Nine Tehachapi teens prepared to race their biggest and most competitive race of the season, the NICA State Championships, on May 19 and 20.
The NICA league produces some of the country's top professional athletes. After graduating, many move on to race in the pro circuit. Kids have been known to travel from around the world to compete in the California league, knowing these are the fastest and the ones to ride with if they want to be the best.
The race was held in Petaluma, just 37 miles north of San Francisco. The town sits in the Sonoma Valley. Its rolling hills, rich black soil and cool weather have made it the mecca of California wineries. The bike course rolled through the hills and was described as a non-technical trail. It was long and bumpy with heavy climbs through grass fields.
This year our youngest, rider Kira Pankow, competed in the State Championship. Kira finished 18th overall in Southern California. At states, she finished 32nd out of 53 freshmen.
Sophia Schaeffer held 2nd place overall in the Southern California league. This weekend as she raced against the top Northern California girls, she overcame some obstacles and pushed on to finish as one of California’s top sophomore riders.
“There was nothing technical or fast, just long and bumpy. It was washed out and I was warned not to use the berms,” she said.
“At the beginning of the race, I passed a girl from the NorCal league before a turn and was a little bit ahead. I decided to take the higher track, because it wasn’t as sandy," Schaeffer said. "The girl caught up and never said she was on my right, and she ran into me, tipping me sideways. It was in the very beginning. Girls started passing me, and you feel like you just want to give up, but I decided not to.”
When Schaeffer fell she saw at least five girls pass her, including the NorCal girl who caused her to fall. Eventually she made her move and regained her position back up front. The NorCal rider stayed closely on her tail during the second lap, but never passed Schaeffer. She finished the race in 4th place, earning her a spot on the State Champion podium.
Freshman Josiah Hopkins held 4th place overall in Southern California. He described this weekend's course as “rough, hard and bumpy with slipper sharp corners.” Because of his overall points, Hopkins was placed up front in the 14 position at the start line.
As the countdown from 5 to 1 was announced, more than 80 riders pushed to make their position in the pack. Hopkins moved himself up to the front line riding alongside the leaders jerseys. Wearing a leaders jersey means you hold the highest points of the season, you are the fastest and you are the ones to beat if you want to be at the top of the podium.
Hopkins kept his position until he hit a soft corner and crashed. He recovered quickly only to have another crash. While down, riders continued to pass him, but in the second lap he was able to catch up and cross the finish in 13th place.
JV rider Faith Hopkins earned her way to the state championship as she had always placed in the top percent. Like others expressed, this was not her favorite course. She raced over 13 miles of mostly uphill on ungroomed and bouncy trails. On the first lap she felt good and passed numerous riders, but by the second lap of climbing, exhaustion took over.
“That was not a race of passing, it was a race of surviving,” Hopkins said. Still, Hopkins worked hard and finished 28th out of 68 riders.
Lou Smith finished 20th out of 82 sophomore boys.
“I started out in the middle of the pack. There were so many riders in the start that it was hard to pass and too many spectators on the side to pass," Smith said. "It was three laps, a total of 19.5 miles. The third lap was all mental. I was telling myself, 'OK, you can do this.' There was a lot of uphill and literally no break. I pretty much raced my own race. Each lap I passed a couple more kids.”
Also racing with Smith was Austin Garrett and Alex Gohr. Garrett finished the SoCal season in 10th overall, allowing him to compete at the states. This was his first three-lap race at 19.5 miles.
“It was a lot different than what I’m used to. I put much more thought into conserving myself,” Garrett said.
Alex Gohr had a shaky season but was happy to qualify for the State Championships. He was placed at the very last row out of 82 riders, but pushed his way to finish 33rd overall.
Ethan Tenderholt rode in with sophomore D1 and had a clean race.
“It went good. It was dusty and bumpy. I was not used to the course. I lined up in front and maintained my position the whole race,” Tenderholt said. He finished 25th out of 78.
This has been a great season for Madysen Rails. With two 1st place finishes and three top-tens, she has made a name for herself. Rails is 2nd overall in Southern California. Being a onetime state champion, she had been pushed up to ride side by side with California’s fastest and most reputable riders.
“Going into the race I knew I had tough competition, and these girls are all very fast," Rails said. "The course is not one I look forward to with all the bumps and there is no resting spot. The course is a little bit longer at 6.3 miles a lap. I knew I had to be towards the front on the start and started the single track in 3rd place. Overall the race went well, a few challenges, but I was able to push through and come away with an 8th place finish out of 38 girls.”
Evan Tenderholt, our graduating senior, has enjoyed the sport of racing mountain bikes for more than years. This was his last race in the NICA league. Over the years he has gained experience and improved his stamina. Last year Tenderholt placed 84th out of 90 riders at the state championships. This year Tenderholt came in 34th out of 81.
“I felt good, I pushed hard on the rough part," Tenderholt said. "It was super bumpy and kids would relax and I just attacked. I started in the middle, then went back to 60th and made my way forward. I was happy to finish.”
Being on the team has given him a love for riding. After he graduates he will spend his summer working with bikes at Action Sports and is hoping to also be a mountain biking guide and action photographer over the summer.
Tehachapi Warriors Mountain bike NICA season has come to a close. Team practices will resume in the fall. But that doesn’t mean you won’t see these kids out on their bikes or racing in other series. This sport has given them a love for cycling and for many families, a new way to spend their time together as they load up their bikes and hit the mountains this summer.
The kids are grateful for their sponsors, parents and coaches who make it all possible. A huge thank you from the Warriors.
April Wood is a parent with the team.