One of the latest sports growing in popularity among youths is mountain biking, an outdoor sport that requires riders to travel trails that run through the woods while navigating obstacles such as tree roots and rocks.
Locally, the Downingtown Composite Mountain Bike team is composed of boys and girls in grades six through 12 who reside in the Downingtown Area School District. The team formed in 2016, which was also the inaugural season of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League (PICL), a nonprofit league of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).
"NICA has been out on the West Coast for 15 years. Gradually, (the sport has) been crossing the United States," said Tricia Zuniga, one of the team's coaches. "A few years ago a bunch of riders in our area went to a presentation by NICA and brought (the sport) to Pennsylvania."
Zuniga explained that composite means that any student in the greater Downingtown School District area can participate on the team, including homeschoolers and students who attend cyber schools. Students who want to join the team must have their own mountain bike and helmet, although every effort is made to find quality used mountain bikes for youths who do not have their own.
Unlike a road bike, which is lightweight and designed to run on smooth roadways, a mountain bike is made to withstand punishing trail surfaces. "The frame is different, the tires are different and it has shocks because you are going over roots, rocks and rough terrain," said Zuniga. "Our division is trail riding with no jumps. Two wheels have to be on the ground at all times."
The Downingtown team practices at Marsh Creek State Park in Eagle, at French Creek State Park in Elverson and at Harmony Hill Nature Area in Downingtown. The recent race season, which wrapped up in October, consisted of five races held across the commonwealth.
At the competitions, team members compete by gender and age division. "For example, they will have all of the 12th-grade girls start, and then, 15 to 20 minutes later, the high school boys will start," explained Zuniga. "The course is 3 to 4 miles. The six-graders do two laps and the 12th-graders can do up to five laps up to about 20 miles. Stamina and physical fitness are important as they get older." She added that team members are given training on how to change a tire and perform minor repairs along the course.
All the bikes are equipped with a microchip placed in the front plate, which allows for professional computerized timing. "There is an award ceremony at the end, and they (honor) the top five riders," Zuniga said. "The leader of that race in each class division gets to wear a leader's jersey."
At the end of the season, there are team awards for those earning the most points. "They also give extra points if you do trail maintenance," Zuniga added. "Since we practice there, we help maintain the trails at Marsh Creek and French Creek."
The Downingtown team has grown from seven riders and four coaches in 2016 to 32 riders and 13 coaches in 2017. The team is a club sport within the school district, but it relies on donations from community businesses to fund all expenses, including equipment, team uniforms and race registration fees.
The group is led by volunteer coaches who go through bike skills training, concussion awareness training, risk management, first aid training and CPR.
Zuniga added that biking, unlike some sports, is an activity that people can engage in throughout their lifetimes. "Mountain biking you can do from age 12 up to age 90. It is a lifelong healthy activity," she said.