Marcus Stewart

Seckman’s Marcus Stewart has traded his ice hockey skates for a mountain bike.

As the usual sports played in Jefferson County gradually return over the summer, a new activity is trying to gain a foothold here.

Under the guidance of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) based in Berkeley, Calif., mountain bike racing has come to Missouri.

The group has four high school leagues – affiliate, chapter, project and emergent.

Missouri was placed in the emergent grouping with five other states in 2019. As coaches and riders improve their training and competition, states move up the ladder with the goal of reaching the top rung, the affiliate league.

Chris Mileski, the director of the Missouri Interscholastic Cycling League, said the state will compete in the project league in 2020 and hold a five-race series that will begin in late August and end Oct. 24-25 with large- and small-schools championships. Boys and girls compete separately.

The first race weekend will be at Indian Creek Park in St. Charles County on Aug. 29-30.

“COVID-19 willing, we’ll have a full season this fall,” Mileski said.

Mileski was in St. Charles on Saturday and at Castlewood State Park on Sunday to help train coaches. Recruiting and training an army of volunteer coaches to help train riders for the sport was vital for mountain bike racing to get off the ground.

All coaches must pass background checks, Mileski said.

“We teach them skills and how to communicate with student-athletes,” Mileski said.

Mileski views mountain bike racing as a club sport, like ice hockey. Teams aren’t affiliated with high schools and their rosters are made up of students from a region.

Competition begins in the sixth grade and ends at the varsity level in high school.

Registration to join a team in Missouri began Monday. Trek Bicycle in Arnold will hold a registration for the Jefferson County team at 6 p.m. June 16.

“The goal is to get our composite teams into the middle and high schools throughout the state,” Mileski said.

During a race weekend, teams arrive on Saturday for activities and the coaches set up the course for the race, which is held on Sundays. Courses range from 3.5 to 5.5 miles long. Sixth-graders make one lap, while varsity racers can be on the course for an hour to 90 minutes.

Students who don’t want to compete in the races can still join a team.

“We try to de-emphasize the racing part of it,” Mileski said. “A lot of kids just like to ride bikes so they can get out in nature. Kids don’t have to race. It’s not required. They can just learn skills.”

Riders have to provide their own bikes. Mileski said NICA has arrangements with bicycle manufacturers so riders can purchase bikes at deep discounts. Mileski said he hopes to start a loaner-bike program for riders in the future.

“You’re going to see kids with box-store bikes from Target or a hand-me-down from an older brother or sister. It could be a donated bike,” Mileski said.

Marcus Stewart will be a junior at Seckman this fall. Stewart used to play ice hockey for the Jaguars, but gave that up to concentrate on mountain biking.

“I like everything about it. Being outside. There’s a lot of good things about it,” Stewart said.

While his classmates who compete in spring sports at Seckman lost their entire seasons because of the coronavirus, Stewart, who turned 16 on April 5, has been taking advantage of his new drivers license to take his bike to local parks to train for the upcoming season. He said he tries to ride every day and typically covers 20 miles a day.

“I want to get more people into biking and share my love of it,” he said.

Mileski said the competition is more about rewarding the team than the individual.

“There are a lot of volunteer opportunities as we build this sport up,” he said. “We encourage kids to do trail-building in their communities, and we add that to their team’s points.”

Riders must be able to maintain their bikes and know how to change a tire if they get a flat on the course. Coaches can give verbal support when a rider is on the course, but they can’t physically help with repairs.

Riders are taught how to give their bikes and other equipment, like a helmet, a safety check before they begin.

“The coaches have to check those bikes out and make sure they’re safe to ride,” Mileski said.

Kurt Bedow is the head coach of the Jefferson County team, and his assistant coaches are Tony Stewart, Brian King and Katherine Luh, a music teacher at Hodge Elementary School in the Fox C-6 School District.