Quick Spin with Matt Fritzinger, NICA’s Executive Director

Why does a national organization need to exist?
With a national organization, there is no need for leagues to keep reinventing the wheel, which allows for rapid expansion that would be difficult if everything were run locally. NICA provides curriculum standards, procedures and policies that have been tested for more than 10 years, and all of this continues to improve because of things we keep learning and sharing as we grow.

Part of running a league is the administrative minutiae. You need to have a handle on all the systems that any small business needs, be it communication, accounting, human resources, etc. A national organization can provide templates, training and assistance to multiple regional leagues. NICA attends a dozen national events each year. We put forward the vision, we advocate on behalf of all leagues and we’ve been able to create strong relationships with organizations like IMBA to help further our cause.

How realistic is the goal of having high school cycling programs coast to coast by 2020?
The old saying is you can’t do it if you can’t dream it, and a great deal of the work we are doing internally is to prepare for that reality. Right now we’re getting so much interest nationally that it looks very realistic. If we continue to add 2-3 leagues a year and we have nine years of development to make it happen – including the seven leagues we already have – you’re looking at 25-35 leagues by 2020. Assuming new leagues are in some of the more densely populated states, as many as 100 million high school students in the U.S. will have access to high school mountain biking by 2020.

What is NICA doing for under-privileged students?
NICA is developing a Bike Booster scholarship fund to help economically challenged families purchase a bike for their child. It might be their first bike, which will enable them to participate in a high school league, or it might be a student that is moving up to varsity and needs to go from a heavy bike to a lighter one. Our goal is to have this up and running by mid-2012. In addition, incredibly valuable support comes from volunteer coaches. Nobody can match the impact of an inspired, well-trained coach who can connect with kids.

Why does NICA and NICA leagues have so many full-time employees when some high-level racing series have been operating with volunteers only for so many years?
We work with 70 or more volunteers at most events, so our ratio of volunteers to full-time staff is certainly skewed toward the volunteer side. That said, we would love to have more paid positions, because we believe it increases the quality of service and the scope of what we can deliver. Remember, we are more than a racing organization. We put in a year-round effort to train coaches and new league staff, provide scholarships, develop rules and set organizational structures. We constantly push ourselves to raise the bar and do more for our leagues.

With youth mountain bike races there is a risk management element and a need for consistent quality – not just for one race, but for 4-6 races over an 8-10 week period. Parents want a professionally run program, and volunteers want to feel like they’re contributing to a quality organization. There comes a point in an organization’s growth where you need to start offering paid positions to attract and keep the human resources you need. We wouldn’t be able to grow if we depended entirely on volunteers. The bottom line is to maintain consistency and keep improving the quality of services, so you need to have paid positions.

What is NICA doing to be more eco-friendly? Seems like NICA can be at the forefront on the cycling industry in its use of friendlier materials, group transportation, etc.
We are already making strides in this area. At NICA and league events we use post-consumer recycled materials in many items, and we use compostable plates, cups and flatware. We are encouraging the use of biodegradable bike cleaning products, and it would be really cool to see teams use buses, vans and bike trailers to provide group transport to events. To me, that’s the most significant thing we can do.

Going back to when you first started coaching high school students, and looking at what your mission and vision was then vs. what it has become now, how do you view the progress?
I was thinking back then that I’d do this for five years then return to being a school teacher and coaching a high school mountain bike team – and maybe someday I will still get to do that! My personal mission has remained the same, though it has grown in scale. What I was doing with those kids at Berkeley High School is really the same thing we’re doing now with NICA. I just never knew it would grow like this. I knew what I wanted and how it would work, but the number of quality people that stepped forward and became deeply involved has exceeded anything I could have imagined. And then, making the leap to become a national organization – believe me a lot of things came to bear simultaneously to make that possible, especially getting sponsors like Specialized, Easton, Trek and SRAM.

With some other sports prohibiting practice and competition on Sundays for religious reasons, how come all of NICA’s races are on Sundays?
What we have learned over the years is that an early Saturday morning start simply is not feasible for the majority of families in our leagues. In many cases both parents work and finish the week feeling worn out, so with all the detailed preparation needed for a mountain bike race it is more likely that something can slip through the cracks. From the event organization standpoint, it takes 30-50 volunteers working Saturday to prepare the course for racing on Sunday. Most of these volunteers work full-time and we are not confident we can get them to show up on a Friday for a Saturday event, and that would mean a substantial increase in costs. That said, we are going to give Saturday races a try in Utah and see how it goes. I’m sure we will learn a lot from that experience.

Why the cowboy boots and hat? You live in Oakland!
There’s a reason cowboys working in the field all day started wearing those clothes! It took me a while to figure out what was the most comfortable, because when you put on a mountain bike race you’re outside from dawn until dusk for two straight days. A baseball cap doesn’t keep the sun off your neck, and for me it leads to a headache by the end of the day. But a well-fitted cattle hat keeps the sun completely off your face and neck, and you hardly notice you’re wearing it. As for the boots, cowboy boots keep all the debris out – and I don’t mind the look either.

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