The NICA Miracle

I signed my 13-year-old, Philip, up for the middle school program of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, also known as NICA. Now, I’m not the dad who is the least bit of help in basketball, baseball, volleyball or any of the other sports balls, but I know a thing or two about cycling, so I figured I had a responsibility to help the team in any way I could.

Also, I couldn’t see just dropping Philip off for a ride in Annadel State Park with the A-Team. 

Turns out, to ride with the team or to be any help at all, you have to become a coach. There are three levels of coaches, and I tested for Level 1. The course to become a Level 1 coach took about five hours start to finish. And I was tested on the material to make sure I knew it. Nearly half the course is about sexual harassment and abuse, which is, sadly, a real problem in youth sports. The course discusses the signs to look for in both predators and victims, as well as explaining NICA’s standard for making sure that there are no one-on-one interactions between an athlete and an adult or two athletes. There always needs to be a third person. 

When I woke one Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago, we were between rain showers and the temperature was in the low 40s. Philip had never ridden in the rain, nor had he ridden in weather colder than 50 degrees, so I let the boy sleep. I figured if I made him show up, he’d hate cycling. It took me years to decide I loved cycling enough to do it in the rain. 

But I figured I should head over to the park myself, because I might still be useful due to no-shows among coaches as well as students. Boy was I wrong. There were at least three dozen kids. The temperature was in the low 40s and drizzle filled the air as we rolled out. By the time we arrived at the top of the first climb, rain was falling, and the rocks were beginning to turn slick.

We established a pattern of riding several hundred meters and then letting the group recollect. My group had four coaches and six riders—all boys in the seventh or eighth grade. After winding through the park for the better part of an hour, it was time for us to descend out of the park again and back to the parking lot where we’d met.

By this time, it was full-on raining. 

Most of the kids were in gym shorts and cotton sweatshirts, or maybe polyester ones. Cotton is literally the only material that can make you feel colder and wetter than you already are. At one point we crossed paths with one of the groups of high school riders and a couple of them had a look in their eyes so hungry it was predatory. It was a hard day out there.

The boys never once complained. There was some commiserating between kids and coaches about numb fingers, but these kids were tough as nails. Our descent was down a trail that was pretty rocky—mostly granite and basalt. The basalt wasn’t terrible when wet, just unpredictable, but the granite felt like it was covered in chain lube. We had some dabs, but no major falls. 

Needless to say, our farewells were brief. I’ve never been more impressed by a bunch of young athletes. I was not made of that stuff at that age. Already these kids have proven tougher than me. After all, I had all the right gear on. What NICA is doing is inspiring on a lot of levels. We of older generations are quick to point out the lack of grit in “the kids these days.” That’s not what I saw out on the trail that Saturday. The kids’ enthusiasm for riding, even in terrible weather, was inspiring. I’m the one being inspired. That I didn’t expect.

Fast forward a couple weeks and the day before the next team ride, I took Philip out for a short ride so that we could work on climbing technique. Previously, he had insisted on staying in a big gear and muscling it until he couldn’t pedal anymore. This time, I had him shift to his lowest gear while on flat ground and told him not to worry about how fast he was going, that slow was okay. I told him how going slower on a hill was inevitable, but not to worry. He was seriously winded when we got to the top of the hill, which may have only climbed 100 vertical feet, but he hadn’t had to dismount. I knew he was ready to ride with the team.

The next morning I took Philip out for his second ride with the team. The temperature was in the low 40s—possibly 30s, judging from the frost on the ground—but conditions were reasonably dry. He was able to ride to each of the regroup points without dismounting, but more remarkably, when we began hitting some very technical trails—Rough Go, for those who know Annadel—Philip ceased to follow his friends and began leading them. He found something within himself that wasn’t just fun with friends, he found a challenge that was the classic marker of flow. He found that place where riding becomes autotelic; that is, the challenge was rewarding enough, he didn’t need any extrinsic reward. I saw a veritable vocabularly of body English.

What I saw that day was my son inspired. Who cares if I’m inspired? Really. Philip found something on the trail the other day that I hadn’t been able to give him, that he’d never have cared about if his friends weren’t out there, too.

Image courtesy NICA

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  1. TominAlbany says

    That’s great!!
    My son kinda caught the MTB bug this past summer. I bought him a Trek hardtail and he was really digging it. Even on technical trails that made him stop and walk a bit, he was going after it. He’s gotta get the shifting…

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