Helena Magazine

Hitting the trails: Helena Mountain Bike Team enjoys statewide success

Published 5:54 pm Sunday, July 2, 2023

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Written by Stephen Dawkins | Photos by Jeremy Raines

Mountain biking is a growing sport in the state of Alabama—and at Helena High School, where the club team finished a 2023 season that was its best yet. In just its third year of existence, the Helena Mountain Bike Team finished second in the state’s Division 2.

The team began with the 2021 season. Previously, mountain bikers from Helena were part of the Shelby County composite team, along with students at Thompson, Chelsea, and other local schools. Once the Shelby County team grew too large, the schools formed their own individual teams.

There were around 12 or 14 racers at the beginning, said Jennifer Nichols, who served as the team’s first director. For the 2023 season, the Helena Mountain Bike Team had 20 racers, ranging from sixth graders all the way up to high school seniors.

In addition to the second-place finish in the state, the Helena Mountain Bike Team had numerous riders earn podium finishes, and Hannah Dyer, an upcoming junior at HHS, was the state champion for the JV 2 category.

Also, Jax Phelps finished the season fourth in the state in the varsity category and will continue with the University of Montevallo cycling team, which is coached by Nichols. The UM team is the first varsity program in Alabama, but colleges across the country have begun offering scholarships for cycling programs.

“I think these kids have an opportunity now,” Nichols said. “If they enjoy cycling and racing, they can continue at the collegiate level—it can actually turn into a potential scholarship, and they can continue doing what they love.”

But before thoughts turn to college scholarships, mountain biking has much to offer. Sara Steidinger said her daughter Autumn decided to give the team a try after playing several sports and participating in various activities prior to her seventh grade year.

“We were just looking for something a little bit different,” Sara Steidinger said. “They want everybody to have a good time and enjoy the ride. They taught her a lot of basic skills to ride better and enjoy it more. Every time she rides, you’re racing against people but really you’re trying to beat your best time—how can I be my best self out there on the trail? They teach you about respecting nature and other people at the parks. For me, I didn’t realize how big of a growing sport it is. It was surprising to see the environment of race day. It’s a great experience.”

Autumn also enjoyed success this past season, finishing fifth in the state in her division.

The team travels across the state for competitions, to locations including Huntsville and Gadsden but also locally at Oak Mountain State Park and Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park. The competition season is typically February through May.

Some competitors in the Alabama Cycling Association are smaller schools with about 10 riders, while larger schools like Hoover High School and Oak Mountain High School may have 60 riders, with divisions based on the sizes of the teams.

Across the state, there is a common thread: the growth of the sport. “It’s growing very fast,” Nichols said.

Anyone wanting more information about the team, including sponsorship opportunities, should contact Director Tony Phelps at Helenahighmtb@gmail.com. Also, check out the team’s Facebook (Helena Mountain Bike Team) and Instagram (helena_high_mtb) pages.

The team is not sanctioned by Helena High School and thus relies on donations for equipment and other needs.

“When we started our team and went out on our own, we had a lot of equipment we needed to buy,” Nichols said. “We did a lot of fundraising.”

Phelps said there are opportunities on the team for anyone who might be interested—from complete beginners to more experienced racers.

“I feel like the ones that cycle know about us, but a lot of people in those younger middle school grades, they might not know as much as they need to—that we’re out there and this program is available,” Phelps said.