Feature Article - October 2009
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At the Forefront of Fun

Up-and-Coming Sports to Expand Your Offerings

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Cycling

What is it? Andrew Armstrong, a dedicated amateur competitive cyclist and founder/director of the Texas State High School Cycling League, describes cycling as "an individualized team sport." Groups of cyclists work together as they ride in road races to boost overall performance and support their strongest riders. "It is very similar in structure to other endurance sports in high school or college such as track and field, swimming or cross country," he said.

Who will love it? "People that like a physical, emotional and mental challenge are drawn to cycling," Armstrong said, "people who like to push themselves and push their limits." SGMA's report reveals bicycling to be one of the most popular outdoor sports, with 38.1 million participants in 2008, although not all of these were competitive participants. Bicycling is also ever-popular as a social and family activity. In fact, in this capacity, participation grew by more than 10 percent in 2008. And this means there are a wealth of people out there who own bikes and enjoy riding them. All that's left is for you to organize a program for them.

Essentials for getting started? "Not much," Armstrong said. After all, a cycling program is essentially a group of people going for bike rides. Someone just needs to step up and get things organized—scout out some local paved trails or secondary roads safe for riding, schedule times to practice. It's likely that most interested cyclists will have their own bike and equipment, or else Armstrong suggested hitting up recreational cycling clubs to donate equipment for a youth program.

"Start small but most importantly just start," he said. "I hear all the time from folks who would like to start a club but say that they only have a couple adults and a couple kids, and no one knows anything so they don't get started. All they had to do was meet up for a few bike rides and start from there. They would be having fun riding bikes as a group, and chances are good that word would spread and membership would grow…. I call it the 'field of dreams model.' Just get started and the cyclists and support will come."

Access to a weight room and spin bikes for cold-weather practice can be helpful, but not essential. Armstrong also said not to worry about competition. Just providing information about area races to riders who want to compete may be enough to start, and later on you could host your own race.

Story of success: Armstrong started the Texas State High School Cycling League with a club at the Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, where he teaches, in 2005. Things progressed quickly, and the league formed in the fall of 2006. Today it includes 25 to 30 teams from around the state. Although the league is independent, several of the member clubs get official recognition from the high schools their members attend, and at least one is exploring a partnership with their local parks and recreation department. "It would likely create a beneficial marriage of resources: volunteers, structure, marketing, legitimacy," Armstrong said. "That would allow the program to grow in numbers and in scope."

Anyone in high school can participate—boys and girls. "The team scoring favors teams that have girls on them," Armstrong said, and he's pleased to note that the Texas League is 16 percent female, "which is about on par with or a bit higher than bike racing as a whole in the United States."

Keeping things flexible is one factor that has helped the league flourish. Some "clubs" are actually just one interested kid who shows up for races, whereas the largest have 10 or 20 participants. In some cases students from a variety of schools have banded together. "This is a good way to utilize resources such as sponsorship, coaches and volunteers," Armstrong said. "It's also a good way to reach that critical mass of participating kids." Even where there are separate school teams, "we work closely together and have at least one joint practice per week. This way it is more social and fun for the kids and less of a burden on coaches, as we cover for each other if one cannot make it."

Most of what the clubs need is organization, which Armstrong thinks a YMCA or park district could definitely provide. "They could offer the structure for the program with a club and a few coaches meeting a couple times per week." Currently, some clubs are all volunteer and free for participants (apart from equipment and travel fees), while others charge an annual or monthly fee, which covers the coaching.

Resources? The Texas High School Cycling League can be found online at www.texashighschoolcycling.org, and see how California approaches high school mountain biking at www.norcalmtb.org and www.socaldirt.org. For the mother lode of cycling information—on the road, on a track and in the dirt, for kids and adults alike—visit www.usacycling.org.