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What's the right bike for a high school rider?

By Spencer Powlison

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TikTok, Fortnite, DogeCoin … Kids these days! But wait, what’s this, high school mountain bike leagues? Yes, it’s not all iPhone apps and memes. In fact, more than ever before, now is the time for teenagers to get stoked on mountain biking.

The interscholastic high school cycling phenomenon has spread nationwide, in large part thanks to the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), which saw 22,500 student athletes participate in 2019. In our backyard, the Colorado High School Cycling League has been getting kids on bikes since 2010. In 2020, this Colorado non-profit saw 1,851 participants from 79 teams.

So we at The Pro’s Closet decided it was time to support this great high school league that’s been contributing to the groundswell of youth mountain biking, right here in our home state. For 2021, TPC is an official sponsor of the Colorado League. To help these kids get on the right bikes, we’re offering an additional 10% on all Sell // Trade bikes bought from members of the Colorado High School Cycling League and 10% off Certified Pre-Owned bikes as they grow and improve.

Colorado High School Cycling League action
High school kids now have a fun alternative to traditional sports — mountain biking! Photo: Linda Guerrette 

This got us thinking: What should kids and their parents consider when buying a mountain bike? To get some answers, we talked to Nate Vacura, who’s been an assistant coach at Castleview High School for six years.

Prioritize fun, not racing

High school mountain biking is about so much more than the races. Participation, inclusion, and fun are the bedrock of every race weekend and high school team, big or small. However, it’s easy to focus too much on racing, which is a significant part of team activities. Held every other weekend during the season, cross-country races can be very competitive at the varsity level. But that doesn’t mean a high school rider should automatically get a pure XC bike.

“A lot of times, the parents want a bike that’s best-suited for the bike races,” says Vacura. “However, the kids generally want something more fun and suited to their goals and interests. I may have one kid who wants a full XC bike, a hardtail, who wants to win races, but for every one of those kids, I have 20 others who want a bike that’s fun to ride. They aren’t as much focused on the race results as having fun.”

Many of Vacura’s kids end up on full-suspension trail bikes that are great for all types of riding. That won’t stop them from participating with the team’s weekly rides and races, so long as they’re comfortable and happy.

“A bike that a kid will ride is the best bike that you can get,” he adds. “It doesn’t have to be some 15-pound hardtail because that’s not really that fun to ride, unless you're climbing up a hill!”

Bike size matters, and changes … often

Don’t be surprised if a child goes through multiple bikes during their high school years as they grow. Vacura has seen some freshmen come in measuring 4-foot-nothing and end up riding four different bikes up through senior year to keep up with their growth spurts. It’s good to anticipate tomorrow’s growth, but don’t sacrifice fit and comfort today.

“A bike that fits is good, but if they’re on the line [between sizes], I generally push toward bigger so the kid can grow, but if it’s too big, they aren’t gonna want to ride if the bike is uncomfortable,” Vacura says. Safety and comfort go hand and hand. Easy, minor adjustments such as adjusting the seat, changing the stem, and modifying handlebars can make a slightly big or small bike accommodate a rider for a longer period of time.

While he occasionally puts his smallest riders on 26”- or 27.5”-inch-wheeled bikes, Vacura typically suggests 29er bikes for most kids, given their prevalence in the bike industry.

Should high schoolers ride used or new bikes?

Given that growing children may run through bikes at an alarming pace, it’s understandable that their parents often buy used bikes to save a little money.

“Parents will buy used when kids are really cycling through bikes. TPC is a good market for that.” says Vacura. Often, families sell bikes directly to each other as kids grow. “I’ve seen the same bike under five different kids. It’s a cool recycling thing. With used bikes come used parts. That’s something I’ve talked to parents and kids about is that bike parts do wear out.”

That’s one of the perks of TPC’s new relationship with the Colorado League. Every Certified Pre-Owned bike we sell is inspected and serviced. We’re sure to replace wear items like tires, because, you know, kids like skids.

That’s not to say high school riders don’t also get new bikes when it is the right occasion. Some are committed, national-level racers with sponsorships. In other cases, a new bike is just a way cooler senior year gift than that crappy old Corolla that’s been the family’s beater car for the last 10 years.

“Especially going into senior year, they’ll get a nice new bike. The parents will splurge a little bit,” Vacura says.

The bike is only the beginning

Even though a bike is the biggest expense when a high schooler is gearing up to ride, it’s not the only consideration, and it needs upkeep. Simply keeping the drivetrain clean and lubing the chain is a great habit that will extend the life of a bike.

“Once they have a bike, it has more to do with accessories,” Vacura says. “Having a flat pack — tube, inflation device, how to change a tube, tire lever, all those small things you don’t necessarily think about.”

He also prioritizes the basics that most cyclists need: A safe, well-ventilated helmet, bib shorts, and apparel. But there are always kids that shy away from the full-lycra look. “Some kids wear gym shorts if they want, if that’s their style,” he adds.

Beyond that, Vacura recommends that parents set aside a budget for the inevitable repairs and replacements that come when a kid is mountain biking week in and week out.

“Kids crash a lot,” he says. “Derailleur hangers and derailleurs take a lot of abuse. Shifters get broken all the time. Bikes break. If a kid skids a lot, especially in parking lots, that’s watching dollars go away.”

Establishing a pre-ride safety check is an excellent way to detect issues that need attention, such as flat tires, frayed cables, dry chain, or worn brake pads. This two-minute routine can save time, money, and, most importantly, minimize accidents.

Conclusion: They need a bike, but it’s not about the bike

High school mountain biking is thriving because teams like Vacura’s and organizations like the Colorado League have made the sport a fun social activity that is welcoming to riders of all ability levels. Even if your kid isn’t destined for glory in the varsity category, they’ll have fun riding week after week with their friends. Vacura has seen for himself that the bikes themselves rarely define the experience. 

“Unless you’re racing at the pointy end of a varsity race, I’ve seen plenty of kids compete and have fun and they don’t have to have the nicest bike,” he says. “I’ve seen kids finish top 15% on Walmart bikes pretty much.”

The weekend spirit contests, sense of camaraderie, respectful, friendly competition, reaching personal goals, an energetic vibe from the throng of supporters, and much more keep riders coming back.

Are you a high school mountain biker? Let us know what you ride in the comments!


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