By Kristen Gross
“High school athletics, in my opinion, is probably the most fun a kid’s ever going to have in sports,” said Steve Stuart, who has taught at El Camino High School in Oceanside the past 25 years, and now coaches its newest team: mountain biking.
A former physics teacher, Steve is now an educator in the physical education department. Knowing his history of coaching in the water —swimming and water polo — I asked Steve what drew him to the “dirt side.” He answered passionately on the benefits of mountain biking both for the athletes and their coaches.
“I wanted to do something with the kids that gets them outside, and keeps them active for a lifetime. This is still a relatively new sport, it’s a lot of fun, and one that I can participate in when I’m coaching,” he said with the hint of a smile. “Someone has to go out and ride with the kids.”
Steve’s own mountain biking experience goes back to the’ 80s, almost to the sport’s birth. In college, he worked at a trade show where one of the first off-road bikes was on display: the “Mountain Goat.” “In 1981, I was a part-time event attendant at Long Beach Convention Center while going to Cal State Long Beach. One evening I was on the cleanup crew at the Long Beach Bike show. I walked into the exhibit hall and for the first time at my job there, I didn't get a lot of work done. I remember staring at the Mountain Goat bicycle and thinking ‘Wow! What can you do with that? Would that be fun or what?’ Of course it was 11 p.m. at night and nobody was there to answer my questions except the security guard.”
Today’s bikes have come a long way, but for many kids they are still just shiny objects of desire, rather than attainment. The cost of even a used mountain bike is a barrier to access for students. That’s why Steve’s primary focus for the growing team is to track down support in the form of loaner bikes. “We want to introduce the sport to as many kids as we can,” said Steve. “If they come out for a season, and they love it, they’ll find a way to save up for a bike of their own – but until then, we could use a little help.”
So far, the team’s roster includes a young woman ready to race, and a Chinese exchange student looking to experience all he can while he’s here. There are some BMX racers interested and even some members of the wrestling team are thinking about committing later in the season, once their bouts are wrapped up.
Though the team has already started training together, the official race season starts in February and goes through the end of April, or the second week of May if a racer qualifies for the State Championships to be held in NorCal.
The El Camino High School team is part of the SoCal High School Mountain Bike League. Every school competing is set up as a “club” but the league has hopes to become as ubiquitous as traditional sports like football, baseball and basketball have been.
The League, governed by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), is working to encourage participation, especially for female riders. Points are awarded to every rider who finishes the race so no matter where an athlete places, they’re contributing to their team’s point total. The girls’ points are weighted even more heavily. “Basically the point system is set up to encourage lots of riders, not just the best riders. And it’s also set up to encourage girls. It’s very difficult for a team to be a top contender unless you have girls racing,” said Steve.
Most teams do two to four workouts together a week. Parents are also tremendously involved, helping to make sure bikes and riders get to school for practices, home again, then of course weekend rides.
But races are the biggest commitment for parents and volunteers. They help out with set up, tear down and course marking. They volunteer in the pit, to direct traffic or supervise the athletes. Events run five or six weekends, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, sometimes in a county park.
One could interpret it as pretty challenging stuff, but Steve easily lays out the benefits: it’s a chance to help out, give some kids a meaningful experience, ride some new terrain with the athletes, make new friends and spend the weekend camping, enjoying the outdoors.
“High school mountain biking is truly family oriented which is something I really like,” explains Steve. “My son played volleyball so as parents, we’d go up to Anaheim and hang out in a gym I-don’t-know-how many times a year. We got to know the other parents pretty well, and we got along really well — but with mountain biking it’s even more. They’ll have a blow up screen to show movies, bonfires and a festive, fun atmosphere —the stuff memories are made of. We’re outside, camping, having a really fun time.”
The team is supported by eight volunteer coaches —some are teachers at the school, some are experienced mountain bike coaches and all are excited to give back to the sport they love by helping to introduce it to the next generation of riders. Mountain biking teaches friendship, leadership, believing in yourself and surprising yourself. It comes with obvious health benefits, respect for the outdoors — and a deeper sense of connection to it — and of course, a lot of fun.
“I coached swimming and I was very competitive,” said Steve. “At the same time, as I get older, I realize, you know what? There’s one winner. And there are a whole lot of people who work just as hard, who don’t win. So you’d better enjoy the sport you’re in.”
The team is looking for help and is always open to donations of used bicycles, or the time of volunteers. The priority is to lower the barriers of access and to spread the word that El Camino High School has got a new mountain bike team with room for lots of members to get involved. For the kids, the mountain bike can be a tool for independence and discovery. And when they’re adults, it will be there to remind them of how it feels to be a kid.
“Being out there, cruising through the trees and the bushes is very therapeutic,” said Steve. Before we finished our chat, I asked him what mountain biking has taught him for life: “Learn to roll with it,” he laughed. “Any kid that comes out, who’s willing to put in the time, we’re going to find a way to get them on the team,” he continues. “We don’t want to deny any kid the experience, and lifelong enjoyment of mountain biking.”