ST. GEORGE — Huge crowds poured into the Desert Canyons area in south St. George at the Utah High School Cycling League’s mountain biking state championship.
For the second consecutive year, the pit area of team camps, tents and bikes was vibrating with activity early Saturday morning. The two-day event brings in an estimated 2,500 participants from around the state of Utah.
The mountain biking trails, accessed via Desert Canyons Parkway, off state route 7, was the scene of cars parked in organized rows among sectioned-off grids representing new streets and pending development in the area.
While mountain biking is not an officially sanctioned sport in Utah, clubs are formed at many high schools. Teams compete in a number of rides throughout the fall, with races in varsity, junior varsity and freshmen divisions.
Participants at the event, from organizers to coaches to athletes, told St. George News that the popularity of mountain biking is surging at the local, state and national levels.
With so many bike trails in a state where biking is available year round, it is easy to see why the sport is growing quickly in Utah.
But there’s more to the sport than just being on a bike.
“It’s a place where kids come and they belong. They feel like they belong,” Desert Hills coach Erin Johnson said. “Kids come to practice or they come to a race with the cares of the world on their shoulders. And they get on their bike and just pedal that away.”
“There is so much joy. They’re finding joy, they’re finding belonging, they’re finding a meaningful challenge,” she added.
Johnson said Desert Hills had 143 team members this year, from junior divisions in seventh and eighth grades to the high school team. She added that some compete hard and want to get on podiums, while others just want to be with their friends and ride bikes and have fun.
“There’s a place for everybody here,” Johnson said.
Desert Hills sophomore Jackson Keith rode with the Thunder, his second season on the bike team.
“I love being able to practice with my friends, and I love racing and competing with other people,” Keith said. “Everyone shows really good sportsmanship and they’re all kind to each other and supportive.”
Keith said the most nerve-wracking part of racing is that moment right before the race starts, when he’s got one foot on the pedal and one foot on the ground, and he’s waiting for a moment that takes forever to arrive.
“You’re just sitting there, thinking about everything that could go right, and everything that can go wrong, and hoping that everything’s gonna go right,” he said.
Crimson Cliffs coach Chris Tidwell said the Mustangs had 130 riders on the team this year and 27 of them qualified for the state race. That’s after the program started in 2018 at the middle school level with 30 kids.
Tidwell said it doesn’t matter if the rider is an elite-level competitor or a first-timer. Everyone gets to participate.
“Nobody sits,” Tidwell said. “Everybody plays.”
Hurricane sophomore Isaac Lebaron is familiar with the Desert Canyons course. He won the freshmen boys race there last year.
“Knowing the course helps a lot,” Lebaron said Saturday as he prepared for the junior varsity boys “A” race. He said he’s had a good year with a couple of podium placements but he has yet to win a race in the much more competitive “JVA” division.
The Flying Tigers had about 70 riders this year, Lebaron estimated, about 10 more than they had last year.
And over at the Pine View tent, assistant coaches reported that the Panthers had between 60 and 70 riders on the team.
The Desert Canyons course is rated as one of the toughest and most difficult on the high school schedule. Riders complete two laps of the 7.3-mile circuit, climbing 600 feet per lap.
The course gets even tougher under drought conditions because it dries up and turns into soft sand in a couple of spots. And the conditions Saturday were not the best, especially as a strong wind picked up around 2 p.m. when the varsity racers were scheduled to hit the course.
Complete results of the mountain bike state races are at this website.
Tritle family makes memories
Dixie sophomore Lily Tritle won the junior varsity girls A race, completing her two-loop ride in one hour, four minutes, 4.73 seconds.
“I’ve been on this course so many times the past few weeks,” a breathless Tritle told St. George News at the finish line. “It was drilled into my head.”
Familiarity with the route gave her a little home field advantage, for sure, she said.
“The downhills were really fast if you know the right lines,” Tritle said. “It was pretty epic.”
Waiting to greet her and congratulate her was her brother, Andrew Tritle. Andrew moved on to the Fort Lewis (Durango, Colorado) college mountain biking team after last year winning the varsity boys state race while at Dixie.
“The growth at Dixie has been amazing, even if we’re one of the smaller teams,” Andrew said. “It’s the most supportive environment.”
“We have some supportive, powerful female coaches,” Lily added. “We want to inspire more girls to get on the bike.”
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