2015 / 2016 Claremont High School Mountain Bike Team: Interview with Jonathan Chang

The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), over the eight years of its existence, has shown a steady and sustained growth. Leagues are state based, thus there is a Colorado League, a Minnesota League, etc, although California is split into two entities, NorCal and SoCal. In Southern California, the SoCal High School Cycling League has grown steadily with each succeeding year, from fourteen school/teams in the first year (2009), to sixty-five for the 2015 season. The 2016 season is projected to be contested by ninety-seven different schools.

A few years ago, knowing that there were a lot of local school age riders, and being told by "the son" that there was interest, I made a half-hearted and sadly ineffective attempt to get a high school league team off the ground.

As it turns out I was not the only one with the idea running through his mind, and last year (2014-2015), under the guidance of head coach Jonathan Chang, owner of Jax Bicycle Center, the Claremont Wolfpack Mountain Bike Team celebrated its inaugural season of competition (one of seventeen schools joining the League last season). Last week I took a few moments from my Friday to sit down and talk with Jonathan about the team, its first year, and its future.

Right off the bat I had to admit that I wasn't sure about the organizational structure of Jax (knowing that it is a retail chain) and whether Jonathan was owner, manager, or something else entirely - he is the full owner, having bought the shop outright, and operating it as a trademark licensee allowing him independence on the one hand, while also allowing him to retain the Jax name and its associated widespread recognition. That out of the way, we could get down to the business of the day.

Originally, I had intended this as a typical question and answer interview, but it quickly took on a more free-flow form, and I decided that would be the best way to present it here:

The Claremont High School Wolfpack Mountain Bike Team grew from the nexus of two complimentary events - the Jax mountain bike ride, and a commitment to increased community involvement on the part of Jonathan and his shop. When the Jax group began to offer weekly mtb rides it was immediately obvious that there existed a strong youth continent, both riders who were already of high school age, and others who would reach that age over the next couple years. At the same time Jonathan had been searching for new ways to increase the Jax involvement in the community. A spark was struck - forming a high school team would provide both a competitive outlet for the young riders, as well as afford an opportunity to give back to the community.

The team's first season was fraught with the perils that many first year programs face - learning the ropes. Very few are able to jump in and find immediate success - in the case of the CHS team, a squad which numbered six at the seasons start ended with two active riders in the overall standings.

Though the new season will not officially begin until early November (with races taking place during the Spring semester), Jonathan has received intent from eight high school student/athletes, as well as another two from El Roble Middle School, as of this writing. This is only a fraction of the number of riders that many of the longer established school teams will field at any given race, but the Claremont team is hampered by an inability to promote itself within the school organization; without a faculty or staff sponsor the team is unable to operate as an official school club, and therefore has no access to school media. Instead the team is an extracurricular entity, outside the bounds of the school proper and must rely on promotion through the Jax shop, and most significantly, through simple word of mouth. Truth is, I am not entirely clear on all the ins and outs of association between a school sponsored team, and one outside the school.

It might not be surprising then, that when I brought up a question of goals for the coming season, they included the need to move beyond word of mouth, to find a suitable in-school sponsor. I dare say, just from talking with my own son, as well as his friends, that most students, and thus many potential riders, are unaware the team even exists. Needless to say, access to school media would greatly increase awareness.

Beyond promotion, Jonathan had some other specific goals in mind, most notably consistency, encouraging students to view their participation as a season-long commitment. This goal is aimed at the problem of attrition, the loss of riders from the beginning of the season to the end. Goals for individual riders are expected to be examined and developed over the course of the winter pre-season.

I asked Jonathan what benefits he saw as accruing the students for their participation, what he hoped they would take away from the experience. His immediate response was that he wanted to encourage them to become life-long, responsible cyclists aware of, and practicing the "rules of the trail", that they would learn and develop through the teaching of basic skills and behaviors.

NICA has done a terrific job over the years of fostering an appreciation for cycling and racing to a whole new generation of riders. Jonathan, through his involvement with the Claremont High School Team appears well positioned and committed to continuing at the local level, what NICA has done nationally.

There are few requirement really. Knowing how to ride a bike is the obvious one, having a mountain bike of your own is a plus. Jonathan has been looking into fundraising options to help raise money and defray costs. As it is, Jax is paying the entirety of the annual club fee, meaning there are no dues for the students. The only costs then, are a race entry fee that each student must pay, as well as any clothing and equipment costs.

If you are a high school student who might be interested, if you are the parent of a middle school student who you believe might be interested, I would encourage you to swing by Jax when they are open, pick up an informational flyer, talk to Jonathan if he is not busy. If you are a faculty or staff member of the school, or know one who might be interested in helping, talk to Jonathan about it. Everyone, working together, can help the sport of high school mountain biking continue to grow within Claremont to the great benefit of our student/athletes. 

I suppose that before I close this post, I should note that while the interview was specific to Claremont because it is the town I call home, it is safe to say that there are numerous overlaps with the experiences of organizers at other schools that can be learned from. Interested in getting a team started at your local school? Don't hesitate to talk the the SoCal League staff, and/or other coaches. Most obstacles that might be encountered have already, probably been resolved somewhere else. Use the experience of those who have gone before to make the process easier. See you on the trails.