When one thinks of high school sports, cross-country mountain biking isn't something that comes to mind. Jason Lucas is working to change that with the formation of the East End Trail Blazers (EETB) - a youth, cross-country mountain biking team that was founded in December 2017. With the support of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), EETB was created to give students the opportunity to partake in a sport that's typically not offered by schools.
Almost two dozen states have student cycling leagues with NICA, with New York joining the ranks in 2013. "There wasn't a team this far east in Long Island and we wanted to put together a team to give student athletes an alternative to some of the more traditional spots that would be offered by their schools," explains Jason Lucas, the Team Director.
Since its creation in December, nine students have signed up to be a part of EETB, and Lucas hopes to grow the group to at least 15 students in the first year. Having grown up in East Hampton, Lucas finds it particularly important to create this outlet for other students to explore a sport that is not as familiar or accessible.
"For me, I own a bike shop and I know what cycling has done for me and I have seen what cycling has done for other people whether it be their physical health or even their mental health," says Lucas. "I always joke around that riding my bike is sort of like my therapy sessions. I'm out there, nobody can really get to me even if my cell phone rings I can't really hear it. Football is great, lacrosse is great, but not many people play football into their adult lives. With cycling, we have people who participate in our group ride who are in their seventies. It's a sport for life."
The team includes a coach from Columbia, Andres, who moved to the United States at 15-years-old. Like Lucas, he found that there was a lack of teams/organizations on the East End for youth interested in cycling. A majority of the students who have signed up so far come from East Hampton and Sag Harbor school districts, though Lucas hopes to expand the team to include students from many other districts.
"NICA does a really good job of making sure that the teams are inclusive. They encourage participation of girls so much so that the scoring is skewed so that you can't score a full number of points unless you have a girl on your team," Lucas explains.
He described the national organization as a primarily youth development program, with cycling serving as the "vessel" for students to explore their passions, cultivate a respect for the environment, learn values such as teamwork, leadership, exercise, and earn college scholarships. Students can be a part of the team, but are not pressured to race if they don't want to; it's a "challenge by choice" Lucas said. They can participate in many other ways, such as photographing teammates on race days or helping the community through trail clean up and maintenance - an activity Lucas is currently planning with local preservation societies.
"Everybody gets to participate. Unlike team sports where you may have a starting line up and reserves on a bench, no one sits on a bench; every student that wants to be a part of the team gets to participate," says Lucas.
He created a fundraising page to raise funds for equipment such as helmets, jerseys, loaner bikes, repair tools and parts, and travel expenses (among other budget needs). Through donations and sponsorships, EETB hopes to make this sport accessible to all students - regardless of their ability to pay for cycling equipment. Additionally, EETB team members have been selling raffle tickets for prizes donated by the Sag Harbor Cycle Company. A full list of budget needs can be found on the team's fundraising page.
The first race for the 2018 season is scheduled for early April and will be held on Long Island. Lucas and the EETB will be taking part, and he hopes that this is just the beginning of something that continue for many years to come.
"Once we get through that first race, it will really feel like it's official - that we're finally there," says Lucas.
NICA is a not-for-profit organization founded in 2009. It works with local programs like EETB to help develop mountain biking programs for students nationally.
For more information about EETB, to donate, or to learn more about the mission of NICA, please visit gofundme.com and newyorkmtb.org.