Not every school kid wants to play football, even in Texas.
With the creation of the Texas High School Mountain Bike Racing League, budding athletes will soon be able to look beyond traditional offerings like basketball, baseball and volleyball to a scrappy sport that sends them careening down dirt trails and tearing over roots and rocks.
Last week, the California-based National Interscholastic Cycling Association announced it was adding leagues in Texas, Washington state and Minnesota.
The Texas league will be open to ninth- through 12-graders at public and private schools, as well as home-schooled children. Kids without teams can race as independents.
A coach's training clinic will take place October 2011, and student athletes will start training shortly after that. League competition will begin in February 2012, with the first state championships in May 2012.
Texas league organizers say students who don't have bikes will be provided with a donated one.
"This is not a rich-kid-only program," says Vance McMurry, founding chairman of the Texas league and a senior vice president at Renew Data, a legal services company. "You don't even have to know how to ride a bike. You learn as you go."
Scholarships will be available for students who can't afford the estimated $600 per year the program will cost per child for uniforms and registration fees.
The national league started 10 years ago at Berkeley High School in Northern California, and quickly expanded to 70 teams, according to Matt Fritzinger, director of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. A second league launched in Southern California two years ago, and this month, a Colorado league staged its first races. The association hopes to have leagues in 10 states by 2015, and teams coast to coast by 2020.
In Texas, mountain bike racing won't be a University Interscholastic League recognized sport, but students in the Austin school district can earn physical education credit by participating, says Michele Rusnak, physical education coordinator for the district.
The district won't provide transportation and parents must pay any costs for the program. "We're looking for activities like this that will provide a lifetime of fitness," Rusnak says. "Anything we can bring in for our kids that they'll get hooked on and stay hooked, we're going above and beyond."
Mountain biking will be offered as part of the district's off-campus PE program, and will meet Texas Education Agency criteria. The off-campus program allows students who are intensively training in a sport to get school credit. Programs are approved on a case-by-case basis.
Organizers say they expect about 200 riders in the first year.
"It's a way for kids to be physically active in something they absolutely love, but they're still getting PE credit," Rusnak says.
The new league will give students who otherwise wouldn't have it access to the sport of bike racing, says Fritzinger, from the national association. "It provides good coaching, mentorship, someone to show you the ropes and events designed specifically for kids," he says.
More than 2,000 California students have participated since the league's inception. About 80 percent are boys.
"We have teams with as many as 50 riders," Fritzinger says. "In some schools it's bigger than their football teams, and includes all the regalia that goes with high school sports — wearing team jerseys to school, face paint and mascots."
A typical season includes four or five races, including a state championship. Racers compete in freshman, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity categories, and earn points as individuals and teams.
Grant Sides, 15, a sophomore at the private Khabele School in Austin, can't wait to get started.
"I'm not a big soccer fan, and that's really the only sport we offer at such a small school," he says. "For me, I love being outdoors. Some people may love volleyball and playing in a gym, but that's just not my cup of tea."
Sides prefers the nonstop assault of rocks and roots that mountain biking offers. He's been cycling since he was 8 and started mountain biking last year. He's also helping to start a commuter bicycling club at his school and hopes to spark some interest in mountain bike racing among his classmates.
McMurry, who spearheaded the effort to bring the league to Texas, is a former ultra runner who got into mountain biking three years ago. Cycling, he says, gives kids who might not otherwise get involved in student athletics a new option.
"There's a sense of individuality and self support you have to have to ride a mountain bike. You have to know how to change a flat and fix what's busted in order to finish a race," McMurry says. "Being able to overcome extremely difficult situations is such a confidence booster."
Sponsoring bike shops will help support the league through discounts and donations, McMurry says. Team fundraisers will raise money to provide scholarships. Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop will serve as a donation center for gear and parts.
"We think that bringing cycling into high schools will elevate the sport in general," says Erin O'Neill, promotions manager for Mellow Johnny's. "We're hoping it will help other people to live a healthier lifestyle as well. It's a sport you can carry on your whole life with your entire family."
Races will be staged around the state at camping-friendly locations to keep costs down, McMurry says. Organizers hope to have a tentative race schedule by the end of this year.
A party to celebrate the launch of the Texas High School Mountain Bike Racing League is scheduled for 7-10 p.m. Oct. 29 at Mellow Johnny's, 400 Nueces St. For more information about the Texas High School Mountain Bike Racing League, go to www.texasmtb.org or join the Facebook group http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=124464680897929 .