Friday, February 28, 2020     Volume: 20, Issue: 52

Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead

The following article was posted on May 9th, 2012, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 9 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 13, Issue 9

Top of the mountain

The state's best high school mountain bike racers face off in Los Olivos


Maneuvering up and down the newly opened trails at Rice Ranch Park, Righetti sophomore Marshall Smith and his teammates on the Orcutt high school composite mountain biking team practiced for their biggest race of the year, set for May 20.

Trail masters:
Orcutt high school composite team members (from right to left) Scott Vassaur, Marshall Smith, Elizabeth Smith, Sean Zurek, and Aaron Gamberutti navigated the trails at Rice Ranch Park in preparation for the upcoming state championships.

For the second straight time, the California State High School Mountain Bike Championships will be held at the Dirt Club track in Los Olivos, pitting the best riders from Northern and Southern California against each other.

As a sophomore, Smith will be racing in the junior varsity division. He’s been here before; last year he took third in a field of about 70 freshman riders.

“It’s just a mad dash to get in front, because once you get on a single track like this, you’re going to have problems getting in the lead,” Smith recalled. “So you’re just fighting the whole time trying to save your energy, but go fast enough to get a place that you like.”

This season, he’s recorded three fifth-place finishes in the SoCal High School Cycling league, to which his team belongs. He got involved in the sport after finding out about it from local bike shops, and said he enjoys the sights as much as the competition.

“You can go out here any time of day and see coyotes, rabbits, and snakes,” he said. “You get the exercise, too. It’s just an all-around sport where you can be outside, get some fresh air, soak up the sun, and experience the thrill of the downhill.”

Smith’s team is made up of six students from St. Joseph and Righetti high schools, including his younger sister Elizabeth, a Righetti freshman. Most members rode with a Santa Barbara team last year. This year—Orcutt’s first in the SoCal league—they finished eighth out of 16 teams.

Coach Tony Gamberutti, a manager at Main Street Cycles in Santa Maria, founded the team so local kids wouldn’t have to go far to race. The Dirt Club has served as the team’s de facto home course, and Gamberutti said knowing its ins and outs could present a big advantage. As for the track itself, Gamberutti called it deceptively challenging.

“You go out there and look around and see rolling hills, and people say, ‘It can’t be that tough,’” he said. “But it’s a functioning cattle ranch, so the big thing is it can be extremely bumpy. The really bumpy courses take a lot of energy out of you.”

An avid mountain bike racer, Gamberutti is the patriarch of an enthusiastic biking family, including his son Aaron, who’s also a member of the team. He’s met with local athletic directors, working to start separate teams at St. Joseph and Righetti by next year. However, he said, getting school administrators to recognize it as an official sport has been a struggle.

See it for yourself
The California State High School Mountain Bike Championships, held at the Dirt Club on May 20, is open to the public and free for spectators. Attendees are encouraged to bring cowbells to cheer on riders. The Dirt Club is at Charlotte’s Meadow just north of Los Olivos. The track will also be holding a Niner Bicycle Demo Day on May 12 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., where participants can try out bikes for free. A bike helmet is required. Additionally, SoCal league director Matt Gunnell will be at Main Street Cycles, 311 E. Main St. in Santa Maria, on June 5 at 7 p.m. to talk about joining the league. For more information on the Dirt Club, or local high school mountain biking, visit and

High school mountain bike racing began at Berkeley High School, and the NorCal high school league was founded in Marin County in 2001. A similar SoCal league launched in 2008. According to SoCal league president Matt Gunnell, the two leagues quickly decided to hold a common state championship. Last year’s event in Los Olivos was the first.

“Cross-country mountain biking has been an Olympic sport since Athens in 2008,” Gunnell said. “What we’re doing is essentially taking cross-country mountain biking and mainstreaming it as a high school sport, so that as we progress we want to be looked at as any other sport.”

In its first year, the SoCal league had no teams from Santa Barbara County, Gunnell said. In 2012, there were teams at San Marcos and Dos Pueblos high schools, as well as composite teams in Santa Ynez and Orcutt. Gunnell said having the championships here could influence local high schools to add the sport and draw in more area youth.

“Putting a race right there certainly will allow people from the community to come out and take a look and go, ‘Wow, this is legitimate,’” Gunnell said. “You show up at one of our races, and it looks like a world cup mountain biking race.”

To qualify for the state finals, riders must finish in the top 80 percent of any one SoCal race, and Gunnell said he expects around 500 to make it to the championships. Like typical CIF finals, the races are broken down into freshman, sophomore, junior varsity, and varsity levels, each with boys’ and girls’ divisions. Winners will receive California Grizzly Bear cycling jerseys to wear next season, recognizing them as state champions. There are also team competitions, with the top three Division 1 and 2 teams receiving awards.

After two years in Los Olivos, chosen for its proximity to Northern California and its easy accessibility, the championships will move to NorCal and rotate every two years. Dirt Club owner Mike Hecker said he’s privileged to have the races back at his track, but isn’t sure if they’ll return or be moved further south.

The track itself is six miles long, with single- and double-track trails. For the championships, racers will ride various numbers of laps, from two for freshmen to four laps (24 miles) for varsity boys.

“All the trails we’ve built allow for some really neat course layout for the kids,” Hecker said. “It’s not technical. It’s the perfect course for high-school-age kids ranging from expert to beginner.”

A self proclaimed “geek” and cycling activist, Hecker is a board member of the Santa Ynez Cycling Club, which also fields a high school composite team. Two Santa Ynez riders qualified for the championships, including Matthew Honeyman, a 16-year-old sophomore from Dunn School in Los Olivos.

Honeyman is in his first year racing in the SoCal league. He experienced last year’s championships as a spectator, but is intimately familiar with the track, and said having the state finals there is a “fantastic opportunity” for local racers.

“I think it will be interesting,” he said. “The course is really hilly compared to other courses. It’s a lot of climbing, and it’s pretty long.”

Riders described the up-hills of the Dirt Club laps as a test of endurance and stamina. Orcutt’s Smith said he expects a challenge running up against Northern California racers, with their reputation for speed.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “I know the trail, I can tell you the trail, but I can’t tell you the riders and how fast they’re going to be. But they’re going to be fast, I can tell you that.”

Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas is always in gear, except when he’s not. Contact him at

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