I was raised on the sound of spinning tires and the smell of evergreen. From a very young age, I learned that coming home covered in mud was the sign of a good day, that a few bumps and bruises are just “adventure marks,” and, sometimes, you fall seven times but get up eight. While mountain biking makes up some of my earliest memories, it wasn’t until years later that I fully experienced what this sport could bring me.
Seven years later, Covid hit. Quarantine is put in place, and loneliness sets in. As restrictions loosened and isolation wasn’t as necessary, the emptiness of not seeing friends in months remained all-consuming. Online school was a grueling chore; forced to stare aimlessly at my teachers through a glitchy screen. I remember my foot tapping uncontrollably and my focus drifting everywhere but the algebra problem in front of me. I spent so much time alone that I began to fear socializing again. The talkative, confident kid I once was left with no promise of returning. I talked to myself and avoided people I knew in public. I missed my friends, yet when I began to see them again, I couldn’t figure out how to communicate how much I missed them.
In February of 2021, I joined the Northshore Gnarwhals, a youth mountain bike team in the Washington Student Cycling League. My dad signed me up, thinking it would be a good way to meet friends and get out on the trails again. Reluctantly, I agreed. I hadn’t touched my bike in over a year but hoped riding with others would rekindle my joy.
I got home from the first day of practice, and nothing could wipe the smile off my face. I had never ridden with other kids who loved mountain biking as much as I did. Despite the masks, social distancing, and slightly awkward conversations, everyone was enjoying themselves as much as me. Being in the woods allowed for natural social distancing, so unlike regular team sports, following Covid-19 protocols didn’t seem forced. I joined the team as one of the youngest at twelve, but the league encourages anyone between eleven and eighteen to join.
When I joined, we had one of the most incredible coaches ever. He epitomizes what the WSCL strives for, “empowering youth through cycling.” He worked to get every kid out of their shell and always had games and challenges to keep us on our toes. He also donated gear to the team to ensure everyone had access to equipment. Additionally, all coaches in the WSCL go through training, focusing on safety and intensive mountain bike knowledge, to be certified to coach.
“The WSCL helped me socialize after a year of only seeing my friends on a computer screen. It gave me a way to go outside, be active, and meet new people that share the same passion as me,” recalls 12-year-old Jacob, a competitive member of the Gnarwhals.
It’s impossible to explain how riding with the Gnarwhals has impacted me. I made friends, built strength and stamina, gained mental resilience and a competitive edge, and found something I cared about to throw my time and energy into. At practices, we discussed race strategies, how to fuel yourself to ride properly, the importance of bike care, and proper trail etiquette.
By Spring 2022, race season was back in full swing, with 31 teams and over 200 participants competing from all over Washington. Races are in a two-day format. Teams arrive the night before, ride the course, and spend time hanging out. Everyone loves the night before the race. It’s a low-pressure, fun atmosphere where teams can socialize. The dense congregation of young mountain bikers has built meaningful friendships and an unbreakable spirit within our team.
On race day, nervous excitement fills the air. Teams gather under their tents, discussing race strategy and applying matching face paint. In the morning, the loudspeaker announces the order of events: youngest to oldest, boys, then girls. When it’s finally my turn, twenty or so girls line up on our marks, an array of team colors. A jolt of nerves hit me as I look down the trail. “10, 9, 8…” the crowd starts counting down. “4,3,2,1 and go!” The flag comes down as I pedal as fast and hard as possible.
There is no better feeling than seeing my teammates cheering as I sprint towards the finish line. First or last, everyone celebrates. Racing in WSCL means everyone can be as competitive or laid back as they want; some members of the Gnarwhals don’t race at all. They just come to practice and then cheer the team on. There’s a division and place for everyone, regardless of skill or motivation.
“Riding with the Gnarwhals gave me the chance I haven’t gotten before to go to so many new parks and learn so many cool things I never thought I would learn!” said 13-year-old Clayton.
The Washington Student Cycling League isn’t just about kids racing mountain bikes. It’s about community, camaraderie, and overcoming physical challenges. The league brings people together that don’t always conform to normality and gives them a space to find themselves. The Gnarwhals isn’t just a team; it’s a family, teaching us the skills to go out and take on the world. The Washington Student Cycling League is the future.