The Elizabethtown mountain biking team recently finished its second season, but that hasn’t stopped coach Jason Thomas from looking forward to the 2018 season.
The team is one of 37 in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League and is one of seven teams that have a tie to a school district. The remaining 30 teams are a club team or a composite, which means that they do not have a tie to a school district.
The relationship that the team has with the school district is part of the reason why Thomas and his team were allowed to build a half-mile, single track trail for practice behind Bear Creek School in March earlier this year.
In order to build the trail, Thomas said that he scheduled three or four work weekends and the trail was built with the help of more than 20 parents and athletes. If building the trail were the first step of the 2017 season, the second step was adding another layer to his strategy of coaching the team.
“This year we focused a lot more on athletic performance. It’s super competitive and the kids that are winning are serious riders. If we want to be competitive at the state level, we need to identify the kids that are interested in performance. We need to find out how to coach them and structure practices so that they are doing the work they need to in order to be competitive,” Thomas said.
While he and the coaching staff pivoted toward a focus on athletic performance, Thomas stressed that the team is not strictly about winning races. Whether it be leadership development, youth development or riding for enjoyment, Thomas said that the team’s diverse group of athletes is what creates an appealing culture.
“It’s unique. We teach the eight core skills and some kids choose the super competitive route. We’re coed with kids from middle school and high school. I think there is a ‘cool’ factor. It’s not a traditional stick and ball sport. It’s extremely inclusive,” Thomas said. “Older kids get to interact with the younger middle school kids. The kids that we attract may have never found a home in the traditional sporting environment. Our focus isn’t competition. We’re out there to get kids outside.”
When it comes to the traditional sports that Thomas touched on, he said that very few play traditional sports for their entire life, which is not the case with mountain biking.
“Most stop when they’re done in high school. The exceptional ones might play in college, but this a sport that you can legitimately do for the rest of your life,” Thomas said.
He speaks from a first-hand experience, as he has been a competitive cyclist since he was 19 years old. Thomas, now 39, raced while attending Millersville University and first heard about mountain biking expanding throughout Pennsylvania three or four years ago.
“My motivator was that my kids were in sixth and eighth grade and this was my opportunity to introduce such an awesome sport to my kids,” Thomas said.
The passion from Thomas is part of what helped Elizabethtown finish in fourth-place this past season. The team competed in four races spanning from September to October. High school races can span 18-20 miles and Thomas said that a typical race may have 400 athletes participate, in part because the league spans the entire state.
“It’s a cross country invitational on steroids. It’s a party atmosphere. There are team tents, food trucks, a professional emcee and kids are from all over the state so it gives the riders an opportunity to meet kids from different areas,” Thomas said.
As he and his coaching staff pivot from this past season and look forward to the next, they are prepared for even more athletes to come out and join the team. With that, however, some changes must be made in order to be as efficient and productive as possible.
“Our coaching and practice structure is at a limit. From a training perspective, we’ve spent two years teaching core skills. We need more sponsorship. We get no money from the school district and, as we grow, we’re going to need more sponsor money to support that,” Thomas said. “We’re looking to expand next year. We’re looking to build another trail and there are a few other places we think we can do that,” Thomas said.
As one of the largest teams in the state, planning and having enough support to get the logistics figured out can sometimes present a challenge for the team as well.
“It’s a great problem to have. As you can imagine, taking 30-plus kids into the woods is a huge logistical challenge. With 400 kids racing you have to park over 700 cars. You need a lot of planning, preparation and coach support to do that,” Thomas said.
As a founding member of the league, Thomas said that the league’s next step is to find venues that are large enough to accommodate that many athletes and family members.
“Our long-term vision is building league-specific trails that we can come back to every year. It has a huge economic impact. The race in Johnstown at the beginning of October sold out every hotel in Johnstown. Whether it be gas, hotels or restaurants, it has a huge economic impact,” Thomas said.