A NICA coach turns to an eMTB to keep up with his students.
by Mike Bagg
When I started coaching high school mountain bike racing, I was 39 and fairly fast. I could keep the elite high school riders in my sights. Nine years later, with more coaching wisdom, experience and patience than ever, I can’t even ride alongside half the team to offer advice or keep riders within their prescribed workout.
I teach at Yucaipa High School in Southern California. Our league took several years to launch, but thanks to the Easton Foundation, help from NorCal league founder Matt Fritzinger, and support from industrious teachers and mountain bike enthusiasts, the SoCal High School Cycling League launched in spring of 2009. [It’s also now an official NICA chapter.]
Being involved in the birth of our league was a thrill, and I’ve been blessed to have some of my best friends as fellow teachers and mountain bikers. But, I’m starting feeling the wear and tear of years of coaching high schoolers — from countless rider behavior interventions, race ineligibilities, high school drama, evenings and weekends away from home, and, the saddest part: getting slower on the bike every season.
When electric mountain bikes became increasingly popular last year, I joined the chorus of scoffs from purists. But in the back of my mind, I knew that access to an e-bike might allow me to coach my faster kids again.
Nine years later, with more coaching wisdom, experience and patience than ever, I can’t even ride alongside half the team to offer advice or keep riders within their prescribed workout.
Last month, our team training calendar included the dreaded over/under workout: A grueling uphill climb to the top of Pisgah Peak that demanded alternating between five minutes of zone 4 steady-state agony [80–90% max heart rate], and two minutes of zone 5 time trial torture [90-100% max heart rate]. Back and forth, back and forth.
Every time we ran this working in previous seasons, the elite riders disappeared from my sight, and I could only hope they were staying true to the details of the workout.
Two days before the over/unders, I called my ever-supportive local bike shop, Yucaipa Bike Center, and asked if they had a demo e-mountain bike that I could use during practice. Dale, the owner, told me he had a Trek Powerfly 8 FS Plus — a fully stocked, full-suspension mountain bike with plus-size tires, Shimano XT components, a very nice suspension setup and a Bosch battery and motor. I could demo it for free, but it would not be ready for our over/unders (darn!). Instead, I would have to try it out on our annual Palm Desert Hahn Buena Vista ride that starts out with Puke Hill: two miles of the steepest fire road in Southern California. It’s really steep. The ground is pure rock and loose rock. Most of our riders on new 1×11 drivetrains were dreading the climb.
I’m 48, but I’m an experienced cyclist and am in good shape for my age. All I need is a little something that can allow me to still work hard, keep up with my elite riders, and still have the breath to talk to them about their heart rate, their cadence or their body positioning. The electronic mountain bike does just that. The four modes on the Powerfly are economy (the lowest level of assist), tour, sport, and turbo.
During the remainder of the ride, I was able to keep up with the elites, circle back and ride with other riders, and encourage the exhausted coaches. I felt like a world class pro head coach.
I wanted to be able to ride the entire three hours of the ride and stay with my elite riders. I did. I climbed Puke Hill (in economy mode) and stayed on our fastest rider’s wheel the entire two miles — and was able to talk in sentences while riding. During the remainder of the ride, I was able to keep up with the elites, circle back and ride with other riders, and encourage the exhausted coaches. I felt like a world class pro head coach. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe it. The plus-size tires and full suspension were fun on the descents and the battery was powerful and long-lasting. I never stressed about running out of battery before the epic ride was over.
In the end, we rode 23 miles and climbed 4300 feet — and I still had 40 percent battery remaining. I could have used the other modes that offer more pedal assist, I still wanted a hard workout while keeping up with kids 30 years younger than me.
So what do I do, now that I so clearly see the future of coaching high school mountain biking? A great weight has been lifted (at least for this weekend) and I feel energized — like I could do this for a few more seasons (I was seriously facing burn-out). But this bike is five-thousand dollars!
My other head coach, Scott, told me we need to fundraise. Big time. He said if the parents know that a couple of these bikes could keep experienced veteran NICA coaches in the game for years to come, then they would support the effort to raise the money to make it happen. So we’re planning a major pancake breakfast extravaganza. If it works, then perhaps the man who introduced me to mountain biking, coached with me five years, started a team at another high school — and is twenty years my senior — may get inspired to raise the money so he can keep up with his kids.
What do you say Coach Steve Harrison; are you inspired?