Monday March 31st, 2014

They are polite, humble and hardworking, yet on a recent afternoon some members of the Drake High mountain biking team sounded just a tad spoiled. Morning rain had given way to partly sunny skies and now, as they mustered at Deer Park in Marin County, Calif., the Pirates were deciding on a route for their training ride.

“Who is interested in Tamarancho?” asked Sarah Starbird, the team’s head coach, referring to a whoop-inducing single-track loop undulating through redwoods and evergreens at a nearby Boy Scout camp. Half the riders raised their hands.

“It seems like we’ve been riding Tamarancho a lot,” noted an underclassmen, in a tone that came suspiciously close to … whining.

The Solstice trail, a single-track alternative, was suggested. Fire road climbs like Eldridge and Loma Alta had their advocates. With this buffet of options here in the birthplace of mountain biking, the Pirates can’t really go wrong. Three races into the 2014 season, they are dominating. Again. They’ve been California state champs four of the last five years. In the end, Starbird let her charges choose their own ride. “Stick together, modify [the ride] if you have to, and have a good time!”

Coach Starbird, here with rider Ella Marrero, keeps the Pirates fired-up and on (single) track.
Tom McCarty

These are good times not just for Drake, but also for high school mountain biking, which took root in California more than a decade ago and, like sushi and smoking bans, has spread inexorably east. Matt Fritzinger was a math teacher at Berkeley High in 1998 when he decided to start a road biking team at the school. But the four kids who showed up for the first meeting were mountain bikers. By 2001, Fritzinger had formed the first high school mountain biking race series. Sixty students competed that year, roughly a hundred the next. By 2009, the NorCal League had midwifed the SoCal League. Fritzinger has since founded of the National Interscholastic Cycling League, comprised of more than 300 high school teams in 10 states. A few days before I visited the Pirates, they’d hosted a small contingent from Georgia, the newest NICA member. The chief fact finder from the Peach State didn’t spend much time riding with the Pirates—they dropped him early on the day’s first climb.

No shame in that. I had a similarly humbling experience the first time I joined a Drake training session, redlining my engine to stay with the junior varsity. Women.

Despite the low-key vibe on practice rides, “this can be harder than a normal varsity sport,” says Allie Stanley, a Drake junior who is one of the team captains. “The riders at the top are insanely good.”

And Drake has more than its share of them. Unlike in more traditional sports, each Pirate chooses and tailors his or her level of commitment, rather than having it imposed on them. The result is a team equally welcoming to elite and ordinary athletes.

After tasting success, however, riders tend to set their sights higher. “We have people who started the season with very little experience on the bike,” says freshman Liam Jay, “and now they’re totally avid mountain bikers.”

Drake’s stout camaraderie is on vivid display at races, where the Pirates cheer on each other … and their competitors, for good measure. “Everyone’s working so hard,” says Stanley, “they all deserve it.”

On race morning, the Drake trailer is one of the first vehicles to arrive at the venue.  Out come pop-up tents, tables, the mechanics stands. “We get the coffee going as soon as possible,” says Starbird, who marvels at the “over-the-top” level of volunteerism of the team parents, who have more fun, it is suspected, than the riders themselves.

One of the three mechanics wrenching for the team is Joe Breeze, a legendary frame builder and mountain biking pioneer whose Breezer #1, the first purpose-built “mountain bike,” now sits in the Smithsonian. Like Starbird’s fellow head coach, Otis Guy, Breeze is in the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame.

Jay, the freshman, lives in Fairfax near the bottom of the “Repack” trail, scene of some of the earliest mountain bike races. Back in the ’70s, Breeze, Guy, Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly and a various other pioneering wingnuts would pilot balloon-tired clunker bikes down this twisting, off-camber track that dropped 1,300 vertical feet in two miles, during which descent the grease in the hub of their coaster brakes inevitably evaporated. It would then have to be repacked, giving the trail its name.

Jay and his buddy, and fellow freshman, Sam Bruckner, now do training rides up Repack. (Just considering that climb makes me want to hurl).

By kicking butt in this sport, the Pirates—and Giants of nearby Redwood High, the defending state champs—are honoring their local heritage. While it’s truly impressive, their success is not exactly surprising, considering the trails and tradition they’ve inherited.

The question, famously shouted by another Bay Area sports figure, could just as easily be posed by the Pirates:

Who’s got it better than us?

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