by Cecilia LaFrance
“Hi, Craig.” Sherree Totten welcomes a teenager to the shade of a promotional tent. “Are you going to join the mountain biking team?” Her inquiry holds a combination of maternal welcome and endorsed suggestion. Rightly so, Totten’s volunteer task for the night is recruitment for East High School’s Mountain Bike Team (East MTB). And, most incoming students attending Freshmen Interest Night take notice the intramural sport’s other volunteers, members, and pop up booth outside Denver’s longest reigning high school. Despite the enthusiastic display, the majority of parents and teens pass by without stopping. Not to worry, the team only needs enough interest to keep momentum in the young high school sport.
Never mind East HS’s inner city distance from a mountain bike trail versus the convenience of nearby baseball, football, lacrosse or rugby fields. Look beyond the sport’s absence of spectator stands and cheer squads. Set aside the upfront equipment costs of a competition-worthy mountain bike and gear. This team’s specialty lies in overcoming obstacles.
Roll with the times
Mountain biking as a high school sport is national trend now, Totten says, with 26 states registering mountain bike league in the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. Mountain biking as part of high school athletics is a natural fit in Colorado. Add to the formula East HS’s status of Denver’s oldest high school, adapting and changing with its culture since inception. Among its traditional activities and sports, East hosts lesser known options like ultimate Frisbee, water polo, and a greenhouse club. And, since 2010, mountain biking.
“We are kind of known as the city team.” Totten says, her arms loosely crossed over fashionable casual wear made sporty by a pair of white converse shoes. The snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front Range to the west are blocked from sight by multi-story structures and some of the city’s oldest trees. Colfax congestion builds to the south of the school, while City Park to the north provides a respite of lawn to inner-city dwellers and some homeless napping in the shade.
The irony of city surroundings contrasting with the implied terrain of a mountain bike team isn’t lost on Totten. “We have to practice some place close.”Once a week, practice is held at neighboring City Park, maximum elevation gain of 65 feet if completing a full loop. Other nights, practice is a trip to Ruby Park via the Platte River trail. On the weekends, sometimes a full day travel affair, they head to the foothills. “There are ton of options, but not a lot of single track with technical options (nearby).”
In a state league competing with teams from the Flatirons of Boulder, heights and drops of Vail, and less congested trails around Steamboat, East has a handicap. “East isn’t one of the top teams, but our riders have so much heart and love for this sport.” Totten follows up with strategy to meet the challenge. “We do a lot of off season training to keep up.” Furthermore, they partner with the school’s ski and snowboarding club to condition and increase lung capacity.
When the club first started, classified in the league by team size, East MTB “killed it” in competition. Now, as a division I team, grouped among teams with 30+ members, Totten says East has been placing sixth out of six in their conference. “It’s tough to compete with the mountain teams, some of which have so many kids that they only allow riders dedicated to competitive mountain biking.” The scoring is complicated and lower rank in the top division doesn’t equate to last place.
The experience is the true win. Last year, 38 youths on the team supported each other, traveled to idyllic locations throughout the state, and were mentored by passionate and talented volunteer coaches, including Elevation Magazine’s 2017 Badass of the Year recipient, Chris Plesko. “Our goal is not to win, but to get more kids on bikes,” Totten says.
As one of 75 teams in the Colorado High School Cycling League, East MTB adheres to strict rules for practice, compliance, and competition. Yet, no one is turned down, tryouts aren’t required, and members don’t have to race. Also, East MTB serves as a composite team, welcoming members from other urban high schools who may not be able to support a team of their own.
Totten and her husband started volunteering with the team when their oldest son entered East three years ago. She recalls riding bikes with her son when younger, when the family first moved to Park Hill from a farm in Tennessee. “All these things I avoided (rocks, obstacles), he aimed for. As it turns out, it was just kind of his thing.” A self-professed cruiser bike type of person, complete with basket and bell, Totten son’s taste for the recreation sport hasn’t converted her. Instead, bringing talents from her profession–owner of an interior designer business–Totten supports the team as organizer of recruitment and communication.
Of course, she and her husband fund their sons’ expenses, too. Her oldest son, going into his senior year this fall, is on his second race bike. Her youngest is starting out with his first as he enters the team as a Freshman. “Honestly, we are conservative on the bike buying.” The range for suitable bikes falls from $2500 to $7000, she says. “It’s an investment.”
“I love it,” Totten leaves no hesitation in how she feels about her time investment. Mountain biking has no end date, she says, unlike football or other sports where only the best athletes get a shot after high school. “This is a lifelong sport.” Kids can go on to do amazing things and also have a stress reliever to keep them fit for the rest of their life, she says. Plus, “these kids get a lot more exercise than other sports.”
Totten welcomes another parent and potential recruit. East MTB club members call out incentives like peddlers at a fair behind her. Some toy with a bike brought as a prop. The pavement begs to be more than curb and concrete.