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The Kids are on Bikes

High school mountain bike racing takes off in Virginia.

Chris Keeling races in the high school mtb series. 

On a late spring morning, nearly 30 high school students clad in spandex jerseys emblazoned with school logos pedaled eagerly along the rolling, root-laden trails of Walnut Creek Park, just south of Charlottesville. The race was the championship of the new six-race Virginia High School Mountain Bike Series—one of only a handful of interscholastic mountain bike race programs in the country.

Peter Hufnagel, a dean at the private preparatory Miller School in Charlottesville, started the series as an offshoot of his school’s growing endurance athletics program. Hufnagel reached out to other high schools and found immediate interest from others willing to put together mountain bike teams. In its first year, the series attracted up to 40 riders per race from Virginia schools.

“We have a group of high school mountain bikers that are fully committed and really excited about racing,” says Hufnagel. “We created a weekday race series that makes mountain biking very similar to traditional high school sports.”

At the series finale, parents like Harrisonburg’s Gary Ritcher hiked through the woods to watch their kids race and offer support. The series courses are designed to be spectator-friendly, so parents can watch kids tackle twisting, moderately technical singletrack. Gary’s son, Cameron,  finished sixth overall in the series, racing for team Rocktown, a composite crew from Harrisonburg-area high schools.

“Cameron is always on his bike,” says Ritcher. “He even figured out an off-road route to school. These races have given him a competitive goal with his peers.”

Before the series was created, Cameron Ritcher’s only option was to race against older, more experienced riders at the rugged Massanutten Hoo-Ha! and other regional races. This was part of Hufnagel’s initial motivation.

“Most kids just getting into mountain biking are forced to race against adults,” he says. “When they can race against their peers, it’s less intimidating.”

Races in the series were held on different courses near each participating school, so each team could host a race on their home turf. But Hufnagel, an experienced racer, also wanted the kids to experience the best of biking. He had the rider with the most points wear a leader’s jersey, and at the first series race, professional mountain bikers Jeremiah Bishop and Andy Guptill took the kids on a practice lap and explained race strategies.

It’s helped kids like 13-year-old Campbell Rutherford, also of Harrisonburg, become serious about mountain biking at an early age.

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