Listening to two members of a fledgling high school mountain bike club describe just one event in Folsom, it’s clear that racing mountain bikes is a thrill they’ll never forget.
On April 8 St. Helena High School sophomore Stefan Beckman of the St. Helena Thunderbirds Mountain Bike Club placed second in the NorCal Division 2 Boys “Granite Bay Grinder Race” in a field of more than 40 other sophomore riders. There were hundreds of riders represented in the overall racing competition on a course that had it all: ribbons of single-track trails with gnarly oaks roots, tall grass and treacherous sand pits.
And then there was the weather that day.
“It was really tough,” said Will Grace, a freshman at St. Helena High School. “There was rain, wind, cold, and even hail. We were sliding all over the place.”
Beckman agreed. “But there’s this energy level, when you take off from the starting line. You’re surrounded by bikers. It’s hard to describe. Everything’s calm. And then it’s like an explosion,” he said.
Two years ago, Stefan’s father, Olaf Beckman, started the St. Helena Thunderbirds Mountain Bike Club in Deer Park. According to the older Beckman, the club grew out of his own love of mountain biking with his son. As his son was growing, he said he recognized the boy’s fascination with mountain biking that echoed his own experiences as a kid in the Bay Area.
“My bike, for me, was freedom,” he said. “It meant I could go anywhere.”
Father and son had been biking together for years in Las Posadas in Angwin. Then Will Grace, a neighborhood friend of Stefan’s, started joining Stefan practicing jumps in the empty field in Deer Park. The idea of forming a mountain bike club was a natural outgrowth of those activities.
Olaf Beckman first approached the St. Helena High School with the idea of the club, and for a while it felt, according to the father, like it might become an official St. Helena High School-sponsored sport. Beckman said he researched all the requirements for equipment and insurance and even connected with the NorCal High School Cycling League which offered liability insurance through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA).
But St. Helena Unified School District officials ultimately decided it could not sponsor a team so Beckman found other sponsors, and the St. Helena Thunderbirds joined the NorCal League in 2016. With sponsors such as Grace Family Vineyards, NorCal High School Cycling League, Clif Family Winery, The Napa Bike Coalition and others, they obtained professional quality bikes from a manufacturer and fielded their first viable team. According to Olaf Beckman, there are between 15 and 20 members.
The NorCal High School Cycling League itself was first organized in 2001. Its intent, according to its website, is to provide mountain biking programs for students in grades 9 to 12. The organization, which holds programs for both boys and girls, says it’s committed “to providing a positive experience for all student-athletes, helping them to create strong body, mind and character through the sport of cycling.”
NorCal holds five annual mountain bike races for nearly 100 teams in two conferences in Northern California. Teams in the NorCal races are divided into two divisions, based on the number of team members and the performances of riders are based on completed course times by age groups (freshman, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity), and gender. Teams gain points when riders enter and finish a race, and the course completion times of individual riders establish the rider’s placement in each race: As scores improve, the riders move forward in their poll positions at the race starting line.
Those riders with the best times for their group in three of the five races — in combination with their team’s scores — then qualify for the sixth state championship race, which was held this year in Petaluma.
At the championship race held May 14, the Thunderbirds placed 60th out of 90 teams in the small team rankings. Stefan Beckman placed 25th in sophomore boys; Blaney Adamson placed 30th in sophomore girls; Will Grace placed 89th in freshman boys. For a fledgling team, these showings are quite impressive, Beckman said.
But for the team members the final competition appears to be secondary to race experience itself. And for Beckman, witnessing the changes in the team members’ skill and self-confidence is inspiring.
“They get really excited about each race,” he said. “And they get determined they’re going to move up in their scores and their placements in each race. It’s a natural confidence building experience as their bodies get stronger and their focus grows sharper. Then that self-confidence shows up in everything.”