Vail Lake once again hosted the NICA, SoCal League’s mountain bike race, the weekend of March 30 and 31.

Thirty-six riders of Tehachapi’s mountain bike team went to compete against 950 other Southern California riders. They brought home three fourth-place medals and had many top finishers.

Saturday kicked off the race weekend with the middle school riders. While the course was lined with spring flowers, the loose dirt, occasional snakes and temperatures in the high 80s were signs of a nearing summer. Sunblock, water and electrolytes were a common part of the day’s vocabulary.

Our top 12 middle school finishers were, eighth-grader Amanda Edwards stood on the podium in fourth place; seventh-grader Ryan Saltzman stood for his first time on the podium in fourth place; and new to top 10 was eighth-grader Nolan Wood, who finished in eighth place.

On Sunday, Tehachapi’s high school riders faced the infamous Marine Corps hill, known for its steep and choppy climb. Marine Corps shows no mercy for the timid. Only the top riders can boast that they have completed its climb on two wheels. Our high school students took on every part with confidence.

In high school, finishing top 12 gives them an opportunity to compete at the state championships in May. They will race against the top riders in Northern California to have the title of state champion.

The top 12 high school finishers this weekend were junior varsity rider Ryan Bishop standing on the podium in fourth place; junior varsity level 2 Josiah Hopkins finishing in 10th; and Caleb Owens finishing in eighth place. Junior varsity girls Sophia Schaeffer finished in eighth and Gracie Knowlton finished 10th.

Climbing positions in this sport is not easy, yet every rider has shown improvement. As each race passes, one goes home thinking how they can be better and faster. While they are applying more miles and skills to their routine, so are hundreds of other competitors, only to stand once again shoulder to shoulder at the start line with new strategies, more skills and a little more confidence.

As one places closer to the podium, which is first through fifth place or in the top 12, the competition is tighter. They are the fastest in the pack and the hardest to beat.

JV rider Caleb Owens shared his strategy on climbing five top places this weekend.

“I rode more. I rode 265 miles of mostly dirt," Owens said. "I worked on intervals and did a four-day training block which was really difficult. It is where you train four days consecutively as opposed to taking breaks on rest days. In some people’s opinion, it’s too much, it may have been, but I was feeling good. The third day, I took it mellow, but the fourth day, I was hammering it.”

The extra work paid off as Owens finished 19th his first race, 13th his second race and this weekend tore across the line in eighth place.

Middle school rider Nolan Wood, who finished 12th out of 40 in the first two races, went head to head with the same top 12 riders this weekend. Wood moved up six positions, putting him in sixth place with a nice gap behind him. As he was going down the last hill toward the finish line, his chain derailed, two riders passed him and he came across the line in eighth place. Even after getting off of his bike and fixing his chain, Wood improved his time by more than two minutes from the last race.

He said, “I paced myself this time. The last race, I gave it all at the beginning, then wore myself out and they started passing me. During practice, I’m trying to keep up with the better riders, and I just ride more, but I think pacing is what helped me this race.”

Middle school rider Ryan Saltzman got his first taste of the podium this week as he finished in fourth place. Setting a tangible goal, Saltzman said, “My goal was third. I was just one second behind third.”

Placing 10th on his first race, he moved up six top positions to fourth place. Saltzman is known for pushing himself on the mountain to improve. Because it was his first year of racing, he was started with the middle school beginners. But his hard work and drive improved his speed and seventh-grader Saltzman now rides with a section of high school students.

Mountain bike racing is a rewarding sport that can be embraced and enjoyed at any level. Each rider sets their own goals. Often, they exceed their expectations. Some are new and the goal is to complete the course and when they do, it is just as celebrated as a spot on the podium.

Tehachapi’s students train and ride together three days a week for 2½ to 3 hours at a time. Every rider and their coaches can see the strength and improvement in the riders as the season progresses.

If you’d like to come out and watch the races, but don’t want to travel too far, now is your chance. The next race of the season will be in Kernville at the Keysville camp section on April 27 and 28.

The following races will be held here in Tehachapi on May 11 and 12 for the SoCal finals and May 18 and 19, for the first time ever, the California State championships will be held here in our own backyard at the Lehigh trails. For more information on finishing places, race dates and times, visit SoCaldirt.org.

April Wood is a parent and coach with the team.