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Off the road: Senior cross-country mountain biker races against the mainstream

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Off the road: Senior cross-country mountain biker races against the mainstream

Senior Liam Gima-Lange is one of only two cross country mountain bike racers at Lowell.

Senior Liam Gima-Lange is one of only two cross country mountain bike racers at Lowell.

Lauren Caldwell

Senior Liam Gima-Lange is one of only two cross country mountain bike racers at Lowell.

Lauren Caldwell

Lauren Caldwell

Senior Liam Gima-Lange is one of only two cross country mountain bike racers at Lowell.

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Cross country mountain biking is not for the faint of heart. Being covered head to toe in mud while biking through steep trails in the wilderness sounds torturous to almost anyone. But senior cross country mountain biker Liam Gima-Lange doesn’t mind. In fact, he embraces it. “Mud is like no object at this point,” he said. “I would slather myself in it if I had to.”

For four years, Gima-Lange has been riding with the San Francisco Composite team, which competes in the Norcal High School Cycling League. Gima-Lange started mountain biking with his parents when he was young. He then joined SF Composite in his freshman year. Although a family friend introduced him to the team, it was his teammates who convinced him to stay and start racing more seriously.

Gima-Lange races through the Monterey hills during the Laguna Seca Norcal Cycling League race on March 10. Photo by Eric Gustafson

In past years, Gima-Lange has proven himself to be one of the strongest riders on his team, placing 21st in the freshman division, seventh in the sophomore division and tenth in the junior varsity division championships. Despite feeling hesitant about competing in the varsity division, Gima-Lange is still aiming to place in the top ten and beat his teammate, Urban High School senior Kai Dalton. “I’m in varsity now and it’s full of very very strong riders,” Gima-Lange said. “So I’m not sure, I’m just kind of like in the middle, which is fine.” Throughout this season, he has shown improvement, moving up from 17th place out of 26 in his first two races to 13th place out of 25 in the next, and 11th place out of 20 in his latest race.

“I’ve gotten poison oak, I’ve fallen off my bike many times, I have scars on my knees.”

In order to survive the grueling races, often filled with rough terrain and unpredictable obstacles, a cross country mountain biker has to be prepared for just about anything. Races can vary significantly depending on the course: some are hot and dusty while others are muddy and rocky. “I’ve gotten poison oak, I’ve fallen off my bike many times, I have scars on my knees,” Gima-Lange said.

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To Gima-Lange, racing is both painful and exhilarating. One of the hardest challenges of racing are the steep hills. “You’re climbing a lot of the time, which is really rough,” he explained. But wherever there is an uphill, there is a downhill, which, according to Gima-Lange, is the best part of biking. “You kind of fly downhill at such awesome speeds, there’s a thrill, there’s kind of a rush,” he said. Although navigating through rocks and roots can be intimidating, especially for beginners, the technical skills required to get around obstacles can be gained through practice and experience.

Racing is as mentally challenging as it is physically challenging. During his hour-and-a-half-long races, Gima-Lange has a lot of time to think. He thinks a lot about how much pain he’s in and fights feelings of anxiety and doubt, often times asking himself why he continues to race. “I mean, it’s usually just anxiety about the person behind me, or anxiety about the person I want to catch up with,” Gima-Lange said. However, his setbacks motivate him to train harder and he always ends a race in a positive mindset.

With teammate Katie Hurley cheering him on, Gima-Lange on his way to a strong finish at Six Sigma Ranch on May 6. Photo courtesy @UPWARDPROGRESS

Gima-Lange works hard with his team and, after four years on SF Composite, has grown close to his 15 teammates, despite the fact most of them attend different schools and have varying skill levels. “It’s just like a bunch of friends riding their bikes around,” he said. Gima-Lange recalled a memorable instance where he finished a race tied for third place with teammate Dalton. As he approached the end of the race, Gima-Lange found himself right next to his friend, and they held hands and crossed the finish line.

Led by a group of volunteer coaches, the San Francisco Composite team practices two days a week during the racing season, usually meeting up at either Golden Gate Park or Mount Sutro to ride for about an hour and a half. Gima-Lange spends the other three days out of the school week, as well as the weekend, training by himself on longer rides; he also bikes to school most days. Although his schedule seems busy, Gima-Lange considers it to be no more challenging than being in other sports. “My schedule’s pretty tame compared to a lot of other people,” he said.

He plans to join a road cycling team and continue biking at UC Santa Cruz.

Although Gima-Lange’s high school days are coming to an end, his passion for biking isn’t. He plans to join a road cycling team and continue biking at UC Santa Cruz. Throughout the years, biking has taught him how to work hard and push through obstacles in his life. “Biking is one of the first things that I’ve put a lot of time and effort into,” Gima-Lange said. “It’s like a gauge of how much I can put into something that I’m passionate about, and how hard I’m willing to work for it.”

“I just wish people knew more about cross country mountain biking, just to begin with. And if they knew, then they could try it out and see how fun it is, because it’s so fun.”

Gima-Lange hopes that cross country mountain biking might be considered a mainstream sport someday. “I just wish people knew more about cross country mountain biking, just to begin with,” Gima-Lange said. “And if they knew, then they could try it out and see how fun it is, because it’s so fun.”

His hope may soon become a reality, as over the past few years, high school mountain bike racing has been growing quickly. The Norcal league alone is gaining an average of 404 riders a year. (There is also a Socal High School Cycling league. Both are part of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association.)

One of these 404 riders is freshman Keil Fehlberg, who joined the SF Composite team this year, effectively doubling Lowell’s participation in the sport. Fehlberg joined SF Composite after hearing about the team from a coach’s daughter. Although Fehlberg had previously been encouraged from a young age by his parents to start cycling recreationally, he did not start biking and competing seriously until this year, when he joined the SF Composite team. Fehlberg has made sacrifices in order to balance biking, extracurriculars and Lowell academics. “[Biking is] more of a hobby, but I’m serious about that hobby,” he said.

Gima-Lange encourages anyone interested in biking to just come to practice with SF Composite. “When [people] come to practice and they see what practices are like, pretty much all of them, so far, decide to be a part of it, because it’s something that’s amazing to watch and it’s something that’s really fun to be a part of,” he said.

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Off the road: Senior cross-country mountain biker races against the mainstream