Trading Football for Fat Tires in Mississippi
The Magnolia State's first high-school mountain bike team wants to build a cycling culture, one pedal stroke at a time
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Lots of depressing statistics plague the Magnolia State. Poverty, unemployment, obesity, and teen pregnancy rates rank among the highest in the country, while education equity and life expectancy are at rock bottom. More than 40 percent of school-age children are overweight or obese, according to the the State of Obesity, an annual report funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a national public-health philanthropy. Almost that many live under the poverty line.
Selena Swartzfager, 47, sees that data come to life every day while running the Mississippi Council on Economic Education, a non-profit working to increase the state residents’ economic and financial literacy. But, as founder and coach of the one-year-old Mississippi Blues Composite Mountain Bike team, she also sees the potential to combat some of those issues among a tiny sliver of the state’s population. The mother of two lives in a suburb of Jackson and founded the bike team in part so that her 15-year-old son, who was racing in the local adult league, could race against other teens. But she also believed in the transformative power of the bike for kids who might otherwise have no outlet to get outside and be active.
So Swartzfager, who describes herself as a beginner-intermediate mountain biker, set out to get her coaching certification from the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). “I’m not fast, but I love it,” she says. She then recruited two other people—Shannon Estes, an engineer and category 1 mountain-bike racer, and assistant coach Alison Harkey, a board member of the local mountain bike association—to help her lead the Mississippi Blues. Both volunteer their time, which amounts to about four hours per week for Harkey and double that for Estes, plus weekend travel to races that are up to five hours away, despite not having children on the team.
In spring 2017, the trio traveled with 11 student athletes from 11 high schools across Mississippi to the nearest NICA sanctioned high school races, all three hours away in Alabama. “We looked like the Clampets, showing up for our first race with mismatched camo tents and a bike rack built out of PVC,” says Swartzfager. Despite entering the race without any expectations, the team pulled a couple top 10 results. “The electricity and excitement of a NICA race is contagious,” says Swartzfager. “Everyone was cheering each other on and telling post-race stories.”
In 2016, the Mississippi State Department of Health created an Obesity Action Plan. One of its goals was to increase the proportion of people engage in aerobic physical activity on a regular basis. The plan cited a 2011 American Heart Association review that found every dollar spent on building bike trails and walking paths could save three dollars in medical expenses. Yet Mississippi trails far behind Alabama in terms of mountain-bike culture and racing. The website MTB Project lists 407 miles of trail and 34 rides in Alabama compared to 173 miles of trail and 14 rides in Mississippi. The Alabama Interscholastic Cycling League boasts 26 high school mountain bike teams, a five-race series that draws more than 250 middle school and high school racers, and an 18-member management team. Mississippi? The Blues Composite team remains the only bike program in the state for teens.
No one works harder to close the bike infrastructure gap than the Tri-County Mountain Bike Association (TCMBA), an IMBA-affiliated mountain-bike club based in Jackson, Mississippi. The club—which has grown from 30 to 400 members in the last six years, according to TCMBA President Jeremy Polk—develops trails and organizes group rides. It’s also served as an engine to get the new high school team off the ground. “Creating a NICA team and bringing the program into your state takes someone or several someones being really involved,” says Polk, who owns Bicycle Revolution, a bike shop in Gluckstadt and the hub of Mississippi mountain biking. “Someone has to have the passion and ability to do this full-time. Hopefully the composite team gets some kids hooked and their parents hooked. We need it bad. We need it for the overall mental and physical health of our kids and families.”
The Mississippi Blues Composite Mountain Bike team started its second race season in late February 2018. It still operates solely with a Facebook page and fewer than 20 student athletes, but it’s becoming increasingly organized. This year’s team has practiced twice a week since December, including weekend trail rides and weekly spin classes at Bicycle Revolution. Swartzfager says the next step is better marketing. “I know there are kids in the area who would want to join if they knew we existed,” she says. The group currently recruits via word of mouth. “Just the other night, I was at a work event and met a parent of a fifth grader,” Swartzfager says. “I immediately asked if she liked riding a bike and offered to pick her up for practice next year.”
More than 40 percent of school-aged children are overweight or obese and almost that many live under the poverty line.
Cycling isn’t on the radar of many football-obsessed Mississippians, but it should be: there are no bench warmers in high school mountain biking—every student athlete makes the team and everyone races. “Where I live, people don’t look at cycling as anything serious,” says Tucker Hoeniges, a junior on the Blues team from Brookhaven, Mississippi. “It bothers me. It’s all about football, baseball. I try over and over to get my friends to ride but they won’t listen.”
Hoeniges is the team’s best shot at the podium this season, which ends in June. At 14, Hoeniges got his first mountain bike and tried racing a couple months before joining the composite team. “I wasn’t very good at all, but I loved it from the start,” he says. After his first time standing on the podium, he was hooked. “It really doesn’t take talent,” says Hoeniges. “Most of it is hard work. At a race if someone beats you, they aren’t better than you—they’re just training harder than you.”
He finished the 2017 season third overall for sophomores and went on to compete at the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships in West Virginia last July, where he placed 15th in his category. Hoeniges trains 11 to 15 hours a week, all on his own. At his level—Hoeniges is now racing Cat 1—practice with the composite team is more about camaraderie and mentoring younger teammates. He lives a 15-minute pedal from one of the state’s best trails, Mount Zion, where Hoeniges can put in up to three hours on the nine-mile, 900-vertical foot loop. “Mississippi doesn’t have the long, sustained climbs, but we work with what we’ve got,” he says. “And that’s creativity.”
Swartzfager says everyone on the team is faster than last year. “When I started a year ago, I could keep up with the younger kids,” she says. “Now they all leave me in the dust. Their bike handling skills, their physical condition—everything has improved. And it’s taken zero motivation on the parents’ end, because mountain biking is inherently fun.
“You can get depressed—we have so many problems to overcome,” she says. “We’re not going to save the world, but if we can positively impact the lives of a team of young people, that is success. That is where the hope comes from. The potential for this team is huge.”