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Mountain biking rose from humble beginnings in the 1800s as a simple mode of transportation to a fringe sport in the 1970s. It gained global momentum in 1990 with the first world championships and today is turning out star athletes as young as high school.
And this year, one of those athletes hails from a Douglas County-based team. Zac Richardson, 17, of Elizabeth, took first in this year's Colorado High School Cycling League state championships in October. His coach, Mark Neel, took coach of the year for the league's south division.
Neel coaches the Castle Rock Crankers, made up of Castle View High School and Douglas County High School students from Castle Rock. When a student like Richardson does not have a local team he or she may compete in the league on the team nearest to them.
Between Richardson and Neel are years of experience, a passion for cycling and a contribution to its ever-growing popularity.
Neel has been witness to that growth.
He got his start in competitive mountain biking in 1988 and participated in the 1990 world championship in Durango. The race — first of its kind and officially recognized by cycling's world governing body, the International Cycling Union — was electric, Neel said.
Mountain biking was still a young sport at the time, he explained, and its athletes were thrilled to see it enter the world stage.
“It was extremely grassroots. We weren't racing for money or prizes,” he said. “It was very celebratory because it was the first time they had a world championships that was legitimately organized.”
Today an Olympic sport and popular across Europe, Australia and the U.S., mountain biking's roots in Colorado also remain strong.
The league in which Richardson and Neel participate, the Colorado High School Cycling League, was founded in 2009 and has grown significantly year by year. Fewer than 200 athletes participated in its first race in 2010. By 2014, more than 600 kids raced in the league, Executive Director Kate Rau said.
“I think it's super fun and it's a family-friendly activity where nobody's benched,” Rau said when asked about what drives the league's growth. “I like to think the reason that people keep coming back is that the race experience is pretty exceptional.”
This year, more than 1,200 athletes participated in the Colorado High School Cycling League series. Among them, Richardson, guided by Neel and other mountain biking pros helping to nurture the next generation of athletes.
Richardson's taking of the state title in Eagle was a year in the making.
“When he made the decision last fall that he really wanted to go after the state championship,” Neel said, “we literally started his training about a week after state championships last year.”
While mountain biking's early riders rode for the thrill, Neel said, the sport today incorporates serious strategy, also requiring serious training.
The Colorado High School Cycling League's varsity athletes complete four laps in a race. Each lap averages between five or six miles, Neel said. Riders often break off into groups to form an alliance, of sort, only to break that bond toward the race's end when they make a dash for the finish line.
Each series race course is unique. This year's conference championships took place in Nathrop, with the course gaining 520 feet of altitude per lap, according to race reports on the league website, coloradomtb.org. The state championship course was on the Haymaker and Extra Credit trails in Eagle, which are specially designed to support the league's events.
In training Richardson, they spent days focused on doing long rides and others focused on shorter, high-intensity workouts, such as hill repeats.
“You want your speed to be a factor and you also want to have good endurance,” Richardson said. “Another high-intensity workout is where you go up a climb as hard as you can and then you practice descending, when you're dead out tired…you'll get done with a climb and you'll be destroyed.”
Richardson typically finishes a race between one hour and 20 minutes or one hour and 30 minutes. His winning time at the 2017 state championships was one hour, 30 minutes and 28 seconds, according to online results.
“The last descent that I had right before the finish line, I was just amazed that I actually pulled it off,” Richardson said. “It was a lot of work to get there.”
His passion for the sport is what motivates him, he said, and drives his commitment. In Richardson's words, mountain biking is the “ultimate escape.”
“You get to ride your bike, you get to do some physical activity, you're close to nature. You kind of have that little bit of exploration that comes out of you. It's just really fun,” he said.
Neel's love of the sport is similar to Richardson's.
“For me, it's kind of like flying because you're just floating across the ground,” Neel said. “It's almost like riding a rollercoaster with the ups and downs and the twists left and right.”
In coaching, he said, he hopes to create life-long mountain bikers. Watching kids grow is why he does it, Neel said. And in a good sign for the sport, he says once kids join a mountain biking team, they stay friends, and riders, for life.
“To me,” he said, “That's really rewarding.
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