Eagles mountain biking gears up for fall season | Local
ZACH BRADSHAW Special for the Daily Sun
Being a mountain biker on Coach John Urkuski’s team is fun. The members are motivating and the atmosphere is light. That’s part of what makes the Eagles so successful.
If there’s one thing chats with the fourth-year head coach will tell you, it’s that the Flagstaff Eagles mountain bike team is having fun day in and day out.
During their three-day-a-week practices, the team often plays a game called “Footdown”. Cyclists line up in a circle and start pedaling clockwise. Anyone who lifts their foot off the pedal and onto the ground is out. The cycle becomes faster and the circle becomes smaller. The last person not to touch the ground wins the game. It is an activity that teaches balance while pedaling in tight spaces.
The game is just one example of how the team keeps things light. The group works on skills and practice with great intensity, but they never stray from the fun and upbeat atmosphere that athletics is supposed to have.
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The team also succeeds. Last fall, the Eagles won their first-ever state championship trophy while going undefeated in races all season. This year, the team has a record 42 members.
The team’s large size and success can be equated to Urkuski’s laid-back coaching style. He has no expectations of the members, as he prefers them to train every day and just have fun.
“I just want them to go out and do their best in every practice,” he said. “They have fun and give their all.”
Each day the team works on skills such as coasting uphill or downhill for around 30-45 minutes. Then the rest of the practice is about cooldown, games, and individual skill work.
There are many aspects of the team that stand out. For one thing, the team staff is made up of around 12 regular coaches, which means there are plenty of coaches available for every athlete.
Second, Urkuski says 28% of the list is female.
“The league average is around 20%,” Urkuski said. “So we’re really happy to be above average.”
Urkuski said he and the coaches deliberately try to recruit female athletes by employing female coaches and contacting students during the offseason. Urkuski says the effort is a push for inclusivity and diversity.
The team has no tryouts and accepts anyone, regardless of skill level or experience. They can even participate and practice if they don’t want to race.
If the students have conflicts that interfere with a practice or a race, Urkuski doesn’t care.
“We don’t stress about it. Most of these kids ride the bikes on weekends where they spend their time on the bike anyway, so we don’t put a lot of pressure on it,” Urkuski said.
During the offseason, Urkuski encourages riders to put their bikes down for a while and focus on something else.
“Hiking, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, or hitting baseballs in a batting cage. Just mix it up,” he said.
The team began training in early July for the upcoming season. The team’s first meeting is September 10 at Fort Tuthill, with 79 high schools planning to attend the event. The season will consist of five competitions throughout the fall.
Goals are not so tangible for the team, looking for specific results. He doesn’t expect a repeat of last year’s state championship and he doesn’t want his riders expecting a trophy of their own. He just wants runners to push through every practice and stay positive.
Having been a cyclist himself for over 20 years, Urkuski understands what cycling means to him and therefore has the inspiration to train.
“One thing about cycling and cycling in general is that it’s something they can do for a lifetime.” said Ourkuski.
This season, the team plans to donate 10% of the money it raises to the SiiHasin bike program located in Indian Wells. Urkuski also aims to win the annual league draw, which would net the team a customizable Strike Visuals tent. Fittingly, if the team wins, Urkuski would donate the tent to the SiiHasin program.
Last year, Urkuski donated more than $400 to SiiHasin, which helped fund a trip to Sierra Vista for the state championship race.
With the season fast approaching, Urkuski looks forward to another season in charge of the team. He believes that cycling is more than just a sport.
“It’s about building community and building relationships,” he said. “If there’s one thing I’m really proud of, it’s that these kids made friends all over the state.”
“It takes a village — the kids, the coaches, the parents — I can’t do it without them,” he added. “Everyone has really come together to support this team and it’s been amazing the last two years.”