At first, Demonte Cosby did not like mountain biking.
It was 2015. Cosby was 13 years old and living in a public housing unit in Richmond, Virginia. He was used to traditional team sports. He’d tried swimming, basketball, soccer, football and baseball, but he said he never felt entirely engaged with the activities or the teams. When another kid in the neighborhood told Cosby about Richmond Cycling Corps (RCC), a National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) mountain bike team composed of kids living in Richmond’s East End, Cosby was curious but skeptical.
“Trails and bikes, I never knew they existed. I never knew there was teams or nothing. It was very new. I was not into it,” said Cosby.
Mountain biking is hard physically and mentally. For Cosby, there was no sitting on the bench during games, no skating by in practice. The feedback was instantaneous. If he didn’t put in the work to pedal his bike, he didn’t go anywhere.
NICA has taught that very lesson—and much more—to over 40,000 middle and high schoolers across the country. Officially founded in 2009, NICA was born out of a high school mountain bike team in Berkeley, California. Every year since, the organization has continued to see an average annual growth of 48 percent in ridership. The fast-growing youth mountain bike organization has been applauded for its success in providing a platform for teenagers to explore the benefits of team camaraderie and individual goal setting. Austin McInerny, former president of NICA, said that students develop confidence, self-identity and interpersonal skills.
“Kids are hungry for being part of something right now, somewhere they can be engaged with their peers who don’t judge and help them achieve their challenges,” said McInerny. (McInerny recently stepped down as president of NICA. The organization is now under the leadership of Steve Matous.)
For some students on the Richmond Cycling Corps, the challenges of mountain biking are compounded by everyday struggles. Richmond’s East End, which includes Cosby’s home neighborhood of Fairfield Court, sees higher rates of crime, violence and concentrated poverty than other parts of the city. Within that context, children and teenagers can experience a host of negative mental health and behavioral difficulties. They are also at a higher risk for dropping out of high school.
With a GPA below 1.0, Cosby was among those at risk of dropping out. The oldest of three kids, Cosby lives with his mother and grandmother. In 2015, the same year Cosby joined RCC, his father died from an overdose. Despite his initial apprehensions about mountain biking, he said the sport gave him an outlet to cope with the loss of his father and the chance to discover a new community.
“Growing up around my neighborhood, I think everybody has experienced things and seen things they aren’t supposed to see,” he said. “I always thought I was going to be around the same people but [mountain biking] changed that. It was surprising that I got new friends that support me more than my other friends.”
In its 2018 Participation Report, the Outdoor Industry Association found that nearly a quarter of American youth participated in road, mountain and BMX biking, making it the most popular outdoor activity among kids 6–17. But that same report found that most outdoor recreation participants (including those who mountain bike) are white (74 percent), affluent (66 percent with incomes greater than $50,000), college-educated (42 percent) and/or men (54 percent).
Equity is one of the five pillars in NICA’s mission, and McInerny said that diversity is one of the group’s top priorities for the next five years. Though NICA has not conducted an official demographic survey, only 22 percent of student-athletes are girls. That fact is at the heart of NICA’s GRiT (Girls Riding Together) programming, designed to “recruit and retain” more girls. McInerny said GRiT has been successful in its mission. But the organization still has some work to do to make mountain biking accessible and equitable for low-income and minority youth.
The Co-op Journal interviewed a dozen NICA directors and coaches and found that two of the most universal challenges teams face to getting more kids on bikes are transportation and access to trails. According to McInerny, NICA discourages its coaches from transporting team members due to liability concerns. For some students, just finding a ride to practice can be problematic.
“The low-hanging fruit has sort of fallen. The first people who got involved [with NICA] were from more affluent communities who already have good trail systems and resources,” said McInerny, referring to states like Colorado, Utah and Texas, which were some of the first states to establish leagues. “A big challenge for us is getting in the urban areas where there are just no trails. Until we crack that nut, it’ll continue to be really challenging to get inner-city urban teams up and running.”
In Nashville, Tennessee, the Oasis Mountain Bike Team is raising funds to build a bike park within city limits. Now in its fourth year, Oasis is mostly composed of youth from refugee families who resettled in Nashville from Egypt, El Salvador and Mexico. The first year the team raced, they rode in hoodies and jeans on mountain bikes they built through the Oasis Bike Workshop, an earn-a-bike program provided for free to youth in the community.
Finding coaches is yet another hurdle for NICA teams. Mountain biking is unique among team sports in that it requires a large number of adults not just to supervise but to ride along with the team during practices. Most coaches are not paid, which can make it nearly impossible for working parents with inflexible schedules to become licensed and volunteer.
“The NICA effort is about finding coaches as much as it is finding riders,” said Scott Nydam, a former professional road cyclist and head coach for the Gallup Composite Team in Gallup, New Mexico, which sits just across the boundary from the Navajo Nation.
Though mountain biking is not necessarily new to the area—Nigel James and the Yazzies’ enduro riding on the Navajo Nation was chronicled in a New Yorker article last year—Nydam said the reservation still has a long way to go in building what he calls “social capital” around mountain biking. After all, the NICA season is a mere two months long. Through programs like NavajoYES and Trips for Kids, Nydam and colleague Manny Chavarria (a NICA coach on the Hopi Reservation) both hope to encourage year-round riding among all reservation youth.
“Having it be more a part of the fabric of their life not on a seasonal basis but on a weekly and daily basis, that needs to happen,” said Nydam. “NICA is the icing on the cake. It’s not the cake. We’re establishing that guard of ridership through grassroots programming that doesn’t even talk about the races. It talks about education and community.”
In a recent strategic plan, McInerny said NICA named diversity as one of the organization’s five key priorities for investment in the next five years. The organization is making an internal commitment to diversity and inclusion through their new Pathways Initiative. But the roadmap to achieving equity is still a work-in-progress.
“Our goal is to bring more underserved communities into the NICA family and introduce more people to the sport we love,” said McInerny. “Pathways will make inclusivity a priority within NICA leagues and teams through reaching out to communities not currently represented or that may have an economic disadvantage to forming teams. Pathways will also strategically partner with existing regional and national organizations to increase the diversity of participants in all of our activities and programs.”
Partnering with existing organizations is exactly what RCC founder and former professional road cyclist Craig Dodson did to get Richmond’s East End youth on bikes. In 2008, Dodson was the head of Richmond Pro Cycling, a competitive team that partnered with local nonprofits to introduce youth to cycling. He started by leading after-school cycling rides for kids at the Boys & Girls Club in Fairfield Court.
As he built relationships with students, Dodson said he started to realize that many of them were chronically absent at school, failing or suspended, and at risk of not graduating high school altogether. During his first year working with the Boys & Girls Club, Dodson and a handful of volunteers started helping his fledgling mountain bike team members off of the bike with tutoring and counseling.
To maintain that extra support, Dodson eventually founded his own homeschool cooperative, the Legacy Academy, in 2017. Run by accredited teachers, Legacy will eventually achieve private school accreditation after seven years of operation. The school is funded by private donors and limits enrollment to a dozen students, all of whom ride mountain bikes with the Richmond Cycling Corps. Kids from other schools can compete in RCC, but at Legacy cycling is the hook to get kids involved in a program that also supports them in life and at school, said Matt Kuhn, RCC head coach and Legacy Academy executive director.
“Since our inception we’ve been bringing kids to the hospital and helping with stuff at home,” said Kuhn “I’ve gotten kids birth certificates, jobs, dental appointments. Anything they need help with is what we do and that’s what we’ve always done.”
Cosby was one of the first students at Legacy. When he arrived, Kuhn said his GPA was below a 1.0. By then, Cosby had been riding with RCC for two years, but he resisted the standards Dodson and Kuhn expected of him. “He used to be the kid that was like, ‘No, I’m not riding today. I hate riding. I’m not doing this,’” said Kuhn. “He would just begrudgingly ride.”
When Dodson stepped down from his role at Legacy in 2018, the school briefly considered dropping the mountain bike team. By then, Cosby had become a mountain biking evangelist. “It took a lot of courage for me to be able to hop on a bike because most people don’t do it where I come from,” said Cosby. “This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.” He couldn’t fathom a life without bikes. Mountain biking had given him new friends, fond memories, even job connections. So he stepped up to the plate, leading practices and coaching new riders, becoming the real-life-embodiment of the team’s motto, “Can’t stop. Won’t stop.”
“Coming into a new environment, it changed me,” said Cosby. “Experiencing new things, that changed me, too. Meeting new people, that changed me in a good way, with controlling myself, knowing new things, not giving up, keep pushing no matter what.”
Today, Cosby’s GPA is a 2.4. If he maintains at least a 3.0 for one consecutive year at community college, he will receive a full-ride scholarship to Warren Wilson College, where he plans to study outdoor leadership or entrepreneurship and will continue to race mountain bikes at the collegiate level.
“I’m setting an example for my brother and sister,” said Cosby, who will be the first in his family to attend college. “I hope I can be a leader of the community one day, come back here, get kids on bikes, and make a big improvement on it.”
What worked for RCC and for Cosby doesn’t necessarily apply to all communities with low-income and minority populations. There’s no silver bullet, said Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, founding partner of The Avarna Group. Each city has barriers unique to its history, setting and resources. She said establishing equity is a complex issue that involves a thorough understanding of the unique barriers preventing people from accessing the sport, and then taking action to eradicate those barriers.
For starters, Rajagopal-Durbin said, it’s up to the industry and organizations like NICA to elevate stories of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences who are engaging in the sport in a way that is not currently being represented. Much of the media and marketing surrounding the mountain bike culture celebrates the 1 percent of the sport—the elite echelon of riders being paid to compete around the world, which can be incredibly intimidating for beginner riders, said Rajagopal-Durbin.
For meaningful change to happen, Rajagopal-Durbin suggested building partnerships with community organizations that support underrepresented populations, providing funding for coaches in low-income areas and finding creative solutions to transportation woes—like retrofitting school buses to carry mountain bikes.
“A real commitment does involve a lot more than just recruitment hiring and sponsorship, which is a superficial way to engage in this work,” she said. “You're playing the long game. You’re investing a lot. It pays off a lot but it doesn't happen overnight. It requires real transformative work.”
NICA is willing to put in the hard work, said McInerny, but change is slow. The organization won’t be hiring someone to oversee the Pathways Initiative until 2020, and the person’s time will be split between GRiT and the diversity initiative. Still, if NICA has proved anything in its decade-long history, it’s that progress is built on relationships. According to McInerny, 100 percent of NICA’s student-athletes affirm that they will be lifelong cyclists, which means the vanguard advocating for more kids on bikes is only going to increase with every year.
“It really takes someone in each community who is going to step up and be the ringleader,” said McInerny.
“You can’t throw bikes at the situation,” added Coach Nydam in Gallup, New Mexico. “You have to throw lives at it. There’s federal money to buy bikes but that's not the solution. It’s human bodies, it’s people, it’s relationships, it’s sharing, it’s experiential.”
That’s clearly been the case with Cosby back in Richmond, Virginia. When asked what makes mountain biking different from all of the other sports he’s played, Cosby hardly hesitated: “People that love you, take care of you. Most coaches don’t do that, most coaches don’t take you to the doctor, don’t take you to the bank when you need to, or go get something to eat. Matt [Kuhn] and Craig [Dodson], they always did that for us. They’re family. They’ll always be family.”