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Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead

The following article was posted on November 16th, 2011, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 12, Issue 37 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 12, Issue 37

Down from the mountain

A Los Alamos cycling coach looks to field interest in competitive mountain biking at local high schools


Though he’s made his name as a road racing coach, Los Alamos’ David Tonello now wants to give North County high school teens, boys and girls alike, the opportunity to race mountain bikes.

Leading the way:
SoCal Series Winner Tanner Peery of Riverside rode his way to victory in the Freshman Boys category at the 2011 State Championship race in Los Olivos in May.

Tonello is busy forming a composite Northern Santa Barbara County High School Cycling League for cross-country mountain biking enthusiasts, with a goal of getting local teenagers who might not fit in with typical high school sports the chance to get started in an activity they can participate in their
entire lives.

“It’s the kind of thing almost anybody can do,” he said. “Size isn’t important or any of that kind of stuff. … Most people can’t play tackle football forever, but you can ride a bike into your 70s and 80s.”

Tonello admittedly didn’t know much about the sport when he was asked to coach the team, based on his previous work with youth in road racing. For 15 years, he taught a junior road team for kids aged 10 to 18 in the Santa Ynez Valley Cycling Club, from where he’s recruited several riders to his new venture.

As a cyclist for 20 years, Tonello has competed regularly in road and track racing, winning multiple state championships and medals. He said he enjoys competitive mountain biking for its unique nature.

“You get to see a lot of pretty terrain,” he explained. “Crashing on a mountain bike isn’t nearly as hard on the body as crashing on a road bike on the pavement. It’s a great aerobic exercise, and there’s some skill involved so that’s fun to get your handling skills

Cross-country mountain biking is still a relatively new spring sport for high school athletes, and began competitively with the formation of a Northern California (NorCal) competitive league in 2001. The SoCal League was formed in 2008, followed by the creation of a governing body, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). The program is currently expanding into Texas, Utah, Washington, and Minnesota.

Off the beaten path:
High school junior varsity cyclists navigated the “corkscrew” in the state championships at Los Olivos last May. Lucas Newcomb of Marin County (No. 202) went on to win the State Championship title.

“What we’re trying to do is make cross-country mountain biking look and act like a high school sport,” said SoCal league executive director Matt Gunnell. “In driving to do that, our overall goal is to have single school clubs, so that from the students’ or parents’ perspective, it’s just like the football or basketball team. It’s another team on campus.”

Last year, the SoCal league had a composite Santa Barbara County team, which is being split this year into north and south. Earlier in 2011, Los Olivos was host to the California State Championships at the Stump Grinder Dirt Club, a private riding area located off Zaca Station Road near Los Olivos. The event brought more than 450 high school racers from the SoCal and NorCal high school cycling leagues, and the venue will welcome back the championships on May 20, 2012.

In the coming year, Gunnell said, the SoCal league could have as many as five teams in Santa Barbara County, including separate clubs for students from Righetti and St. Joseph high schools.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to see the expansion that is happening in Santa Barbara County,” Gunnell explained. “There’s all kinds of places to ride, so it’s just a natural [fit], and we’re looking forward to seeing it happen.”

Because the training schedule is tied to high school sports, the North County team has yet to hold a practice. At first, they’ll do most of their training at the Dirt Club and at Las Flores Ranch County Park. At meets, riders will compete against each other individually or in teams, facing off two at a time for several laps on trails covering a wide variety of terrain.

“They’re not as long as some people probably think,” Tonello said of the races. “Most people hear about centuries and 100-milers for bike races; road races aren’t that long, and mountain bike races are shorter yet.”

Gearing up
The Northern Santa Barbara County High School Racing League is looking for athletes in grades 9 to 12 to compete in cross-country mountain biking races. For more information, visit or call coach David Tonello at 406-2973.

The North County club will compete in five races during the season throughout Southern California, with one held in Los Olivos, their home course. Similar to high school cross country events, teams score points for league races based on combinations of boys and girls, counting for individual races and for the overall series.

Riders will still be able to participate in races sanctioned by the National Off-Road Biking Association (NORBA), but the kids will experience something a little bit different in league meets.

“When you go to those other races, there are adults of all types,” Tonello said. “In these high school races, the kids are the focus, so they really get a better atmosphere, more attention, and better examples of sportsmanship.”

The only requisite equipment is a mountain bike and a helmet, and, according to SoCal’s Gunnell, riders don’t even need prior experience in racing to get involved.

“Our coaching is heavy on development of the whole athlete and student and lighter on the development of hardcore competitiveness,” he said. “We’re much more about developing student-athlete leaders as opposed to die-hard bike racers.”

The league also puts a strong emphasis on health. Among other things, it’s against the rules for competitors to use any stimulants, including caffeine. Tonello said the experience should be one of fun and fitness for all riders.

“This league has a great aura about it. Everybody’s really positive, and all the kids are competitive with each other,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting.”

Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas couldn’t eliminate caffeine from his diet. Contact him at

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