The phrase “New Jersey mountain biking community” is something we all use regularly. Today that phrase was completely redefined; our community has an incredible future. Today we were privileged to take part in a historic moment.
Family, student athletes, New Jersey league staff, NICA national staff, sponsors, coaches, volunteers, parents, spectators, old friends, new friends; this is who made New Jersey’s mountain bike community so special today. Nearly every place I looked, everyone I spoke to, everything I experienced, left me with an incredibly positive and nearly overwhelming sense of pure happiness. It took two hours of driving home for me to process the feelings I had from the second our first wave of riders hit the course. Any facial movement that wasn’t a huge smile felt awkward. In some ways, the foreign perma-smile threw me off for the rest of the day. Speaking to people whom I have known for years felt different, almost surreal.
Thirty minutes prior to the varsity race, I had a rare moment of solitude for the weekend, and my brain went into overdrive: must ride! I checked with Julia, who not only said she could cover my position, but enthusiastically said “oh yeah, you should ride!” Minutes later I was suited up and hitting the course for a hot lap. No warm up, no thoughts other than riding our course.
So many thousands of hours of preparation led to this moment for our students, and I wanted to experience it. I spun past the feed zone and went into the first climb hard, appreciating the time spent marking the path around the barn. Chuckling inside, I remembered that course tape is set with sponsor’s names legible, flat and low in the wind.
As marshal point #1 appeared, a quick “thank you” to the marshal was all I could muster. I descended though the first chicane and appreciated the time spent by our race staff to ensure safety standards were upheld. Suspension locked and max effort through the sweeping turn, I hit the second climb to the ball field.
Thoughts of my 8-year-old at baseball practice danced in my head. Knowing what today meant for him, for his generation and younger in our state, momentarily brought me back to reality.
Legs screaming for attention, I crested the climb and ignored the legs. I hammered the flat section until turning into the woods along Patriot’s Path. Another chicane followed, which effectively slowed riders before a sweeping, off-camber and potentially slick turn. Another course-marshal point, another greeting. Singletrack, with just enough rocks to feel at home in New Jersey followed, as thoughts shifted to breathing and flow, leg pain a distant memory.
Passed the short and steep grunt, noting yesterday’s trail work to fix the flow. Over the bridge, thinking of Tom armoring the entry trail on a rainy weekend. I turned left onto the fire road, knowing the fire road climb would be where I lost time today. Tried to ignore the thought.
Locked suspension and looking up, I spotted a course marshal riding up ahead. Goal spotted. We exchange greetings; “how you doin’?”, “this is awesome”, “See you lataaa”, and I moved on, focused on the summit. Knowing this was the final climb, I pushed the pace as much as my legs and lungs would allow.
The infield music grew increasingly loud, and all thoughts shifted to speed. Legs screaming, passing the course mashal and first aid tent, I was too gassed to respond to Jason’s heckling.
I crank into the finishing stretch and look at my GPS…just over 18 minutes. I wouldn’t have podiumed in the 8th grade-race! Somehow this elicits a sense of accomplishment; what they had to deal with out on our course, at our race, in our state. Knowing what kind of effort it took to finish and leave it all out there. I have lined up in many races, over many years, and some of them required much more effort. None of them came close in pure happiness, in pure accomplishment.
I quickly changed and made my way to the varsity staging, to join the throngs of cheering spectators, and watch the future of Garden State mountain biking take off. After the final wave, I retired to the registration tent feeling better than I had all weekend. NJ Rocks.
Registration musings. Meeting our community from the registration tent is about as cool as it gets at a NJICL race. One of the best experiences of the weekend was a parent who showed up on Saturday. He had just left his local bike shop, nearly an hour from the venue. The wrench in the shop mentioned our race, our league. The parent had never heard of NICA, but was interested enough to look us up and drive up to the venue.
When he saw that registration was open on Saturday, he shared his story and registered his son for the league and all five races of the season, leaving with “see you tomorrow, and wow, thank you so much for this.”
It is not too often that someone working the registration table at an MTB race hears a customer say something like that. It is almost unheard-of. I was fortunate enough to catch back up with this parent on Sunday. He said: “Your staff really knocked this out of the park! My son has a tourney on the next race day, but we are doing both! It will take some juggling but he is HOOKED!”
Podiums. My first NICA podium experience was at a Virginia League race for our training weekend. The Virginia Crew was so pro, and the students seemed incredibly happy. I left the race with a new respect for NICA. I had no idea how differently our own podiums would affect me. Every time our winners raised their hands, or awkwardly walked to their first podium ever, or graciously accepted their award like a seasoned pro, I couldn’t physically control the elation I felt. I looked out at the gallery and felt incredibly proud of the experience which our MTB community created for these kids.
Conner. One of our hardest working volunteers and coaches has a son who is years away from racing age for the league. I relate, as my daughter is similar in age. This kid quite possibly did more miles in laps of the Pit Zone and “lawn” setup than any single mountain biker at the venue for the entire weekend. He watched intently as racers took off, or crossed the line. I couldn’t help but feel that we had a mission as a league to sustain our momentum, to grow the experience for him. I distinctly felt that this village, this festival atmosphere we created, this was a life moment. He may not remember today when he is an adult, but he will remember it next week, next season.
We will be there, and he will have an opportunity, our kids will have the opportunity, to race mountain bikes. In New Jersey. Wow!