By Jana Bounds EBS Contributor

BIG SKY– A group of area parents and cycling enthusiasts have decided to kick youth cycling up a notch by making Big Sky home to the first National Interscholastic Cycling Association group in the state. Bozeman soon followed as the second.

Matt Jennings, Chris Wilson, John Flach, Scott Jacobson and Alex Ide took initiative with an idea that began roughly five years ago, forming Lone Peak Composite.

“It’s about improving mountain biking skills, but there’s a race element to it as well,” said Flach, who is attaining his NICA coach certification.

According to the nonprofit’s website, “NICA provides leadership, services and governance for regional leagues to produce quality mountain bike events, and supports every student-athlete in the development of strong body, strong mind and strong character through interscholastic cycling.”

Jennings, who is head coach and team director for the group, said everyone involved is enthusiastic about it. All organizers have or are attaining their NICA coaching certification.

“We just all love cycling and want to pass it on to kids and get them on bikes,” Jennings said, adding that the initial response has been positive.

“I have about 15 kids who have expressed interest. I have seven who are registered and practice-ready and two kids who are ready to do their first race in Targhee on September 9,” he said, referring to the Grand Charge race at Grand Targhee Bike Park in Alta, Wyoming.

The group practices Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 5-7 p.m. and Jennings said the student-athletes have already fine-tuned their mountain biking skills just from practicing a few weeks. Kids aged 11 to 18 are able to participate. Involvement in this national organization can result in academic scholarships for participating students.

There are thousands of NICA students and coaches from coast to coast. Big Sky’s group is currently functioning under the umbrella of the Idaho League, but a handful of enthusiasts from across the state—including Jennings—have begun the two- to three-year process of creating a Montana league, which Jennings said is no easy feat. Eighteen states currently have leagues according to NICA’s website.

“We’re going to have to have routes, races, fundraising and show how we’re going to sustain it financially as well,” Jennings said, adding that the group aims to host its first race in a couple of years with an eventual goal of putting on four to six races across the state annually.

Jennings reiterated that it’s all about youth development. “It’s competitive, but it’s not end-of-the-world competitive,” he said.

Organizers agree that it’s important to provide this alternative option for students who do not want to participate in traditional sports. “They can join a team and have the benefits of team camaraderie growing-up from middle school to high school,” Jennings said.

The Women’s Sports Foundation ranks Montana as one of the top five states in the U.S. for athletic opportunities for kids. These opportunities are becoming increasingly important as the Center for Disease Control predicts that 42 percent of all American adults will be obese by 2030.

Flach, who is 53 years old and recently raced competitively at Targhee, said cycling is a great lifetime hobby. “My kids met a girl at Hummocks Trailhead who said she is a NICA racer and she is going to ride her bike the rest of her life,” he said.

Wilson said his two daughters have grown up riding bikes with him and are excited about getting involved in the sport with their peers as well as learning from others. A recent practice included an appearance by Kaysee Armstrong, a pro cyclist sponsored by Liv, the first cycling brand completely dedicated to women.

Wilson recently went through the NICA coaching certification, which he said is very skills-based. The group mixed classroom instruction with a field day where the coaches-in-training worked on drills to build foundational skills.

The coaches then taught those drills to the student athletes the first few practices.

“I think they really enjoyed it,” Wilson said.

Contact Matt Jennings at (406) 209-5328 for more information.