A Focus on Fun and Having a Blast
Entering its second decade as an organized sport at Cardigan, the mountain biking team is thriving, thanks to the enthusiastic dedication of the coaches and athletes who continue to build trails, teamwork, and support for each other. Even a pandemic hasn’t slowed these boys down.
In a 2011 Chronicle article, Lisa Drummond P’11,’13 recounted the last race of the mountain biking team’s inaugural season: “The rain was coming down so hard and fast that part of the race course included a raging brook rolling down boulders. The boys raced down through this trail that looked more like a river, and despite others flipping over their handlebars, all the Cardigan boys made it down without difficulty…At the end of the race, the boys were all mud-soaked, freezing, hungry, and tired–and they looked happier than ever.”
Not much has changed in the ten years since former history teacher Mike Fitzgerald started a mountain biking team at Cardigan. The boys continue to have grit and perseverance, and fun continues to be their focus, no matter the weather, no matter the terrain.
What has changed is the size of the team. In 2010 with only two coaches (Mr. Fitzgerald and English teacher Alex Gray H’12, P’14,’16), the team was limited to only 12 riders, but by the fall of 2019, the program had grown to accommodate 30 plus riders; with four teams and eight coaches, there is room for every kind of rider from beginner to advanced. Even the pandemic has not slowed its momentum; this fall 34 student-athletes are sending it with the team every afternoon.
The growth of the team, says Mr. Gray is, in large part, due to Athletic Director Ryan Frost: “He has been unbelievably supportive, providing the resources, tools, and encouragement necessary to successfully develop the program.”
The trail network on which the boys train has expanded as well. Countless local networks have sprung up throughout the region and, during a normal season, at least once a week the boys get off campus and challenge themselves to long rides on the single-track labyrinths that snake their way through the New Hampshire and Vermont forests. But the boys also now train on their own eight-mile network of trails right on campus. Designed and constructed by the coaches during summer vacations and long weekends, the trails are a combination of machine-built and rake-and-ride, winding through the fields and woods surrounding the School. Students also help out, taking a break from riding once a week to maintain and upgrade the trails.
“When Mr. Fitzgerald was first building the trails,” says Mr. Nevins, “he took note of the features on other courses he was riding and incorporated them into the Cardigan trails. We’ve tried to maintain that tradition. It means that the kids get a lot of practice on technical terrain and learn how to ride just about everything.”
While there are some trails on the Point and adjacent to Clancy Hill, the majority of the Cardigan network is located just north of campus on Prospect Hill Road. The trails begin with a series of loops through grassy fields that feature sweeping turns, epic jumps, and plenty of fun rollers. The surrounding woods are where the trails get more technical, with downhill lines dodging through the trees and ramps leading over giant boulders and fallen branches. Rock bridges and banked turns keep even the more adventurous and advanced riders challenged.
It is worth noting that the growth of the Cardigan team is similar to the growth of high school mountain biking across the U.S. The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), the national governing body for high school cycling, was founded just 11 years ago; by 2018 it had developed 25 state and regional leagues with over 9,000 volunteer coaches working with over 19,000 student-athletes from nearly 1,000 high schools and middle schools.
Similarly, the Northern New England High School Mountain Biking League was started in 1998, and in their first race, there were only 30 riders from three high schools. The league now includes over 500 registered riders from 33 schools that compete in two different divisions—east and west. Cardigan joined the league in 2010 and now races in the western division, competing on Wednesdays throughout September and October. While the 2020 season was cancelled due to COVID-19, in the league’s championship in November 2019, the Cardigan team finished 10th out of 24 high school squads.
Beyond the Point, Cardigan alumni have gone on to ride with almost every boarding school team in New England including those at Holderness School, The Hotchkiss School, Kent School, Kimball Union Academy, New Hampton School, Proctor Academy, and Salisbury School. And as more alumni reach the collegiate level, they are continuing to ride there as well. Of particular note is JR Kreuzburg ’14, who is a member of the Lees-McRae College cycling team that captured the Southeastern Collegiate Cycling Conference (SECCC) Varsity Championship in the fall of 2019, for the 13th year in a row. JR contributed to the team’s victory by finishing first in the men’s dual slalom.
“The highlight of last year was being able to go to Nationals,” says JR. “I raced both the short track and the XC divisions, getting top 50s in both events after starting in the last row (somewhere in the 70s). It was definitely a unique experience flying out to California to race bikes and help compete for team points and a podium finish–which we missed by only eight points, finishing fourth.”
But more important than any results or recognition is the supportive and positive culture set by the coaches that helps riders at any level develop into confident and skilled riders. “Our goal is to have fun and get better every day,” says Mr. Nevins. “What’s cool about mountain biking is that the coaches are riding right alongside the team and we have a blast doing it.”