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High School Mountain Bike Racing & Beyond

By: Scott Schnitzspahn  July 27, 2022

A Guide for New Riders and Parents

Riding a bike is an activity that anyone can do, it’s fun, and it gives you freedom to roam and explore your world outdoors. Cycling provides personal challenges to ride farther, faster, or on more difficult terrain. Sharing the love of bikes and riding with a group is a great way to make friends and have fun together.

If you participate in sports other than cycling, riding a bike is a great complementary activity for building endurance. Most sports use cycling in their conditioning programs and for warm-up and cool-down. Cycling is also a competitive sport with racing opportunities for kids who are just a few years old on bikes without pedals, to youth, junior, high school, college, elite, and masters (or adult) age-group racing. You can literally race a bike from 1 to 101+ years old!

High School Mountain Bike Racing

Racing your bike is a great way to challenge yourself further and have even more fun! For high school age riders, you may be able to compete for your school in mountain bike races organized by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), or similar organization, in your state. These races are the cross-country discipline of mountain biking, meaning they take place on dirt trails, usually with good doses of climbing, descending, and a few rocks or technical challenges mixed in. You will race according to your gender and grade as Freshman and Sophomores or as Junior Varsity or Varsity for upper classmen and more competitive riders, earning points for your school. The top point earners throughout the season qualify for their State Championship in each division.

For a few racers, the actual awards podium for first, second, and third place finishers is the goal. For others, just finishing the race distance is a podium-like finish for them. Regardless of what your podium is, the energy level, camaraderie, and excitement around high school mountain bike racing is something everyone who rides a bike should experience. In addition to racing for results, riders compete in fun school spirit contests, skills challenges, and volunteer hours competitions.

Find a High School Team

To race in high school events, you must be a member of a registered high school team. Inquire at your school as many high schools across the country already have a club mountain bike team. If your school does not have a team yet, you can either start one yourself with a few friends, or join a local composite team. A composite team is made up of riders from different schools who either race under a common team name, or for one of the schools that one or more of their riders attend.

To find a team in your area, start with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) and see if your state has a NICA league. If not, a simple google search for your state name and “High School Mountain Bike” should turn up your state’s league if you have one. Once on the website for your state league, search for schools near you that have a team and inquire directly with them. If you are having trouble finding a high school league in your area, inquire at your local bike shops as they usually support the high school leagues in their area.

Join Up

Once you’ve found your high school team, you will need to register with the team to race in your high school league. Typically, there is a cost to join for the season and some team clothing to buy. You will also have to join your state high school league as well. Race registration typically cost extra and is a separate registration process. While there are great benefits to getting a free USA Cycling Junior membership as well, a USA Cycling membership is not required to race high school league races.

Junior Development Clubs

Outside of the high school mountain bike leagues, there are additional opportunities to ride and race with other teenage bike racers. Being part of a junior team is a great way to experience the sport of cycling. USA Cycling clubs and teams are located all over the United States and there is probably one near you that you can join. Some groups are discipline-specific (i.e. focused only on mountain biking), while others participate in many different disciplines. Some clubs are racing-focused while others are more participation based.

Most clubs have members of all ages, but some are focused on youth. Youth clubs and teams typically call themselves “Junior,” “Junior Development,” or “Devo” teams and their mission is to develop the next generation of competitive, as well as lifelong, cyclists. Junior teams typically have certified coaches, regular practices, team racing jerseys, and support their riders at local and national races. Racing and training with a junior development team is great preparation for the high school season.

While being part of a junior team can be very rewarding, cycling is an individual sport, and being a member of a team is not required to race outside of high school league races.

Youth and Junior Racing

If you are under 19 years of age on December 31st of the current year (racing age), you can race in your age division in bike races, including USA Cycling National Championships, against other young racers your age and gender. The official Youth division is up to 8 years old racing age, while the Junior division is 9 to 18. These ranges are usually broken down further into two-year age groups at most bike races. At the international level, “Junior” is recognized as 17-18 racing age by the International Cycling Union (UCI).

USA Cycling sanctioned events can be found through the events search tool on the USA Cycling website. A USA Cycling membership, free for juniors, is required to race in USA Cycling events. These events offer great insurance for the race and participants and points that may improve start position at national events. Other non-sanctioned races with youth and junior divisions may be available in your area as well.

Collegiate Club Racing

Once your high school cycling career ends, you can continue racing as a collegiate cyclist. Many colleges and universities have club teams, and some have recognized varsity programs and even offer cycling scholarships. Collegiate cycling team coaches scout the high school and USA Cycling junior races around the country and recruit riders to join their teams. USA Cycling maintains a database of schools that offer collegiate cycling through the Find-A-Club search tool. USA Cycling also hosts Collegiate National Championships in mountain biking, road, and track cycling.

Under 23

For riders who are racing age 19 to 22 years old, the bridge from junior and collegiate racing to elite and professional racing is the Under 23 (U23) category. Some disciplines like road cycling and mountain biking offer this division for up-and-coming elite riders. Sometimes U23 racers compete alongside elite and professional riders in the same race but are recognized separately in the results and on the podium. National and World titles are contested in the Under 23 division.

Professional Racing, Olympics, and World Championships

As you improve as a cyclist and start getting on podiums, you will get noticed by local and national teams and invited to join them, invited to national development camps, qualify for Nationals and maybe even World Championships in your division. The very top riders eventually race in the elite divisions, competing against the best cyclists in the USA and the world. Often, the elite riders will be signed by professional teams, win prize money, and compete for spots at the Olympics and elite World Championships in their discipline. Being on the USA Cycling National Team is the highest honor for an American cyclist.

Adult Masters Racing

Cycling is a sport that can be done for life and there are racing opportunities for all ages and abilities. If you don’t go down an elite path through the U23 and professional ranks, you can race in your amateur age-group and ability category beginning at 19 years old. Masters racing opportunities are available in every discipline and there are masters National Championships and World Championships too!

Crashing and Insurance

While cycling of any kind is incredibly fun, crashes do happen occasionally. Relative to other competitive sports, cycling is comparatively safe. Most crashes result in bumps, scrapes, and bruises. However, broken bones, commonly collarbones, can happen from crashes. Cyclists can also experience a concussion from a crash, with helmets helping to minimize more severe head injuries. Learning proper skills and techniques from a coach or as part of a team or club can help to reduce the likelihood of a crash and ride safer and faster while having more fun.

When crashes happen, an insurance policy can help reduce or eliminate out of pocket medical costs. Most high school teams have insurance that covers accidents that occur at team practices or league races. These policies typically have deductibles that first need to be met and are secondary to your personal medical coverage. However, for riders who have a USA Cycling Ride, Race+, Junior Race+, or Collegiate Race+ license, you are covered by a zero deductible insurance plan for any on-the-bike activity through the Spot Insurance program.


Coaches for cycling can be found in your area as independent professionals and as part of a club, team, or facility. USA Cycling certification is the gold standard for cycling coaches, but additional skill and discipline specific certifications are important to look for as well. NICA and other high school leagues have youth mountain bike specific coaching certification programs and all teams must have a coach. In addition to cycling specific training, most certified coaches will also have passed a criminal background check, be trained in first aid and CPR, and been trained in reducing athlete abuse and recognizing concussions. Racing experience can be helpful, but more important is to find a coach who encourages you to improve in a professional, safe, and positive manner. However, while a coach can significantly improve your cycling performance, having a coach is not required to participate in cycling!


In addition to receiving proper instruction, having the right equipment that is well maintained is key to enjoying riding your bike. As an equipment intensive sport, cycling can get expensive. However, you do not need the most expensive bike and all the latest gear to have fun riding and competing in cycling. Having a bike that fits and works well is all that is required to get started in cycling. For racing, each discipline has specific rules on the bike types and configurations that are allowed. However, in most cases, what you already have will be fine. Check with your local bike shop to make sure your current equipment is allowed and functioning safely. As you become more competitive over time, upgrades in equipment can help improve performance and enjoyment of the sport. Many of the high school leagues, high school teams, and junior development teams offer scholarships to help with equipment, or other, costs. Membership to USA Cycling and the high school leagues and teams also comes with discounts on cycling products and services from sponsors.


Ready to learn more or get started? There are many resources available to you to help you on your cycling journey. USA Cycling is the national governing body of the sport of cycling and organizes racing, certifies coaches, and runs Team USA for international cycling competitions. In addition to the state high school leagues, there are many different local associations as well that conduct racing at the state and local level. Clubs and Teams are of course a great resource. You can also find help at your local bike shop, through your local certified coach, and even on YouTube and social media. Now, get out there and find your podium!

Scott Schnitzspahn is a certified USA Cycling coach at the highest level (Level 1). He was formerly the Vice President of Elite Athletics for USA Cycling. Prior to his role at USA Cycling, Scott was a High Performance Director at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Scott has been on the staff of Team USA at four Olympic Games. Coach Scott is currently the Head Coach for the Highlands Ranch Junior Cycling Team in Highlands Ranch, Colorado that competes in mountain bike racing and operates seven high schools that race in the Colorado High School Cycling League.