Youth mountain bike programs bringing back the stoke this fall. After utilizing a modified race format in 2020, the Georgia Cycling Association held its first middle and high school race weekend of the 2021 season at Kingston Downs near Rome, Georgia. Hundreds of athletes and parents descended on the venue to cheer on student athletes and to safely enjoy two days of fun, sun, and bikes.
Morning course pre-rides doubled as coaching and training sessions.
Racers were grouped by gender, and grade level, in a modified time-trial format for the middle school races on Saturday. The eighth grade girls were the first to race, leaving the start area in waves of five riders at a time, and each wave was spaced ten seconds apart to provide plenty of breathing room.
The mountain bike trails at Kingston Downs were professionally constructed and machine-built, in partnership with the Georgia Cycling Association. The 5.6-mile, rolling race loop nets about 450 feet of climbing, with one half-mile climb accounting for nearly 200 feet of the elevation gain.
Smooth and wide (but not too wide!) trails snake through the forest. The trail designers kept the grades reasonable and avoided creating switchbacks for a fast and beginner-friendly course.
These boys found a nice shady spot to chill and enjoy watching the girls race.
The race course starts and ends in a massive tree-ringed field with plenty of room for spectators. The final downhill section included more than half a dozen wide, bermed turns, each of which required three truckloads of dirt to create.
The 5,000-acre Kingston Downs property was once host to a massive, annual steeplechase race, and the mile-plus horse racing oval is located at the northern end of the property, wrapped on three sides by the Etowah River. Guests of the private property can enjoy hiking, biking, float trips, and a wood-fired hot tub, among other activities. Three cottages are located on the property and can be reserved through AirBNB. There’s also a wedding venue and a hunt club located at Kingston Downs.
The first race of the day opened with the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
At the middle school level, the Georgia Cycling Association places an emphasis on fun, fitness, skills, and good sportsmanship. I was impressed to find that groups of riders greeted me and called out “walker up” as they approached on the trail. Many parts of the pit area were designated bike-walk zones, and to my surprise, all the students seemed happy to follow the rules.
Summer may be on the way out, but high school mountain bike season is just getting started. The venue was a hive of activity, buzzing with excitement for the sport, with an energy level I’ve seldom experienced at regional mountain bike races.
A portable pump track and mini skills area gave students a chance to burn off nervous energy and have some fun while waiting for their races.
Teams from around the state of Georgia set up tents in the pit area with chairs, snacks, and fans to keep cool through the heat of the day. Dedicated coaches and parents are there to support the student athletes, keeping track of start times and making sure everyone is fueled and ready before their race. A student-to-volunteer ratio of four-to-one is generally required for practices and events, though in reality it’s closer to two-to-one. Parental involvement — and stoke — appears to be high for the teams.
One coach mentioned that his team counted five athletes two years ago, growing to 20 last year amid the pandemic. With many students and parents avoiding contact sports last fall, and again this year, mountain bike racing is seen as a safer alternative. For the 2021 season, that same team has grown to 38 middle and high schoolers, which brings its own organizational challenges.
This is the first year the Georgia Cycling Association is operating independently after a split from NICA earlier this year. The parents and coaches I spoke with report the transition has been mostly seamless thus far. In 2020, the Association reported 1,050 student athletes, and this year the group is expecting to serve close to 1,200 participants.
It takes a lot of gear and specialized equipment to pull off a massive event like the Georgia Cycling Association season opener. Before heading up the Association, Executive Director Kenny Griffin was a mountain bike event promotor, putting on some of the most popular races in the region. It’s clear that experience pays off on race days, and this one appeared to run as smoothly as a freshly lubed electronic drivetrain.
It’s hard to imagine a better venue for scholastic mountain bike racing than Kingston Downs. Families made a weekend out of the races, with on-site camping, food trucks, and plenty of space to spread out for picnic lunches.
Updated to correct the number of student athletes in 2020 and 2021.