NJICL Race #2, Morris Mania, is in the record books. The weekend began with a gloomy forecast after a long string of beautiful weather, seemingly since our inaugural race, two weeks prior. Inwardly dreading the worst-case-weather scenario, we outwardly bet on bright skies and rolled into Morristown, stoked for another New Jersey NICA race.
Race weekend for the crew began on Friday. I arrived at Lewis Morris Park after a rainy, uneventful, drive. The park staff was incredibly supportive of our efforts and on-site Friday to greet us. They had just cleared “that tree”, which had become the inside joke among our crew. “Hey BJ, did you hear there was a tree down on course?” “Oh really Chris, where?”; “Hey Jason, tree down on your course…”, “tree down guys”, etc.
We were happy to have Josh from the NICA Minnesota League on-site to offer experience and insight at the director level. Some course layout tweaks and final plans for setup day went down, and we departed for dinner courtesy of Chef Kruse.
Saturday morning with guests in town means Taylor Ham, egg and cheese on the way to the venue, or pork roll, egg and cheese depending where you reside. Josh and I struck out at Bill’s, thanks to a water line break, but scored the jersey-standard sandwich at a local bagel shop.
We made it to the park at 7:30, fully fueled, and jumped right into race setup. In a blink registration and pre-ride was opened. It is incredibly cool to see so many teams riding together, bonding, strategizing for race day. I longed for a ride, and planned to get out at 5 pm, when registration closed. Weather changed from clear, to mist, to drizzle as the day progressed, but the course remained solid.
At 4:50 p.m., 10 minutes from ride time, the skies opened up. Heavy rain turned the infield grass to mush and dashed any hopes of a ride. We shut down on time, lowered tents to weather the storm and packed up. Nearly 150 student-athletes registered!
Race day means rise before the sun and arrive to greet it, address critical course issues prior to opening pre-ride at 7:30, while simultaneously re-setting registration, volunteer coordination, infield, scoring, parking, course-checking, marshal-planning, EMS setup, etc. It’s a huge undertaking that goes off fairly smoothly, thanks to meticulous planning and an amazing team. Pre-ride ends in a blur, registration closes, and I anxiously await the arrival of a team from a new school that is travelling from afar to attend their first race.
The team arrives minutes before the middle-school-age race, and we work to get two of their middle-school students to staging. Several seasoned student-athletes from local teams take the new students under their wings and help get number plates set, helmets on and water bottles filled. I stand by and watch, amazed at the instant camaraderie.
How often these days do we see kids seek out responsibility, jump at the chance to help a student from a different school whom they have never met, carry out the task as if helping a best friend, then cheer for them when the bell goes off, as if a sibling had just started the race? Waves of riders start, and the day progresses, stories grow with each interaction. That silly can’t-help-but-smile thing resurfaces, despite best efforts to resist.
Stories and inspiration flood the senses. A student racing in honor of a coach who had recently passed; a first-time 6th grade racer crosses the line with a smile as pure as they come, “How was it, buddy?” “AMAZING, I loved it!” A teacher shows at the venue asking how to get his school involved; coaches wherever you look are mentoring, guiding, teaching and learning. Volunteers come and go from shifts, the old familiar smile spreading. Inspiration to do more, to work harder, to be better.
Somehow the rain mostly stays away. The last riders pass through the finishing arch to cheers from the crowd, and the marshal and scorers report that all riders are off-course. In true NICA fashion, the Ops folks make the break-down announcement, and “all hands on deck” converge to take down the infield. Students, parents, coaches, staff…everyone helps. Minutes later the festival/circus/travelling trailer of awesomeness is ready to be packed with all of the weekend’s gear neatly stacked outside.
Medals go five-deep; leader’s jerseys are awarded and worn proudly. Pictures snap and high-fives abound. The crowd cheers and, most importantly, sticks around despite the drizzle. Students cheer for teammates and share race stories, seemingly unconcerned with where they placed. First or last, raced or didn’t, they are part of something larger. Something I can’t quite verbalize, but I can see it on their faces, feel it in the air.
This is more than a sport, more than a day in the woods, it’s a lifelong community brought together by the bicycle. This is New Jersey Interscholastic Mountain Biking.
When I pulled into my driveway early Sunday evening, it occurred to me that I hadn’t ridden all weekend, besides quick errands around the venue. I felt as if I had ridden from Morristown to Miami, both physically and mentally. My kids ran out to greet me before I could get out of the driver’s seat. I smiled, knowing they will have the opportunity to join a mountain-bike team in middle school, if they choose.
“Dad, let’s go for a bike ride!” Life is good.