Since 2018, a rapidly growing group of middle and high school students across the Mountain State have been hopping on mountain bikes to challenge themselves and race against their peers in a good-natured, competitive atmosphere.
Getting more kids on bikes is the primary goal of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). The West Virginia Interscholastic Cycling League (WVICL) is the Mountain State’s branch of NICA, one of 31 state-specific leagues putting kids on pedals across the nation. NICA is an inclusive club open to any student in sixth through 12th grade that attends a public, private, or home school.
Cassie Smith, WVICL league director and legendary West Virginia Mountain Bike Association (WVMBA) racer, has been integral throughout NICA’s rise in the Mountain State. “I’ve raced for a good many years in the local [WVMBA] series, and when I heard about NICA, I thought ‘We need this in West Virginia,’” Smith said. “West Virginia really is the grassroots of mountain biking.”
When Smith saw the potential that NICA held, she rounded up an initial crew of administrators and submitted a successful bid to NICA’s national organization in 2016. WVICL was officially formed in 2017 with a year of league training followed by the inaugural race season in 2018. According to Smith, the original NICA bid planned for just 80 competitors but ended up with nearly 130 at the end of the first year. Now, just four years in, WVICL has nearly 400 student athletes competing on 14 teams across the state.
According to Jodi Mondy, head coach of the Putnam County Pedalers, NICA is a great way for young students to get involved in a rewarding after-school program—especially for kids who may not find themselves in traditional school sports. “We all have the same goal throughout the state: to get more kids on bikes, to get them outside, to get them off their phones, and help them build friendships and confidence,” Mondy said.
Mondy’s son Kirk joined NICA in 2018, which sparked her involvement in the program. Since then, Mondy participated as WVICL league photographer and as a course marshal before becoming head coach of her own team. The Putnam County Pedalers split from the Kanawha River Wildcats in 2020 to accommodate the growing number of student athletes in the Putnam-Kanawha county region. “Our coaches start out as parents, just like myself,” Mondy said. “You do not have to be a great rider to be a fantastic coach.”
For Hayden Smith, a 10th grader at Cabell Midland High School, participation in NICA has been transformative. Growing up hitting the slopes, skiing was Smith’s favorite sport and first outdoor love—until he discovered mountain biking. “It’s such a friendly environment, and everyone’s so positive; if you fall, no one laughs,” he said. “I’ve met all kinds of people who are so friendly and love the outdoors like I do.”
With encouragement from Ed Curtis, Smith’s neighbor and coach of the Huntington Express WVICL team, Smith joined NICA and became an avid rider. Smith is so dedicated that he hand-cuts his own practice trails on his grandparents’ property. “I fell in love with the sport and dove in headfirst,” he said. “It’s improved my skills, endurance and my mental health in general, too, because all I can think about is mountain biking.”
Mondy is also active in getting more girls on bikes and champions the national Girls Riding Together (GRiT) program. GRiT is an aptly named offshoot of NICA that aims to increase female participation by eliminating barriers and providing equal access to support systems, mountain bikes, and NICA itself, through various sponsorships. Currently, female ridership represents just 20% of NICA participation; GRiT aims to increase it to 33% by 2023. The program also strives to recruit more female coaches across the nation.
According to Mondy, female participation in WVICL is already at 33%, and Mondy’s team has some of the highest percentages of female participation in the state for both athletes and coaches. She and her student athletes visit other teams for female-only rides. “We’ll offer to do rides and take all of our girls because one team may not have that many girls, so we’ll get them excited about the GRiT program,” she said. “It’s to empower these girls.”
Ellie Hoblitzell had never been on a mountain bike before she was encouraged by her dad to join NICA in 2019. After her first practice and conquering what she considered a tough learning curve, she fell in love with the sport. Currently an eighth grader at Mountaineer Montessori Middle School in Charleston, Hoblitzell is now a GRiT ambassador. “GRiT has been a way for me to get better at mountain biking,” Hoblitzell said. “I’ve been riding with other female athletes who are better than me and I can learn from them and become better myself. I feel like when I tell other girls about how it was hard for me to learn at the beginning, that inspires them and shows anybody can be a mountain biker.”
But NICA hasn’t always been easy going. One challenge Cassie Smith and her team at NICA initially faced was finding venues for league races. When NICA’s national-level trainers traveled to West Virginia to help scout race locations, they discovered that many of the state’s notoriously technical trails, strewn with roots, rocks, and drops, were just too tough—especially for beginner riders.
To help get the wheels rolling, Steve Jones, the superintendent of North Bend State Park in Ritchie County, contacted Smith to find out how to host NICA races at the park. Jones secured funding through the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) for the building of a NICA-spec racetrack, which must meet criteria like course width, number and style of trail features, steepness, and other technical aspects. After the first successful Defend the Bend race, DNR representatives immediately became interested in adding NICA-spec trails in other state parks.
Now, Canaan, Cacapon, Watters Smith, and Twin Falls state parks have NICA-specific race courses, allowing WVICL to hold its series of events and providing year-round practice venues for teams. The trails are also open to hikers and bikers, allowing anyone with a mountain bike to chase the same thrills and challenges experienced by the NICA athletes.
“[North Bend] not only gave us a place to hold our events, but it also gave beginner riders the opportunity to get out and get a taste of what mountain biking can be without being totally overwhelmed with the rocks, roots, and steep hills,” Smith said. “We appreciate the DNR’s tremendous support so much.”
As WVICL expands, it continues to look for more venues to accommodate the growing number of teams and athletes. Smith said her team would especially welcome additional state parks to host events. When considering a venue, criteria like parking, infield space, onsite camping, and trails suitable for beginners are key.
Mondy said one of her favorite aspects of NICA is the opportunity to visit different state parks throughout the race season, which runs from August through November. Each race weekend, teams arrive at the venue on Friday, pre-ride the course on Saturday, and race on Sunday. Camping out is a major component of race weekends. “The thing that’s so wonderful about being a part of NICA, especially in today’s society where everybody’s all looking down on their phones, is being a family again,” she said. “On the weekends, you go to a beautiful state park and tent camp or stay at the lodge or get a cabin. It’s very family-oriented.”
Amanda Larch is copy editor of Highland Outdoors and a lifelong West Virginian. She enjoys reading, hiking, and antiquing, and is considering giving mountain biking a try.