The NICA Gateway Trails Initiative

The road to making mountain biking more accessible requires a desire to forge new paths. QBP has staff who help make it possible to build more trails and get more butts on mountain bikes.

NICA Starts Something Big

A huge leap towards getting more butts on mountain bikes started with QBP’s Advocacy Director, Gary Sjoquist, who was instrumental in launching the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) league in its fourth state—Minnesota. While Josh Kleve is now running the Minnesota league, Sjoquist is still involved through serving as Board President and advocating for more trails and young riders. Since the Minnesota league took off in 2012, Sjoquist has also helped Utah, Nevada, and Pennsylvania secure funding to start their own leagues. Thanks to active community members like Sjoquist and Kleve, mountain bike ridership in Minnesota has grown by 5,000 people and continues to attract young riders and their families by being involved with NICA.

But with growth comes an increased demand for accessible trails. For high school students and younger, riders finding beginner-friendly trails close to schools has been a huge hurdle. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the perfect trail, but if the mountain bike community wants to remain active and sustainable, more trails are a must.

Trail-Building Involves Everyone

When it comes to kids’ attention, technology and organized, varsity sports are constantly competing for the top spot. If communities want mountain bike teams to create and support future ridership, getting kids excited about trails as well as bikes is key. This means mountain biking needs to compete with high school sports when it comes to organization and accessibility.

Most school districts focus their athletic programs on team-oriented, varsity level sports that tend to exclude newbies or solo competitors, leaving mounting biking in the shadows for better funded, more popular sports. But for kids wanting something a little different, something that focuses on the individual, feeds their adventurous side, and teaches them lifelong skills, mountain biking might just be the perfect fit.

But if there aren’t solutions to common barriers to entry like cost, safety concerns, or convenience, then mountain biking may never come across these kids’ radars. After all, mountain bikes are made for trails; that’s the core of creating a mountain biking community that can thrive. So, what if trail-building was less of an abstract, complex process and more of a hands-on, integrated part of the mountain bikes teams?

The future of mountain biking relies on youth involvement that’ll eventually lead to more leagues, more trails, and more butts on bikes.

Getting Their Hands Dirty

That’s where Nick Loftus steps in. Over on the other side of the country and under the guidance of Sjoquist, Loftus is another strong advocate for better trail accessibility and greater mountain bike ridership. After seeing land potential in the surrounding Central Pennsylvania area, Loftus envisioned a future where young mountain bikers have a chance to not only ride local trails, but also to design, create, and maintain them.

Alongside his duties as a Distribution Supervisor in the Q-East facility, Nick also serves as President of the Susquehanna Mountain Bike Association (SAMBA) whose members are “working to protect and encourage mountain bike trail access in Central Pennsylvania.”

It wasn’t until two local high schools expressed interest in utilizing vacant, school-owned land as a place to build singletrack trails when things began to kick-off. The schools reached out to SAMBA who assisted students with trail design, safety workshops, and sourcing volunteer efforts. The latest project took place at Mechanicsburg Area Senior Highschool where the trail eventually led to the incorporation of mountain biking as an integral part of their P.E. curriculum.

Within three weekends and at little to no cost, these kids had built their very own trail which sparked enough interest in the sport that the mountain bike team doubled in size the following year.

“There’s something to this,” Nick thought to himself after seeing how quick and relatively uncomplicated the process appeared to be. A few success stories later, Nick came up with an initiative to partner NICA with schools who share the same interest in building more mountain bike trails. The NICA Gateway Trails would not only serve high school leagues but would also work to encourage community members and young kids to give mountain biking a try. Whether it’s riding, building, or maintaining trails, Nick agrees it’s important to have a place for everyone to feel included.

“For some kids, they’ll find their value and purpose in trail building rather than just racing. Those kids could go on to become advocates and members of trail clubs to keep up the maintenance. By growing ridership and developing advocates at a younger age, the mountain biking community will have a bigger outreach and impact.” — Nick Loftus, QBP Distribution Supervisor and SAMBA President

With the community’s momentum and Nick’s drive, SAMBA soon devised a template package that serves as a sort of “How To” for trail building. NICA ratified the motion in March and more trails are scheduled to kick-off this summer. The project documents are currently being reviewed by NICA and there are hopes to implement the program under NICA’s Teen Trail Corps program as a pilot project in three states for 2020.

“It’s a collaboration between NICA, the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA), and school districts. It makes the process fast and easy compared to a lot of other trail-building projects. We’ve got a sample proposal with timelines, checklists, and anything else the team would need to get a trail going,” Nick elaborates.

The initiative will give younger generations a chance to experience mountain biking a little closer to home in safer conditions. With reduced vehicle travel and trails designed for beginners, Nick’s hoping the growth in mountain bike ridership continues to grow and appeal to kids who aren’t quite old enough to be in NICA.

“It’s important not to forget younger generations who’ll eventually be the ones racing or building new trails.” — Nick Loftus, QBP Distribution Supervisor and SAMBA President

As Nick dedicates his time and energy into the mountain bikers of tomorrow, he’s most excited to see the kids actively using the trails they built. “Advocacy work can sometimes take years to see results which can be discouraging. With the Gateway Trails, immediate results can be seen which feels great.”

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