After his club sport doubled in size in one year, Elizabethtown Area School District mountain bike team coach Jason Thomas and his helpers found a perfect team-bonding experience.
Earlier this year, Elizabethtown became the first of the 30 teams that compete in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League to construct a bike trail on school property.
The project started with an initiative. The group approached the school board, received approval, and over the course of three spring weekends, coaches, riders and their families built a riding trail, approximately one mile long on the campus.
“It’s a big deal and kind of sets a model for other teams,” Thomas said. “It also shows the district and school board cares. Huge kudos to our superintendent and business manager of the district because they worked with us and helped us navigate this.
“Ultimately it led to a really cool practice option for our team. It’s great because 80 percent of our kids ride to practice. … And it’s open to the community as well.”
Thomas added that the International Mountain Biking Association and local chapter Susquehanna Area Mountain Biking Association “were like our consultants and taught us how to build a trail.”
It’s all part of the growth of a much-needed sport that attracts many non-traditional athletes. Since starting the program in 2016, Elizabethtown has gone from 26 to 52 kids.
“I think it’s attractive to the kids,” Thomas said. “It’s something they can do outside. It’s not a high-pressure environment. It’s kind of a fringe sport, and it’s got a cool factor.
“We don’t really attract just the typical athletes. Maybe kids that don’t like team sports, you compete as an individual but score for the team. If it wasn’t needed, it wouldn’t be growing. It’s filling a void.”
An avid mountain biker himself, Thomas has two of his own kids on the team and really enjoys the family environment the sport helps foster.
“It’s one of those sports that you can start it in middle school or high school and do it the rest of your life. It’s a lifestyle,” he said.
Using the mountain bike as a youth development tool, the league offers races for competitive and noncompetitive riders alike, including an adventure ride that doesn’t count toward the team score.
“The success came from seeing these kids that are not natural athletes and never fit as part of a team before, really love it,” Thomas said. “It was very rewarding to see them on the nights when there weren’t practices, we would see families that were riding.”
Elizabethtown has three practice rides a week, and there are five competitions during the fall season, which starts Sept. 9-10 in Fair Hill, Maryland.
During its first year, the team included students from other schools in the area. In year two, all but one is an Elizabethtown student. Thomas said he hopes other school districts add the sport.
While Thomas is the head coach, he relies heavily on a group of 17 to 18 helpers, made up mostly of parents who enjoy the sport.
“I am not trying to build endurance athletes. I am teaching them not to ride into a tree,” he said. “We teach them to be safe and enjoy riding. If they fall in love with the sport, they are going to go out themselves and ride without an organized practice.”