Now in its seventh season, the NorCal High School Mountain Bike Racing League continues to grow in both participation numbers and level of competition.
But one constant about the series is how well western Nevada County’s high school competitors fare in the series. In the six previous seasons, the Miners Indie Mountain Bike Team has finished no lower than fifth place in team standings and twice has been crowned the overall champion.
And if opponents in the series were expecting any sort of drop-off from the squad in the near future, they’ll likely be disappointed.
Not only are the Miners currently holding the top spot again after the series’ first race, the Central Coast Invitational at Fort Ord on March 4, the team appears to also be stocked with up-and-coming talent.
Take Nate Byrom for example. In just his second season on a mountain bike, the 16-year-old Nevada Union High School sophomore is off to a blazing-fast start.
And as the league descends on Folsom Lake this Sunday for the second race in the series, few should be surprised if Byrom is running up front for the Miners.
After all, he’s already raced the track twice in little more than a month and has found success in each attempt.
On Feb. 4, in the first of three Total Body Fitness Racing events, Byrom finished fourth in the 19-and-under division of the Expert Male category. Though fourth place was impressive for a rider who had made the move from Beginner to Expert in one season, the fact that he was tied with mechanical trouble left his coaches wondering just how well he could have done that day.
“We could tell by his build – he’s pretty tall and pretty thin – that he had a good build for this. The coaches, just talking amongst ourselves, figured he’s probably going to be pretty fast,” said Jason Moeschler, a national mountain bike pro – who won the 2005 Downieville Classic – and one of six coaches for the Miners.
“We really wanted to see how he’d do, but he had a mechanical (a cleat came lose on his shoe) and even though that probably only took a minute to take care of, a minute is a big deal. It could be the difference between first and fifth.”
In the second race of the TBF series at Folsom Lake, Byrom made his coaches look pretty smart, securing first place in the Expert 19-and-under division.
Sunday’s race not only serves as the second stop of the NorCal high school season, but also as the final race of the TBF series. And currently, Byrom stands in second place.
His quick rise to the varsity level might not surprise his coaches, but it does seem a meteoric move considering this marks just his second season on the saddle of a mountain bike. Byrom, who moved to western Nevada County just more than a year ago, did have plenty of experience on a bike, however. He had competed in BMX racing prior to coming to town.
“I’m an Air Force brat. We’ve moved all over,” said Byrom, whose father, Pat, serves at Beale Air Force Base. “We’re just starting our second year of being here. When I found out there was a team, I thought ‘Wow, this is great.’ And we have great coaches who help us out.
“Half our coaches are pros and half our coaches are top experts. Training with them five times a week, we learn something new every day.”
Debra Little, the Miners coach who founded the team, said the fact that Byrom chose to race at the varsity level, instead of dominating the junior varsity events, says a lot about his desire to improve. She said the NorCal league rules require freshmen and sophomores to compete in JV races, but after his first race – and after petitioning for the change – the league approved the move.
Little said though Byrom knows the Folsom Lake course well, it won’t provide as much an advantage as it would if it were a more difficult course. She said like the Fort Ord course, the difficulty level is low, meaning less-experienced mountain bikers aren’t at as much of a disadvantage to her Miners team.
“It should be an advantage, but it’s one of the easiest courses in terms of technical and climb,” she said. “Anytime more bike-handling skills are needed, I’d say we’re at an advantage.
“We focus a lot of our training on skill developing and the terrain we ride up here is so more demanding – and a lot of fun.”
Byrom, who says he enjoys anything outdoors – be it camping, fishing or hiking – has now fully shifted his focus from BMX racing to mountain biking, at least for the moment.
“I like mountain biking because it has endurance and a lot more aspects involved in getting faster,” he said. “And there’s more of a variety of terrain.”
Moeschler says Byrom’s BMX background clearly has helped him get off to such a strong start on the mountain bike.
“I think it really does because he knows how to handle a bike, that’s for sure,” Moeschler said. “I’m coaching and end up riding with him a couple of times a week. My wife (Erin) and I both try to give him some good advice to get him faster. Since last year, he has gotten so much more faster.
“I went through kind of the same thing as him, going from a Junior Beginner to a Junior Expert in one year and winning races in expert in the same year. I think a little bit of it is you’re training better and you’re eating better.
“But a lot of it is motivation, enjoying the sport, wanting to win and growing a bit, too.”
In moving up to the varsity level, Byrom will look to help the team expand its lead in the team standings. The Miners already had strong performers in the varsity boys division, made clear in their individual performances at the Central Coast Invitational. Evan Smith took sixth place, Brian Talbott took 19th, Ty Zwick finished 24th and Josh Smith was 25th.
On the girls side, Sarah Ely continues to dominate the varsity girls competition just as she has each level of competition. The senior has finished lower than first just twice in her four years of racing in the league. On both occasions, Little said, she was set back by mechanical malfunctions.
And, Little said, Byrom isn’t the only up-and-comer for the program. The Miners Indie team got a first place finish from freshman Christine Weir in the frosh/soph race held at Fort Ord.
“But with Nate, we just want to support him,” Little said. “We sort of want to provide a no-ceiling opportunity. It was his own decision to race with the varsity. We’re just excited. This is something that’s really going to push him.”
But while Byrom is currently focused on the mountain bike season, he’s not about to limit the opportunities for him to compete. He’s already planning to make a repeat run at this summer’s Nevada City Classic, in which he first raced in 2006.
“I’m just starting to take up road biking,” he said. “(The Classic) is so tough. After I raced it, I said ‘That’s it. My season’s over. I’m not racing anymore.’
“It was a blast, though. It’s on the top of my list of things to do this year.”
To contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4240.
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