By JD McCarthy
for the Opelika Observer
Students at Auburn High School can take the traditional route and play football or basketball, but they also have the opportunity to compete in a sport not many schools have: mountain biking.
Auburn, and several other Alabama high schools, formed the Alabama Interscholastic Cycling League in 2015 to provide mountain biking programs for students in grades 6 to 12.
The team, which consists of about 50 riders, is open to students of any experience level.
“We’ve had individuals who have never ridden a bike before to people who are good mountain bike riders and everywhere between,” said the Director of the Auburn High School Mountain Bike Team Brian Prowell.
He is also a coach for the Lee County Composite team, which is for students who do not attend Auburn but still wish to compete.
“Some have good fitness and no skill, some have good skill and no fitness, and some are a combination of both,” he said.
The most important skill when competing in a race is the ability to turn well, Prowell explained, due to the frequent twisting and turning of the trails.
Other skills include the ability to ride over obstacles such as roots and rocks, maintaining your balance and the ability to know when to speed up and when to slow down.
And while students may come in with different levels of skill, they tend to leave as champions.
Since competing in 2015, the Auburn team has won two state championships (2016 and 2018) and has finished second in the other three.
They were on their way to winning a third before COVID-19 caused the 2020 season to grind to a halt. This has the team eagerly awaiting the start of the 2021 season.
“We are expected to have a full race season,” Prowell said. “Particularly with it being outdoors and once they get out on the trail and are spread out its relatively safe.”
The season, which consists of five races and a time trial, will start on Feb. 20-21, with the time trail at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.
One of the biggest advantages Auburn has for mountain biking is Chewacla State Park, which is not only a site of one of the races but also has 20 trails that provide a challenge for riders of every skill level.
“It’s close to most everyone on the team to come and ride and it gives us a really diverse range of trails to practice on,” Prowell said.
It also provides a way to keep mountain biking fun by changing up the trails they ride and connecting them to make each ride seem like a new experience even if they rode that trail the week before.
The skills can be practiced on actual trails, but they can also be simulated to provide a safer learning experience. That is why the team meets at Duck Samford Park twice a week. This allows them to set up cones, so riders can practice making turns at speed and if they lose control, they hit a cone and not a tree.
While races are open to grades 6 through 12, only the results from the high schoolers count toward the team score. There are also individual awards given for freshman, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity boys and girls. The results are scored similarly to cross country, with first-place varsity being the most and fewer points awarded for freshman finishes.
Despite planning for a full season, they have several contingency plans in case of any potential outbreaks, and Prowell believes they will be able to play the full season, one way or another.
“It should be an interesting year,” he said.