NICA builds strong minds, bodies, character, and communities through cycling. Founded in 2009, NICA has grown to offer a variety of cycling-related experiences for middle and high school student-athletes, all of which reflect its core values of Fun, Inclusivity, Equity, Respect, and Community.
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NICA is a not-for-profit organisation that encourages young people to ride and race mountain bikes in the United States. It has a wide reach, with over 40,000 young people having taken part in its programs since it was founded in 2009, and 27 state and regional leagues currently offering regular MTB racing competitions and activities. The number of leagues keeps growing, as do the number of riders – NICA boasts at least a 30% average annual participation growth.
“NICA provides leadership, services and governance for local leagues to produce mountain biking events in their communities.” says Emily McDonald, NICA’s Communications and Marketing Manager. “NICA leagues are largely volunteer-based, where individuals who want to bring mountain biking to their communities reach out to our organisation to support them in starting a league. We provide the new leagues with the framework, training, and financial support to develop a youth mountain biking program in their community”.
The idea is simple: mountain biking offers an alternative path for kids who don’t want to play or were turned away from the more traditional North American sports like basketball, baseball, or football. Indeed, NICA’s past president Austin McInerny often jokes that he never made the high school basketball team and so turned to cycling.
In empowering these local leagues, NICA provides “a place for kids – whether they’re interested in racing or not – to be a part of something that is life-changing. Getting kids outside. Getting kids to better respect their environment. Getting kids to work together,” says Grants Manager Eric Breit.
That’s not to say that the league racing isn’t competitive, or hasn’t provided the first pedal strokes in a professional career. Several of the recent US national team competing at September’s UCI World XCO Mountain Bike World Championships were NICA alumni, including the reigning women’s elite champion Kate Courtney.
“Getting kids outside. Getting kids to better respect their environment. Getting kids to work together”
Courtney was a 15-year-old high school freshman coming off an impressive cross country running season, looking to use mountain biking as a way of keeping fit. In her first NICA race in the NorCal League, she attacked from the gun and dropped all of her opponents to win solo. After crossing the line, the first thing she said to her waiting mother was: “That was the most fun I’ve ever had. I’m never running again!”
Courtney – who won her rainbow bands aged 21 in only her first year as an elite rider – took her initial interest beyond racing with NICA, volunteering as a youth leader and for bike trail maintenance projects in her area, efforts which saw her rewarded as the organisation’s All-Star Athlete in 2012. She still attends events and rides with the NorCal student-athletes.
“On one end you’ve got Kate Courtney, who’s excelling at the highest levels of competition, then you have a lot of kids that weren’t really included in traditional sport, some that are challenged with learning differences, and they all found mountain biking and it gives them a sense of community and belonging,” says McDonald.
NICA is leading the way towards greater inclusivity and diversity of student-athletes – something particularly important in a sport that is so predominantly male, middle class and white.
“We recognise that there are barriers to entry,” says Breit. “That’s why two years ago the board made the intentional decision to change our values to include ‘equity’, and focus on increasing diversity. It’s why 18 months ago at the leader’s conference we launched our GRiT programme, or ‘Girls Riding Together’.”
NICA’s female participation hovers at just over 20%, but with the Rapha Foundation’s grant, they are expecting that number to rise. The $150,000 grant has been allocated to the development and expansion of GRiT initiatives across the country, as well as to hiring a full time program manager. NICA leagues were invited to apply for funding for what they thought were the most effective means to increase and retain female coaches and female student-athletes.
“We recognise that there are barriers to entry, that’s why two years ago the board made the intentional decision to change our values to include ‘equity’, and focus on increasing diversity”
The Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York leagues joined forces and will use Rapha funding to create a coordinated marketing and recruitment campaign aimed at female student-athletes and women interested in coaching. The Montana league will use the funding for scholarships for girls to attend bike camps, for pre-season recruiting events, and for cross team/cross league joint training events. The Texas league will train more female coaches, and the North Carolina and Virginia leagues will invest in outreach into public schools. These are just a few examples.
Steve Matous, NICA’s president is committed to NICA’s GRiT initiatives and increasing female participation across the organisation. “When I look at our community and our cycling and our world as a whole, there are more women and girls in this world than there are men and boys. We need to move the needle on that number.” stated Matous.
Back in a 2013 interview, a 17-year-old Kate Courtney said of NICA and mountain biking in general that "I think female voices would be particularly helpful in mentoring. I know when I was a freshman, I was the only girl on my high school team and would have loved some female mentorship."
With inspiring figures such as herself at the top of the sport, and ever growing support at grassroots level from organisations such as NICA, women’s mountain biking will surely find its voice louder than ever before long.
The Rapha Foundation's mission is to build a better future for the sport of cycling by inspiring, empowering and supporting the next generation of racers. We will provide direct funding to grassroots and not for profit organisations that introduce under-served audiences to the sport. We will champion these organisations and take aspiring racers on a journey from their local park to podiums at the top of the sport. We will do this all over the world.