Digging the ride

High school cycling comes to Camas and Washougal

For more information, go to www.washingtonmtb.org/

To find out how you can help the Clark County Mud Slingers, call Camas Bike & Sport at 210-5160.

For more information, go to www.washingtonmtb.org/

To find out how you can help the Clark County Mud Slingers, call Camas Bike & Sport at 210-5160.

The beauty of Camas and Washougal is best seen from the seat of a bicycle.

Peddling on roads, sidewalks and trails with the wind blowing through your hair is the definition of freedom.

You can go as fast or as slow as you want to. It doesn’t matter where those wheels take you, as long as you’re outdoors with friends and family.

This is the mission of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which strives to provide and govern high school mountain biking leagues throughout the United States.

When Washington became the third state in the nation to join the NICA, Ed Fischer, owner of Camas Bike & Sport, did not want the Columbia River Gorge to be left out of the landscape.

“You find these callings, and that’s why I’m in this business,” he said. “I feel like the torch has been passed to me to make this a successful program for racing in the state. It’s such a great way for kids to stay active in a place that has beautiful scenery.”

The downtown Camas bike shop is the base camp for the Clark County Mud Slingers, a team of nine riders from Camas, Washougal and Union high schools, and eight coaches, ride leaders and volunteers.

Riders Michael Roberts, Rachel Trautman, Zach Vergillo and Billy Warning are representing Camas. Corey Craig, Hannah Hart and Sharon Hart are cycling out of Washougal. Alex Visser and Michael Williams of Union round out the team.

Dave Webb is the head coach. Ed and Katina Fischer, and Sean Vergillo are the assistant coaches. Brian Hart, Scott Troutman and Bill Waring are the ride leaders. Brian Peterson is a volunteer.

“My son and the other kids on the team are getting into the sport of cycling. When I went to Camas High School, I wish I had this kind of an opportunity,” Waring said. “Not everybody is a baseball player or a football player. This gives kids who enjoy the ride an opportunity.”

The Mud Slingers are anxious to be a part of the first Washington High School Cycling League race, which is scheduled for Sunday, April 3, at Fort Stelacoom Park in Lakewood.

“This is our first event of ever doing this. It’s exciting to be at the first step of it at the grass roots level,” Waring said. “After this first race, we get to see how we compare with the other teams and build our strategy off of that.”

In the meantime, the Mud Slingers train together at the shop on Mondays and Wednesdays and go for rides on the weekends. As a coach, Katina Fischer said her goal is to give each kid a positive experience no matter what level they are at.

“We encourage beginners and riders of every skill level,” she said. “You don’t have to be the best racer in the world, you just have to be willing to try.”

Fischer and the other coaches have been riding bikes for years. They love the diversity of the terrain. From wide open roads secluded by trees for beginners, to forest and mountain trails for those who want to get serious.

“It’s fun for me to work in a community with kids, and give back a little,” Waring said. “Even though I’m 45, I watch these kids ride and I learn from them as well.”

The NICA was built by passionate riders just like the Mud Slingers. It all started in 1998, when Matt Fritzner, a teacher in Berkley, Calif., posted a note on a Berkley High School bulletin board inviting students to join a bicycling club.

He organized weekly rides after school and started to believe a school team could succeed, but it needed competition to thrive. So in 2001, Fritzner founded the NorCal High School Mountain Bike Racing Series.

In the first year of the series, riders from all over Northern California came to compete as semi-organized high school teams. Over time, the popularity of NorCal league led expansion to Southern California in 2008 and Colorado in 2010.

NorCal generated more than 600 riders in 2010, and SoCal and Colorado each had 200 or more. With leagues opening in Washington, Texas and Minnesota over the next two years, Ed Fischer said NICA’s vision is to have nationwide exposure by 2020.

“It would be great to have leagues from Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona so we could have some sort of regional competition. Eventually, you want to have nationals,” he said. “We want to build more teams in Southwest Washington to warrant having a race down here.”

Fischer is “jazzed” by the group of kids slinging mud in Camas and Washougal. He would love to see the number of high school riders in Clark County double and triple in the years to come, and for the local school districts to get involved.

“There’s tons of things for us to do to build a program, and we need help,” Fischer said. “We don’t want financial burdens to turn people away. We want everybody to feel like they can join.”

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