DURANGO – A small high school mountain bike team from the southwest corner of Colorado had a big result Sunday at the state championships.
Thorin Howell, a sophomore home-schooled student from Cortez, raced to third place at the Colorado High School Cycling League sophomore boys state title race at Durango Mesa Park.
“It was a challenge,” Howell said. “There was good competition out there. I had more nerves, and this was definitely bigger with more on the line than any other race, but I just went out and had fun.”
Fun is the name of the game in the Colorado League, a division of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association that has boomed in popularity in the last 10 years.
A total of 822 high school mountain bikers made the trip to Durango out of the 1,383 athletes who participated in the regular season. That number was up from 1,262 a year ago.
The league offers boys and girls races in divisions for freshmen, sophomores, junior varsity and varsity riders. The 822 state qualifiers from 67 schools were an all-time high for the league.
Last year, 620 kids participated at the state championships, up from 561 in 2016. What started as a league in Northern California has now become a national sensation that has produced some of the top young mountain bikers in the United States, including 2018 world champion Kate Courtney, a 22-year-old from San Francisco who got her cycling start through NICA.
During the weekend, the young mountain bikers conquered a 7.1-mile loop built on private land on Durango Mesa. Race length and the amount of laps depended on the category in which the racers competed.
Howell went into Sunday as the south conference champion. At the previous four races during the regular season, he had three wins, and he finished fifth at the conference championship race in Eagle to secure the points series victory.
Sunday, Howell completed two laps in 55 minutes, 59.78 seconds to place third. Peyton Wilkerson of Estes Park was first in 55:11.66, and Zach Footer of Evergreen was second in 55:42.22.
Of the High Desert Composite team’s six riders during the 2018 season, five qualified for state. Will Brown, a junior, finished 141st in the three-lap junior varsity boys race, and junior Gabe Frizzel finished 156th. Also in the sophomore boys race, Trenton Bagge finished 111th. In the freshman boys race, Nick Kamper was 129th.
In high school races, every finisher helps their team score points. High Desert Composite competed in Division 3 and finished 19th out off 33 schools.
“Thorin has inspired the rest of the team a lot,” said High Desert Devo boys head coach Mike Schmidt. “When we first started, everyone had these big enduro bikes. Thorin was the first guy on a hard tail. Everyone saw how successful he was. He rode his bike a lot more and inspired the other kids a lot.”
High Desert had one girl on the high school team this year, as Lacey Robison competed in one junior varsity girls race. A broken nose kept her out of the rest of the season. Sabina Kraushaar, the team director, said her goal is to get more girls out next year.
“We want more girls to race,” she said. “We’re hoping more show up. We have some middle school girls coming up, but that’s my big push.”
Right now, High Desert Devo has 14 middle school riders on the team – 12 boys and two girls. The team accommodates riders of all abilities. Robison had never ridden a mountain bike when she joined the team, and they helped her get a bike.
The team is run by eight volunteer board members who help raise money to support the team. The Colorado League comes with long travel weekends, but Durango’s state championships were a welcome relief to the road warriors.
“Our parents do a lot to get their kids to the races,” Schmidt said. “Our coaches are great, and Chase Wesley went to every race with the team this year. It’s hard, but it’s so worth it.”
Howell is already looking forward to moving up a classification in next year’s high school league, and he will be eager to race for another podium finish when Durango hosts state in 2019.
“It’s going to be super fun,” he said. “I’m going to train more and try to do better next year. Our team, we’re super small, and we’ve grown super close. It’s a pretty sweet thing to be part of.”