Columbia is no exception as mountain biking gains popularity among Missouri youth | Pictures
Mountain biking is making waves all over Missouri and Columbia is becoming a hotbed for the sport.
As the sun shone and a light breeze drifted across the water, more than 300 boys and girls thundered across the finish line Sunday at the Binder Lake Bash in Jefferson City. The race, part of the larger Missouri Interscholastic Cycling League circuit, was the fourth of the season and drew competitors from across Missouri.
The MICL is in its third year of existence and its second year of competition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The league, which is made up of students in grades 6 through 12, offers a series of races each year, as well as practice for competitors on their own teams.
The league is growing rapidly, according to Chris Mileski, the league’s founder and associate director. Mileski, who was the former head coach of Lindenwood University’s cycling programs, founded the MICL to seek new adventures in cycling.
“It’s a step up (compared to college biking), but it’s the way,” Mileski said. “A lot of these kids will become lifelong cyclists and just have fun. Some will do other sports, some will go to college and run for college, and some will turn pro at some point.
Whether it’s the promise of a future career or the enjoyment of sports, MICL has found success in Missouri. In its first season, the MICL had 262 participants statewide. Over the past two years, that number has nearly doubled to the 489 student-athletes that make up the league today.
This growth shows no signs of slowing down, with league organizers anticipating continued growth in the range of 15% to 18% per year in the coming years. In addition, there is talk of dividing the league into Eastern and Western conferences to accommodate the greatest number.
This growth comes as no surprise to Mileski and other league members, as they believe mountain biking offers something unique to young people in Missouri. Mike Burden, team manager of the Columbia-based COMO Composite Raptors, understands why the lure of mountain biking is widespread.
“Riding a bike is just fun,” Burden said. “It’s one of the only things you can do on your own in terms of moving at high speed on your own. You get the same feeling people get for the first time on a bike. This feeling of freedom, the joy of living, a little danger. The MTB has all of that but amplified.
The high-pitched thrill of mountain biking isn’t the only aspect of the MICL that has attracted new competitors since 2020. Raptors’ Caleb Pamperl, who took fifth in the Freshman Boys C race, his first-ever race, said the environment at MICL events is also a plus.
“Everyone here just had a cool vibe; it’s just fun,” Pamperl said. “There’s no ‘Oh, I’m so much better than everyone else.’ Everyone enjoys it and is nice.
This healthy, community environment is created very intentionally, Mileski said.
“There’s a lot of time to compete, but when the kids are so young, you really try to build good habits, good habits for life,” Mileski remarked. “We’re just trying to get more kids to ride bikes and let them create their own path. If they want to be competitive, that’s fine. If they just want to hang out with their friends and ride their bikes in the woods, that’s fine too.
Despite MICL’s initial success, the fledgling league was not without its obstacles. Mountain biking is an inherently dangerous sport, and coaches are careful not to throw new riders into the depths.
“As coaches, (practice planning is) a challenge because we have sixth through 12th graders,” Raptors coach Ben Nagy said. “We have some of the fastest kids in the league and people who just started riding bikes a year or two ago, so it can be very difficult trying to design a practice that challenges those and engages them at the same time.”
The Raptors train primarily on the Cosmo Park mountain bike course, which is a higher-level course, making the coach’s job of designing an accessible practice especially challenging. However, they may soon receive help from Columbia Parks and Recreation.
Columbia has not added a mountain bike trail since 1999. The sport’s recent and expected growth in Columbia and throughout Missouri has prompted local authorities to seek the development of a new course that meets the requirements of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association for a race venue. Completion of this course would allow the MICL to organize races in Colombia.
Gabe Huffington, interim director of Columbia Parks and Recreation and Raptor parent, spoke about the progress being made in building a new course:
“Columbia’s Parks and Recreation Department has identified partial funding as part of the 2021 Parks Sales Tax Renewal for the development of a new hiking and biking trail and supporting infrastructure in the Gans Creek Recreation Area which will be designed as (a) NICA site for future competitive races.
“The remaining funding required for the design and construction of the trail is funded by a $125,000 donation from the Frank W. Morris Memorial Trust, and design of the trail will begin in early 2023 in anticipation of use in the fall as a racing site. The multi-use trail, totaling 4 miles in length, will also be open to the public year-round for hiking and biking.
Regardless of the advancement of a new trail in Colombia, mountain biking in Colombia and Missouri is growing. The MICL is expected to have nearly 600 riders next year, and Columbia has the interest, the organization and, soon, the facilities to put it at the forefront of mountain biking in the state.