Temecula, Calif. — The growth curve of high school mountain bike racing in Southern California is bearing a remarkable resemblance to the course profile of Alpe d’ Huez, that famous climb in the Tour de France — it just keeps going up and up. The 2012 SoCal High School Cycling League season kicked off at Vail Lake Resort with a record-smashing number of competitors and participating schools. A total of 279 student-athletes representing 26 teams came out to help inaugurate the League’s fourth season. That’s 57 more riders than at this same event in 2011, a significant number considering the high school graduation of 40 racers at the end of last season. Along with more participants, several important new sponsors have also joined the program in 2012, including Jeep.
Stated Matt Gunnell, the Executive Director of the SoCal League. "We have approximately 100 new riders for 2012, but I think the theme this season is refinement at both the club and league levels. Clubs are actively pre-riding courses weeks before events instead of just the day before, coaching has gone up a notch in terms of rider preparation, and the League is working to make races run even smoother. This really shows in the level of competition. If you look at all the race results, the time gaps are very small at every point in the fields. And seeing the top five Varsity Boys finish within two minutes of each other after 24 miles? That's the sign of an extremely exciting season of racing ahead!”
Woodcrest Christian High School began the new season the same way it finished the old: with an overall Division 1 team victory. And once again it was a tight contest for points with defending series champion Hemet High. As Woodcrest Head Coach David Peery said afterward, “It was close. We battled all last year with Hemet and quite honestly we thought they beat us today until we heard the results called. Hemet did a great job, our kids did a great job, it was a well-fought battle and I’m sure it will be all season.”
Third for the day in Division 1 was another large, veteran squad, Yucaipa High School, which hosts the next round of the series at Wildwood Canyon State Park on March 11th.
Claiming Division 2 team honors at Vail Lake was defending champion San Gabriel Valley Composite. Tom Lockhart heads this talented group and said, “Our team had a great day. Our new riders had a chance to see where they stood in the league and our most experienced riders had trained hard to have their best season. Our team has grown since last year and fortunately our new parents are as enthused and helpful as our returning families, so it is still manageable for the coaches. The event this year was fantastic. The atmosphere was just as positive and friendly as I remember three or four years ago. This league is the best thing I can imagine for the sport of cycling.”
Placing second and third respectively in the final Division 2 team standings were two brand new clubs: Redlands Composite and South Orange County Composite.
In one of the most engaging Varsity Boys races in the history of the SoCal League, Shane Skelton (Independent) emerged from a group of six that ran nose-to-tail for the majority of four 6-mile laps over Vail’s rolling, dry, high desert terrain. Joining him in this highly tactical skirmish was defending class champion Cody Phillips (San Gabriel Valley), Jesse Rogers (Independent), Joel Titius (Corona Composite), Casey Williams (Independent) and Lucas Rowton (Crescenta Valley). Rowton fell back after two laps, leaving five at the front for some final fireworks. Skelton attacked on the last approach to the steep, rocky, slippery Marine Corps Hill, breaking up the group and making it a mad dash to the finish line less than a mile away. “I came over the last hill and looked back and had maybe five seconds on Cody, then I knew I was going to make it,” explained Skelton.” It feels good, coming from the JV class last year to win Varsity in my first big race of the season. The hard work is starting to pay off.”
“That was one of the funnest high school races we’ve ever had,” said Phillips, who was only three seconds adrift at the line. “It was intense, right down to the end. Shane just had a little bit ore than me. I can’t complain. I didn’t make any mistakes and gave everything I could.”
Rogers rolled in for third, Titius fourth and Williams fifth in a field of 30. As stated earlier, the top five were separated by less than two minutes.
A quick start and a surge on the second long climb on the opening lap was key to the success of Hannah Rae Finchamp (San Gabriel Valley) in the 18-mile Varsity Girls race. “From that point on I tried not to look back and raced knowing that if I let up the girls would be right back on my wheel. I was fortunate to have a very smooth race. Standing on the podium with Emma and McKenzie, two incredibly strong racers, was a look into the future as I'm sure the three of us will be mixing it up all season.”
With Finchamp moving away out front, Emma Klingaman (Hemet) rode a consistent pace to a lonely second place. “I’ve just been in my base training so far so it should be a good season for me, hopefully. Once I start doing higher intensity workouts I should improve quite a bit. I felt pretty strong today. It definitely hurt but it was a good hurt.” She is being trained by former multi-time Varsity Boys champion Zach Valdez.
McKenzie Melcher (Redlands Composite) soloed in to round out the top three.
JV Boys Division 1
Jarred Jordan (Murrieta Valley) and Tanner Peery (Woodcrest Christian), both champions in the Freshman divisions last year, showed they were more than ready to move up a couple of steps by finishing 1-2 in the 35-rider JV Boys Division 1 class. “Most of the course you had to draft due to the wind,” said Jordan. “There was a strong breakaway group of five of us that hung together for most of the race. Towards the end I attacked right before Marine Corps Hill and then just held the lead to the finish.”
Peery kept it close to finish just six seconds later, while Sean Bird (St. Francis) completed the top three.
JV Boys Division 2
The closest finish of the day came at the end of the JV Boys Division 2 race, when Tyler Schwartz (Independent) and Kyle Skeen (Ramona) went elbow-to-elbow in a furious sprint to the line. Said winner Schwartz, after his first high school event, “I tried to ride away but everyone jumped on my wheel. So I just rode it out and tried to make a gap but couldn’t lose anyone anywhere so it all came down to the end. It was exciting, to say the least. It was a great atmosphere with all the people here, compared to the other races I’ve done — ten times more people here than I’ve seen at any other mountain bike race.”
Spencer Rathkamp (Hart Composite) finished third.
Another compelling finish unfolded in the 16-rider JV Girls event. Dalma Felenyi (Rim of the World) and Maddie Melcher (Redlands Composite) had kept each other close for both of their laps, and then both fell while negotiating the final hairpin turn. Felenyi picked up her bike and ran to the finish line, while Melcher lost time trying to remount and had to settle for second.
According to Felenyi, “I had a little back-and-forth with Maddie; she was right there the whole time. It kind of hurt afterwards but it felt good that I won. I want to thank my coaches and all my teammates, because they’re awesome.”
The winner’s sister and Rim of the World teammate, Reka Felenyi, completed the top three.
Sophomore Boys Division 1
Cole Picchiottino (Murrieta Valley), who normally focuses on downhill racing, decided to use some cross country high school action for training and ended up dominating the 31-rider Sophomore Boys Division 1 class. “It was a good day. I just decided to get out front early, and took the lead after the first hill. I was racing against the time, to see how I would have placed in other categories, so I pushed myself the entire way,” explained Picchiottino.
Runner-up was Daniel Balsam (St. Francis), and Alec Stambersky (Murrieta) was third.
Sophomore Boys Division 2
Brent Burcham (Independent) and Sammy Bello (Independent) had their way with the 33-rider Sophomore Boys Division 2, and Burcham was able to escape on the last lap to win by ten seconds. “This was my first SoCal High School League race,” Burcham stated. “It’s cool that they have a series just for high school. Training and strategy helped me succeed today.”
Third place was claimed by Bryce McKibbin (Santa Ynez Composite).
For the first time in the SoCal League, Freshman and Sophomore Girls had their own, separate classes. Taking honors for the premier of the Sophomore division was Megan Bradley (Rim of the World). “My first win feels really good but I wanted to race in the JV class, where I would have been fourth.”
It was a 1-2 for Rim of the World as Nicole Jewell finished runner-up, while Mariana Santisteban (Eastlake) was third in a class of ten.
Freshman Boys Division 1
Michael Lansing and Micah Swinhart made it a 1-2 celebration for Woodcrest, with Lansing ahead by over two minutes. As he described the race, “It was extremely exciting, tiring, and pretty fun. I’m very happy. The start is very important in my category since we only have two laps. Getting the holeshot definitely helped. Vail Lake is amazing. I’ve been out here for four years because my brother has been racing with the league. I’ve been able to watch him and have ridden the track a few times. It’s almost like a home course to me.”
Adam Rowton (Crescenta Valley) was third in a field of 37, the largest class of the day.
Freshman Boys Division 2
James Pflughaupt (Corona del Mar) prevailed in a close contest with Imeh Nsek (Independent) in Freshman Boys Division 2. The mostly road cyclist was impressed with the scene at Vail Lake. “This series seems like so much fun and the atmosphere was something else. It was great to see the kids be put first, unlike the way it is at road races. I started from last place but made it up to the front breakaway of about five by the feed zone. From there I attacked, with Imeh following me. He and I shared the lead all the way to the finish but he slid out in the last corner.”
Completing the top three in the field of 33 was Chad Nelson (Redlands Composite).
It was a good day for Hemet High in Freshman Girls, with Alexis Marques and Hayleigh Kirkham finishing first and second, well ahead of a field of 14. “My day went good,” explained Marques. “I was really surprised; I didn’t know what to expect. Me and my teammate were like, OK, let’s just go. I took off in front and Hayleigh was close the whole time. Then on Marine Corps Hill on the first lap I made a pass for the lead and took it from there. Feels good. It was really fun. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Danielle Emter (South Orange County Composite) ended her day with third place.
Upcoming series events:
March 11, Hog Canyon Classic, Yucaipa, CA
March 25, Cruise the Keys, Lake Isabella, CA
April 15, Victory at Vail, Temecula, CA
May 6, Power the Pinnacles, Lake Arrowhead, CA (SoCal series final)
May 20, State Championships, Los Olivos, CA
About the SoCal High School Cycling League
The SoCal High School Cycling League was organized to provide a well-defined race season for youth racers and to promote the formation of teams at public and private high schools. With the cooperation of local race promoters and our sponsors, the League organizes a first class series of races designed for high school aged riders and is easiest way for youth to get involved in the challenging and exciting world of competitive cycling. The SoCal League was kick-started with a generous grant from the founding SoCal sponsor, Easton Foundations, and is also generously supported by founding national sponsor, Specialized Bicycle Components, as well as Jeep, SRAM, Trek Bicycles, Clif Bar and Co., Primal Wear, QBP, Cynergy Cycles, El Monte RV, Dr. John Gunnell Oncology, Kaiser Federal Bank, Kayo Clothing, Rock N' Road Cyclery, Turner Bikes, CamelBak, GU Sports, Kinetic, Maxxis, adidas Eyewear, Cyclingnews.com, Dirt Rag, Feedback Sports, Fort Lewis College, Fox Racing Shox, Mountain Bike Action, Ritchey Designs, Sidi, and WTB. For more information on the League, visit www.socaldirt.org or contact Matt Gunnell at [email protected], Tel. (818) 415-1133.