His fist held high in the air in triumph, the high school freshman pedaled his mountain bike across the finish line.
“I made the last lap! I made the last lap!” he shouted to his mother, who was among those cheering him on at the New Jersey Interscholastic Cycling League’s annual races.
Although he finished the race in last place, it was quite an accomplishment because it was the first cycling competition he had ever completed despite numerous previous attempts.
“He was bubbling with excitement,” says Ken Seebeck, the league director of the New Jersey program. “To me, he was the winner that day.”
The race-rider is one of some 700 students in the state — including 40 on the Somerset Hills VeloRaptors team that debuted in 2017 — who are enrolled in the seven-and-a-half-month-long program whose declared mission is to “build strong minds, bodies, character and communities through cycling.”
“Seeing kids out there having fun, making new friends, becoming part of something that may stick with them for a lifetime is an incredibly rewarding payoff,” says Dominique Verlaan, team director and Level 3 coach for the Somerset Hills VeloRaptors, whose two sons are in the program.
The New Jersey Interscholastic Cycling League participants, who are ages 10 to 19 in grades six through 12, ride together several times a week from mid-October to mid-June to train for the voluntary-participation end-of-season races, which culminate in the presenting of various medals and awards.
“Our program is youth development through cycling,” Seebeck says. “But the goals of each student, from building fitness to riding with friends, vary. Cycling is a wonderful opportunity to join a team-based sport, especially for those who aren’t participating in any others.”
At New Jersey Interscholastic Cycling League, he adds, everyone, like the high school freshman who finished last, is a winner.
“There are no cuts, no tryouts, and nobody is benched,” Seebeck says. “Everyone makes the team. We’re not primarily developing elite athletes, although some have started with our program — notably Kate Courtney from the Northern California League, who was the 2018 XC World Champion — have gone on to be professionals.”
Enrollment in the nonprofit program, which was established in California in 2001, is $300, plus the cost of a mountain bike, which starts at $500 to $600.
“We have a robust scholarship program,” Seebeck says, adding that they have never turned any student down and they also have a mountain bike loaner program.
Participants, who are invited to join a team, register through a software portal; each team sets its own schedules and riding locations.
“Nine out of 10 of our student-athletes have never raced before, and some have not ridden a mountain bike,” he says. “And many of them have never played team sports.”
Seebeck, who took over as league director in 2017 when the New Jersey program started, typically rides (in a car, not on a mountain bike) some 15,000 miles a year around the state for the league.
“I was an avid cyclist before I took this job,” he says. “It really resonated with me because cycling changed my life and the life of my family.”
His youngest son, who has been in the program since the sixth grade and is now a 14-year-old high school freshman, is pedaling in Seebeck’s footsteps.
“He really took to the sport,” Seebeck says. “Most of his interactions with friends before he joined were online due to the pandemic. He shows drive and determination now; it’s his primary sport.”
Noting that the New Jersey Interscholastic Cycling League is “up and coming,” Seebeck says the goal is to expand it to include every school in the state.
“It’s not as popular as baseball, basketball or football,” he says. “But we’re getting there.”
Seebeck hopes that the high school freshman racer who felt his first taste of victory when he came in last becomes a lifetime rider.
“That’s what we’re all about,” he says.
Find out more about the league at newjerseymtb.org or email Ken Seebeck at email@example.com.