 to 7 miles for middle school riders and 10 to 15 for high school riders, with each race becoming tougher as the season progresses.

Anyone who has shopped for—or even just seen the prices of—race-ready mountain bikes might come to the conclusion it’s a sport for the wealthy. But coaches say it is actually cheaper than other club sports such as volleyball or soccer.

Assistant coach, Blair Pike Sr., said his son Blair Pike was involved in club soccer at first and the cost was prohibitive. “Even at entry level you have club fees, league fees and coaching fees, and it is not unusual for it to be over $3000 a season,” he said.

His son purchased a Trek mountain bike from Jax that included a NICA discount. “If he gets two years out of a bike, we are ahead. Plus you can always sell it.”

Head Coach Eric Grubb added that no athlete will be turned away because they lack a bicycle.

“You don’t have to spend a ton of money. NICA has a good network, plus there are local families that have extra bikes. If a kid couldn’t afford a bike we would find something,” he said.

He stresses that even though it is a race team, racing is not the main goal.

“We don’t focus on the racing aspect, but strive to pass on the love of mountain biking as a lifelong hobby,” he said. “It changes some kids’ lives.”

Coach Grubb, 45, started racing big wheels when he was four. Since then, he has raced BMX, MTB and even road bikes.

They also work on bike handling skills, safety and trail courtesy. Last week they encountered an equestrian while on a night ride, which is a common recipe for trail conflict.

“Even without me there, they were on the side of the trail, had turned their lights out and were super respectful,” he said. “They know how to get along and set the right attitude to be good stewards for our sport and our school.”

The 2018 season begins February 24th and 25th with the Beach to Boulders race at Lake Perris with four more races ending in early May. There is also a state championship in Petaluma for the high school team.

The team relies on local business and individuals to help cover expenses. Current sponsors include Grizzbys Biscuits and Donuts, Jax Bicycles, cyclingdecals.com, Competitive Edge Cyclery, Swifty Signs, Torco, Ontario Jeep & Chrysler, Troy Lee Designs and Hinson Racing.

They welcome new athletes, although this close to the first race, one would need to already be an experienced rider to join. The team begins training in October so beginners are encouraged to get involved at that time.

For more information on the league visit socaldirt.org.

—Steven Felschundneff

steven@claremont-courier.com

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