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Mountain biking gains traction as a Mount St. Joseph high school club

When Nolan O'Donnell was a sophomore at Mount Saint Joseph High School, he was looking for an athletic outlet that would give him a chance to get outside, but also be away from fields and crowds.

After Nikki Kelley, a school counselor, started a mountain biking club at the school last November, he found what he was looking for.

Kelley, O'Donnell and Nick Hershfeld, who all live in Catonsville, have helped grow the club to more than 20 members.

"In my mind, it's a sport," said Hershfeld, a junior at the school, near Catonsville. "It's been clear that it has been pretty successful, so far."

O'Donnell said he enjoys mountain biking because it's a team sport with an element of independence.

Teams are popping up throughout the country.

According to the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, more than 7,500 student-athletes took part in NICA-sanctioned events in 2015 — up 51 percent from the year prior.

"You don't really have a coach directing you through drills," O'Donnell said. "We work on skills with mountain biking but you get out and experience it yourself and you learn from that experience from riding."

The club meets once a week for rides and another time during school hours to plan, organize rides and quiz each other on skills. There are occasional opportunities for the students to take part in races, Kelley said.

Rides take place on trails at Patapsco Valley State Park. They typically are about 10 miles long and last about two hours.

"There's something about Patapsco that mountain bikers really value because of the terrain and layout of the park," O'Donnell said. "It's a good opportunity for kids to see the hidden treasures of what they have around their home."

When trails are not in riding condition because it's too muddy, the students take part in exercises to learn different moves and skills, such as balancing and bike-body separation.

Hershfeld and O'Donnell have noticed more interest from freshmen this year and older and more experienced students have helped them get up to speed.

"Every time these kids are going out they're learning more and getting faster," Hershfeld said. "It's cool to see."

Kristen Dieffenbach, an associate professor in West Virginia University's athletic coaching education program, a member of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology executive board and a professional cycling coach, said biking is a sport that is inclusive for people of different abilities.

She cited a program in Michigan with the slogan, "There's no bench in mountain biking."

The culture of the sport is small and tends to be community based, she said.

Even if bikers finish 20 minutes apart, they are able to talk about the same jumps, hills and obstacles.

"When a race is done, there is a very interesting phenomenon about the shared experience," she said. "The sense of community is very strong."

With growing interest, Kelley hopes to have the Mount Saint Joseph club become an interscholastic sport, as soon as next year.

Leagues are sponsored by NICA and already exist in Virginia and Pennsylvania, Kelley said.

"We've got a great trail system and interest in the state," she said. "We're looking into making the push and being a part of that."

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