From the Top of the World, the horizon appears endless for the newest after-school sport in Laguna Beach.
Laguna Beach High and Thurston Middle School launched a mountain bike team this year that will compete in the growing National Interscholastic Cycling Assn. The organization was established five years ago with a goal of having mountain bike teams competing from schools in every state by 2020.
Because plenty of trails and natural terrain are needed, the hills of Laguna seem an ideal spot for the start-up team. Eight to 10 mostly middle-schoolers have been training for the last month, meeting at Alta Laguna Park.
Tony Zentil, a manager at Oakley Sunglasses, longtime mountain biker and father of sixth-grader Tasha, coaches the team his daughter enthusiastically joined. Riding buddy Bob Snyder has been certified as the assistant coach.
Qualifying to lead a team takes much more than a love of the sport. The cycling association requires that coaches go through at least two phases of preparation that include "wilderness first aid, CPR training, of course, mountain bike skills coaching and a background check," Zentil said.
The team will be competing in a series of five cross-country meets between March and May. The season culminates in the California championships.
The volunteer coaches are committed to educating young riders on all aspects of the sport, beginning with proper bike maintenance that includes knowing how to check brakes and tire pressure and make seat adjustments. For now, practices consist of drills for balance, agility, gear shifting and crash response.
The fundamentals start with "safety and confidence on the bike," Zentil said. "Understanding the terrain, the risks, what it means to ride a bike off-road. So starting with the basics first, then building fitness and skills. Then at some point as we get more into racing, it becomes more team-oriented, leadership, things of that nature that you would get from a real kind of team-sport environment."
Snyder said he had a strong desire to coach because he knows what it is like to miss that early direction.
"I would've loved to have this when I was a kid in high school, so I thought it would be great to come out here and show the kids stuff that I didn't learn for 10 years because I just rode on my own," he said. "We can teach them stuff in the first two months that's going to allow them to ride exponentially better."
Zentil believes the new mountain bike team can follow the same path as another recreational activity that has ridden the wave into mainstream scholastic sports: Surfing.
"I look at the surf team here at Laguna Beach as kind of a model, where it's sanctioned by an outside organization, it was not part of the athletic program at the school, but as the parents and community saw value, it was added to the school program," he said.
Laguna Beach High has had a co-ed surf team since 1987, and has established itself as one of the top programs competing in the scholastic surf series.
Like the shoreline for surfers, the hills around Laguna give team members to a chance to appreciate what they have.
"Working on the trails and looking after the land is just as important as riding on it," Snyder said. "If we don't look after it, it might not be here to ride on it."