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The Kids are Alright!

By: Paul Von Boeck

I’ve got a part time job for you. I think you’ll be great. April through June and it’s light work, all administrative. Meetings, phone calls, emails – easy stuff. July gets a little busier. Talking to a lot of customers, pitching the product, a little bit of hand holding – you’ll be perfect for this. August things pick up. In addition to the admin stuff you’ll be working 2-3 evenings every week and you’ll be out of town two weekends – you like travel right? September through October is our busy time. You’ll be out of town two weekends a month, and you’ll have commitments on the Saturdays you are home and 2 evenings a week. You might need to think about hiring someone to mow your lawn and take care of your house. We don’t have any budget for payroll. Are you interested? This was the start of my volunteer coaching career.

In 2009 the National Interscholastic Cycling League (NICA) was branching out from their California origins with the goal of spinning off state leagues coast to coast in the United States. Colorado was the first stop and Kate Rau was pulling the cart. I met Kate in the back corner of Denver’s Velo Swap where she was spreading the word about the new high school mountain bike league she just launched. There were no teams, coaches or riders. Just a plan. We chatted for a bit and I walked away thinking it would be awesome if this was still around when my kids made it to high school.

Fast forward to 2019 and the Colorado High School league celebrated its 10th anniversary with the Decade of Dirt. There were 79 teams, 779 coaches and 1598 riders and included teams from neighboring New Mexico and Wyoming. In addition to the two founding leagues in California, NICA leagues have spread to 30 states.

I reconnected with Kate in 2011 to find a team in Colorado Springs for my son. He was in middle school and had expressed an interest in racing his bike. We hooked up with the only team in town and he finished out 8th grade riding with their club. By virtue of the fact that I had to shuttle him to rides and knew something about racing bikes, I was recruited to help coach. In 2012 we successfully pitched the idea of a mountain bike club and race team to his high school and got the thumbs up. With a few good ideas and exposure to the NICA way of athlete development, Highlander Racing was up and running with a team of 6 adolescents including 1 young lady-shredder. The team has matured over the years with a roster of 15-20 riders and our lady-shredder contingent gets bigger every year. Our riders are first time racers, enduro riders, adventurers and USAC XC podium contenders. Awesome kids. Every one of them.

Probably the most impactful event in the experience of anyone associated with a NICA team is attending their first race. I’ve tried to describe it before, but words fall short. A list of memorable take-aways from a Colorado League race would include the following: there is no bench. If a rider is on the team they race. Hundreds of kids racing. Girls. Lot’s of them. Competing in races that weren’t tacked on as an afterthought. Races start on time. Results are available in real time. Parents, teammates and coaches line the course and cheer for everyone. Riders encourage each other. High-fives. Port-a-potties are clean and almost never run out of TP.

I didn’t start the team with a long-term plan. I figured I would get my son through high school and hand over the reins to another parent who got caught in the wake like I did. I’d get part of my life back and walk away with some great memories. A look in the crystal ball would have presented a different outcome. After the first two years, our staff was a two-man operation and we were not having much luck recruiting volunteers who could commit to much more than helping out at practice once a week. As we kicked off my son’s senior season I was getting worried because team membership had grown to the high teens and my backup was looking at a long-term military deployment. This was the turning point when I finally had a few parents step up to contribute, a host of random members of the community and relocated NICA coaches materialized. The team has been riding a wave of consistent support ever since.

What has come out of this has been the development of a community that I never could have imagined.

I’ve been thinking of walking away for the past 5 years. This feeling is strongest at the end of October when we’ve wrapped up the season and I can start playing catch up with my life. Each Spring I still find myself excited at the prospect of the upcoming season. I’ve taken steps in the last couple of years to transition into a role that fits me a little better and balances my work and family life with coaching obligations. I’ve thought a lot about what keeps me coming back and articulate my motivations in the following way:

  • The kids – Teenagers are a work in progress and they need mentors who are not their parents. They can be easy and fun when they are at their best and frustrating and troublesome when they are not. Volunteering to work with them challenges me to meet them where they are on any given day. Teenagers are awesome. They love riding their bikes, they will work hard and make measurable progress over the course of the season.

  • Service – I believe I need to give back to our community and it works best for me when my skills are a good match for the task. It has taken me a long time to find my gig. The time and resources I put into this make a difference. It may not always be the only way I could spend my time and resources but it is always a better way.

  • Community – Every May and June, eight months after the season ends I have the privilege of attending high school graduation parties for my athletes. Every August we put on a team family campout. In between we get together for rides, birthday parties, wedding anniversaries, memorials and random meet ups at a brew pub. We have laughed, grieved and grown stronger together.

  • Bikes Bikes Bikes! – Bikes are fun. I love riding and coaching is a great excuse to ride and pass this on to our kids. Bikes are a wonderful bridge between generations. Our team rides usually include adult volunteers ranging in age from their 20s to 50s. I think being able to interact with each other doing something we love and connecting with young adults helps us to understand others in the community at large.

I’m writing this up in May 2020 and reading all that I’ve written through the lens of the COVID 19 Pandemic.