Contributed by Ashley Gruber
We got the chance to meet Matt Fritzinger last summer during Velo Veneto’s fantastic Giro camp based out of Castelcucco. Over the winter, we sat down for a chat to talk about what NICA is, what it means for the sport, and where it plans to go in the future.
Fritzinger chased by the one and only, Didi, on the Passo Giau during the 2011 Giro d’Italia trip with Velo Veneto.
PEZ: When you are giving someone a short summary of NICA, what do you tell them?
Matt Fritzinger: NICA has turned mountain biking into a high school sport. We are growing it coast to coast by 2020, so that every high school student in America has the opportunity to grow their body, mind, and character through the sport of mountain biking.
PEZ: How did you get into bike riding?
I grew up riding bikes like a lot of kids. I was just scrapping around the suburbs on a twin stingray. I was always that kid who was coming up with competitions. I had my first real bike race in 8th grade when I raced on the Northbrook Velodrome. I’m pretty sure the bike I raced at that time was the heaviest at the track. I think it was called the Concord Selecta 12. The rule was that you couldn’t change gears in the stock race.
PEZ: You mentioned when you were at Velo Veneto you were really inspired to take some of those ideas forward.
When I was in college my racing career got sidelined for a long time due to an injury. A housemate of mine got an opportunity to go race in Italy, which he did for the entire summer. He came back with these pictures and stories, and it was something I really wanted to do myself. It took me five years before I could ride a bike again without aggravating an old injury I have in my hip. I had corrective surgery during that time. When I started to get stronger on my bike again it coincided with my teaching career. I finally had the summer off, so I spent every last penny to go to Italy and race bikes all summer. I had already started the Berkeley High Mountain Club as a school teacher. That already existed. I was kind of juxtaposing my experiences with that bike club with the experience i was having in Italy. I had never had a coach before,
PEZ: How did you go from Berkley High Mountain Club to NICA?
When I started the Mountain Bike Club, I never had visions of anything bigger than that until later. It was a step by step, year at a time thing where the vision grew. That fall after racing in Italy, I started the NorCal High School Mountain Bike Race Series. I was throwing together mostly pre-existing events with the cooperation of local race organizers and promoted this new high school series. We had about sixty kids the first year. We had twelve kids on the Berkley High Mountain Bike Team. We had the first series in 2001, and it grew rapidly from there. We went from sixty kids the first year to one-hundred kids the next year. We had an average growth rate of 30% per year. By 2009 when we replicated it in southern California, we had a generous grant from Easton Foundations, we had about five hundred kids in the NorCal League. We started the SoCal League. Basically replicated things in Southern California, and that started out with about one hundred kids. It happened because someone named Quintin Reich from southern California really wanted it to happen and helped find the funding. We learned a lot from that experience. That’s when the idea of that maybe we can take this national came about. If we can replicate it in southern California, which is pretty far away, what is the difference between a one hour flight to southern California, to a two hour flight to Colorado?
We started speaking to our stakeholders, and sponsors like Specialized really connected to that possibility and helped us found a national movement, which we began in 2009. NICA is really just over two years old.
PEZ: Colorado was the next state?
PEZ: What is it looking like now?
Washington had their first series last year. This year we are adding Texas, Minnesota, and Utah. They are all up and running and moving toward their first race series. Texas is the spring and Utah and Minnesota will be the fall of 2012. There is a bid process between now and June to determine the new leagues to add in 2013.
PEZ: Do you know how many students in total are participating?
We had 1150 student athletes participating last year (2011), we expect as many as 2000 this year.
PEZ: That’s pretty big growth!
(Laughs) Yes, it’s enough to… yeah. What is a good cycling expression? You better find good form. There is some economy to scale and our educational programs are expanding into their own department. To us, that is the most important part. Maintaining the quality is number one for us. Other systems, like our coaches license program and other services are also being looked hard at to see how we can scale this out. We’ve got a great team.
PEZ: What is necessary for a new school/league to start?
Each of our leagues started with a motivated founder. The founders find out about our program. We get inquires about our program daily. We provide them with information about what it means to start a league. If they keep asking questions, then we will invite them out to really see what it looks, whether it’s a race or a coaching training conference. We eventually walk them through a bid process. The bid process keeps getting more competitive. It’s basically a proposal of what your local league will look like. Where the races are going to be, who is going to volunteer and help with the effort, it takes a lot of people to put one of these organizations together, and what is your funding plan. As time goes by, NICA has been able to provide more and more grant money to help get leagues started, but the long term reality for any league is that they have to have a plan to be self-sustaining.
PEZ: What kind of people are working the events? Parents?
It’s a mix. In the United States, there is a big pool of people who have raced for many years and racing takes up a lot of time and energy to be competitive. there is a huge pool of people who still love bike racing. They are doing the club rides on the weekend. They are still riding their mountain bikes and are ready for something other than racing, but they still want to be involved with racing. That is what happened to me, despite some success when I came back. I was pouring a lot of energy into racing, but it was pretty clear that category 3 was about the last place I was ever going to see results.
PEZ: What kind of success stories have you had? You’ve had some of the students pick up road riding as well?
When I coached the Berkeley High Mountain Bike Team, there was a progression that occurred with these riders. Middle of the pack their freshman year, but improving. By sophomore year, maybe they are having some success and finding their way on the podium. Junior year they end up in varsity and are quickly humbled. They realize they have to up their training and start riding on the road. It’s well established that if you want to get in a lot of base mileage, it’s easier to train on a road bike. You can train right out your door, less wear and tear on your bike. A lot of kids will start training on a road bike by the 11th grade. From that experience, those riders will become top varsity riders their senior year. Then they figure “I’ve got a road bike, I’ve been riding. Might as well try some road racing.” Maybe early on, it’s just for the sake of training and getting better as a mountain bike racer, but then these kids are going to road races and they’re winning. They are saying “Wow! I can do this too!” As NICA grows, more and more of the top riders on the road are coming out of these mountain bike programs. John Bennett would be a recent example. John Bennett graduated in 2009 and was on the Strawberry Cal Giant team and won a stage of the Redlands C. Classic. It’s probably his third year of racing on a road bike. John Bennett joined El Cerrito Mountain Bike Team and came from a swimming family. He said himself, if it wasn’t for the El Cerrito Mountain Bike Team, he probably would never have become a bike racer. There are plenty of others.
PEZ: How do you outfit the students with bikes?
It differs from team to team. NICA sponsors a number of student discounts that riders can take advantage of. Still, for a brand new rider who doesn’t have access to a good mountain bike, it’s really the teams that can help that rider obtain a bike or obtain a better bike. As teams mature, they get really good about activating their community support. There are so many mountain bikes collecting dust in garages, so getting second-hand mountain bikes donated is always the easiest way for riders to get access to the sport. Historically the kids who wouldn’t otherwise have access to bikes are getting access through their teams. The Berkley High Mountain Bike Club, as an example, had a fleet of twelve bikes when I finished coaching there. Some were purchased at wholesale through sponsors and kind of rotated through the years. Others were donated through the community. In fact, some of those bikes came from unclaimed properties from Berkley Police Department.
Our league directors have their hands full with putting on all these events and managing events. At NICA we’re going into our third year of funding and are transition from bare minimum to a healthier situation. We are able to focus more of our energy into scholarships. One of the ideas on the table that we’re excited to activate this year is a the NICA Booster Fund, which is basically a scholarship fund to help kids apply for support. We are really excited to see that come to life.
PEZ: Who is supporting you in the industry.
Our founding national sponsor is Specialized. They were joined by establishing partners Trek, SRAM and Easton Foundations. There is a list of other sponsors too. I always have to give kudos to Clif Bar, who was really the founding sponsor for NorCal and is still a huge supporter. If you look at the list, you’ll find a lot of competing brands in there. The reason they are on board is because this isn’t about winning over a slice of the pie, this is about growing the pie. This is about an opportunity to bring cycling into the mainstream. There is no better way to mainstream a sport than to make it a scholastic sport. And as the visibility grows in these communities, so do new forms of support, we are very excited to recently have Jeep on board as a top level sponsor.
PEZ: What kind of role do the parents take?
When I was talking about the coaching, I was talking about the ex-racers, but it would be wrong to overlook how many of our assistant coaches and coaches are not ex-racers. A lot are recreational riders and so many of our coaches are parents. Parents that realized that if they can ride a bike on a trail, they can coach. What is needed to support these team rides is a number of folks. We shoot for 1:6 or even a 1:3 ratio of coaches to riders. If you look at the typical high school team ride, not only do you have a lot of kids, you have a lot of adults. The parents of our student athletes are an essential ingredient to the success we’re having. Our parents are joining the Board of Directors of each of our organization of NICA. I can cite specific examples, Mark Kintz, who volunteered to be our CPA back in the early days and is still involved. We have David Curtis, both these guys were head coaches, David Curtis is a fortune 500 brand manager and designed our logo and a lot of our other graphic assets. We have Rick Spitler whose daughter was the first girl to race on the Berkley High Mountain Bike Team, he has been a critical advisor and is now the president of NICA. Parents are absolutely critical to our success.
PEZ: Do you think that NICA encompass other elements of the cycling world like road or track racing?
Anything could happen, but our hands are more than full with our current mission. There are some examples of scholastic road leagues. There are also some great youth track programs. I think mountain biking is unique in the amount of fun you can have early on. By contrast, if you were going to take a group of 14 year olds on the road, you would have a different experience. Mountain biking appeals to the typical freshman. When the adults take the kids on the trail, they have a good time.
PEZ: Is there a state or national championship?
Most high school sports end with a state championship. That is your most prestigious accomplishment in the world of high school sports. Extending the season to include a national championship presents a lot of challenges. A lot of our coaches are parents are pretty burned and out of money by the end of the season, so having a high school nationals isn’t really on our short list of things to do. I think what we do want to do is find more ways of dovetailing a transition from high school mountain biking to summertime racing with USA cycling mountain bike programs. USA Cycling already puts on nat championships, and a lot of our riders are already attending them. I’d rather see the world of non-scholastic travel team, summer programs grow. I’d rather see that happen than extend the scholastic program into something that really is different that what high school sports typically do.
PEZ: What are your future goals? What does your planning look like? Where is this all going?
We have so many goals within the mission. My work is more and more bringing together a bigger and bigger team to accomplish our mission. There are so many opportunities right in front of us that we want to take advantage of. We know from our experience with our leagues that have been around for a while that the potential for all the things that happen with other high school sports will eventually be a part of our program. College scholarships are already happening. Booster clubs are beginning to include mountain biking into the programs that they are supporting. Varsity letter on the jackets. You name it. Kids going to school with their jerseys on Friday before competition. Painting their faces in school colors. Kids taking this for granted, that it exists just like other sports. When we see that happening, at the end of the day, that feels like success.
Whenever Jered and I talk about NICA, we always come to the same sentence – I wish it were around when we were kids. Cycling is our passion – whether it be on-road, off-road, or in-between – it’s a pretty special gift to be able to be introduced to this sport through school.
For more information on NICA, head on over to their website