NICA: In league With the Next Generation; an Interview with Oregon’s Heather Wolfgang

Words by Kyle von Hoetzendorff, photos by Gritchelle Fallesgon, Dan Sharp, Lauren Bell, Dylan VanWeelden

I raced mountain bikes as a teenager. It was great, super fun. And I am here now, in this space, in your mind, in a large part because that experience set in motion a long series of events. You get it. Racing or even riding hasn’t been a constant in my life and back then, even before the allure of anodized parts and the thrilling rush of a fast descent was ambushed and summarily executed by the thrumming belligerence of teenage hormones I knew a lot went into racing. There was the obvious, the training and the expense; from equipment to entry fees, cycling is definitely not frisbee cheap.

I grew up in the sticks, a place rife with mountains but lacking in people, and racing requires people. In order to bang bars, test our strength, and buy some T&C Surf shirts or whatever, we had to drive and my mother, bless her, spent a large part of her summers driving me and my friends all over California to race. Bikes stacked 4, 5, even 6 deep off the back of our silver 240 DL wagon. Despite all precautions, it was inevitable that a barend would lightly but incessantly tap on the rear window as we levitated down up and down the 395, a shining gray testament to one woman’s feeling of maternal debt.

In the ’90s there wasn’t much in the way of support for young racers, or even young riders. We all just gleaned what we could from the magazines and went riding whenever possible. We ate disgusting Power Bars and carbo-loaded on bottomless spaghetti the night before the race. Racing then, as now, is brutally hard.  And like most hard things, as in hard as a choice, as in latent fun type 2 things in retrospect they almost always end up being memorable if not actually a positive.

So there’s that experience, it wasn’t just about the racing but about the everything, the fart jokes, the early morning training rides, the long stretches of road with U2’s Joshua Tree or Bad Religion’s Generator playing through our tape deck. It was about staying in random hotels, getting pre-race jitters, 90 mile an hour speeding tickets, and lonely flat tires, all of that trying and all of that failing. This is character, and I feel ancient for saying it, but it is and was so worth it.

Thankfully other folks more inspired and visionary than myself also saw the value in this experience and formed NICA, The National Interscholastic Cycling Association to help kids and their parents chart a roadmap to assist in fostering these kinds of experiences. Kids and parents alike can capital F  Find each other and ride, travel, and make fart jokes together. This Is So Completely Rad.  Heather said that one of the most compelling parts of the program is how it helps to build a forum for parents and their kids to ride together. She said that racing is really a small part of what NICA does, that at its heart their main goal is to help get kids and their parents and families get out on bikes and into nature.

Does this mean that current and future generations won’t be listening to culture clash music while speeding down the highway? Does this mean racing will get easier? That character-building is cheapened? No, of course not, it just means that there’s less suck in the margins, it just means more community and now, as much as any other time is so incredibly important.

What is your name and title?

Heather Wolfgang , Executive Director, Oregon League

Tell me a little bit of your history, how did you come to work for NICA 

As a kid growing up on a dirt road in Florida, riding my bike with my brother was how we passed the time. I moved to California when I was 21, and a couple of years later did a bike tour through Alaska and the Canadian Rockies. That’s another story, but the bottom line is that that tour changed my life completely. I got back to California, started working at a bike shop, racing ‘cross and mountain bikes, going out for these long long rides every weekend. It was a way of therapy that incorporated mindful focus with an integration of physical strength and space, which was completely new to me. In my late 20s, I was invited to ride with the San Francisco Composite high school mountain bike team (part of the NorCal League), and I honestly wasn’t that eager to say yes. High school wasn’t a great experience for me and I wasn’t too pumped to hang out with what I expected to be judgemental and angsty teens. But I was wrong. These kids were so much fun, and like the cycling community as a whole, were so welcoming and ready to just ride bikes together. It was really that pure. So I did the necessary training to get certified as a coach and worked with the team for four years. I also served as a board member and then employee for the NorCal League for three years. My husband and I decided in 2016 to move to Oregon and the opportunity to get involved with the Oregon League opened up, so here we are.

What is NICA. Can you give us a history of the Association – how’d it start, where’d it start, etc.

Here’s the story I’ve been told: It’s 1999 in Berkeley, California. Berkeley High School math teacher, Matt Fritzinger, wanted to start a road cycling team, but the kids wanted it to be a mountain bike team. So it was. The Berkeley High School mountain bike team started racing in local mountain bike races and then, with other high school teams in northern California, decided to put on their own races just for high schoolers. It wasn’t until 2009 that NICA officially formed. NICA’s deal is to help new leagues get off the ground and support existing leagues with everything from spitballing new programs to registration and accounting. They also provide risk management training and develop the coach licensing certification.

How did you first hear about NICA and what drew you towards it.

The first bike shop I first worked for in San Francisco – that’s when I first heard about it. The shop sponsored the NorCal League and after a while I finally got out to a race and  helped out a bit. I didn’t really think too much of it and I had imagined that I’d show up at the event and it’d be like all the other mountain and ‘cross races I’d been to, but it was completely different. I showed up and saw hundreds and hundreds of teenagers riding around on bikes, cheering on all riders–not just their teammates–an announcer yelling each kids’ name as they passed the finish line, teams grilling lunch together. It was massive. It was also very legit and proof that if you build it, they will come. There were a lot of kids that were so new to riding and they were out there on that course with a number pinned and were so stoked because they were being seen and supported for their effort.

I know NICA is about much more than racing, can you tell me all the different things that NICA is involved with?

With the help of leagues throughout the country, NICA has developed some great programming outside of racing, including Teen Trail Corps, GRiT, and adventure programming. Teen Trail Corps was designed to get NICA riders involved in bike related trail advocacy, because we know if you’re a mountain biker, you’re implicitly a land and trail steward. GRiT was developed because we wanna get more girls and women on bikes. NICA’s average female student-athlete participation is around 20% and we’re set on getting that number at least to 33% within the next couple of years. The adventure programming came about when kids wanted to get involved with mountain biking but didn’t feel a strong connection to racing. Racing is good for a number of things–challenge, conquering nerves, mind over matter–but not everybody gets into it. Most adult cyclists ride together for the adventurous nature of it, and that’s something we want to expose middle and high schoolers to outside of the racing platform.

In which states does NICA currently have a presence. What states / locations are looking to come online.

It won’t be too long until all states have a NICA presence. Mark my words on that. I can’t speak to what states are currently putting bids in for new leagues but our most recent additions are Florida, Montana, Indiana, South Carolina, and Missouri. To find out more, check this out.

In Oregon the race series happens in the fall. Is this true nationwide?  Why the fall?

Leagues host races during the school year (spring or fall) that have the best weather for riding and the best weather for not wrecking trails. We hold our race series in the fall because much of Oregon is still covered in snow through the springtime, and if it isn’t covered in snow, it’s most likely some combination of sloppy and peanut butter mud. We like having good adventure and shenanigans out there in the woods, but considering 90% of our attendees have never raced and 76% have never ridden dirt before joining NICA we don’t want kids getting all stoked on mountain biking only to be freezing and soggy every race weekend; brake pads filed down to the metal, purple lips and chittery teeth. If we’re going to optimize the opportunity we have to get these kids on mountain bikes, you bet we’re going to share it with them when the leaves are changing’, the birds are singing, ferns and trees are flowing in the wind, and the sun is doing it’s autumnal best.

Does NICA work directly with school districts? What is the nature of the relationship?

NICA doesn’t directly work with school districts, but our teams do. NICA’s got a lot of national business on their plates to handle, but coaches and families in communities will work with their local schools to get a school-based mountain biking clubs formed.

What are some ways that people can get involved with NICA? Asked a different way what have been the most successful avenues/entry points that people have used NICA?

As an adult, start a team or get involved with your local team. Volunteer at a race, donate your knowledge as an advisory board member, sponsor your team or league or NICA. This is a great place to start.

As a student-athlete, NICA is an avenue to community and stewardship. See what local teams are in your area, and if there’s not one, rally up your friends to create one.

Does NICA have resources for interested people and parties looking to start their own teams and associations?  

If you’re hankering to start your own league, you can check out what that process looks like here. Keep in mind it will serve you well to keep the long view on this project, because it takes a while to get a bid together and approved, bring together your core community of people to support you and the mission to implement your dream of a league’s programming, spread the word, get permits for your venues, get your coaches trained, and on and on. It’s so worth it but just know that, as with all great and awesome things, it’s going to take time, love, and patience. If you’re in a state that already has a league and you’d like to get in on the action, you can get in touch with your state’s League director and get a conversation going. Most leagues have a map available on their site with all the local teams already established, so you can peep those and see if there’s a team nearby that you can connect with. League coaches are a great resource since they’ve been through the process, so if you know somebody that’s already involved, take them out for a drink and see what steps they took to get to where they are, what they’ve learned along the way, and what advice they have if they were to do it again.

Who to follow: Oregon League’s IG is @oregonmtb and FB is  The website is and NICA’s is