Editors note: Originally this story was a feature in Issue #205. If you enjoy stories like these consider supporting Dirt Rag Magazine by becoming a subscriber here. Keep an eye out for more on the future of mountain biking in the coming months
Story by Eric J. Wallace
It’s a cold morning in mid-March and the sun is rising over Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Cycling an unfamiliar back road near Crozet, I round a bend and encounter an unexpected sight: mountain bikers bombing a wooded hillside some 30 yards from the pavement. Dressed in matching professional-grade helmets, white-and-cerulean compression suits, gloves and socks, they slalom through the trees like adrenaline fiends with a death wish. Whipping their bikes around the high wooden fan of a banked curve, they hit a jump, launch into the air and vanish behind a hill.
By now, I’ve pulled over. I stand on the gravel shoulder huffing the damp, chilly wind and the smell of budding leaves. A couple dozen bikers run the gauntlet. The display is awe-inspiring — like watching a herd of wild gazelles leap an 8-foot fence two and three at a time without breaking stride.
Minutes later, back on the bike, I pass a gated brick archway marking the entrance to the Miller School of Albemarle (MSA) — a private boarding school in the middle of nowhere that is home to about 200 students, grades eight through 12. A shiver bangs down my spine. Holy Moses, those bikers were … kids?
Days later, armed with a nagging curiosity and an assignment from Dirt Rag, I phone the school’s dean (and director of marketing and innovation, special programs and discipline), Peter Hufnagel, 37, and discover an astounding truth: MSA is home to the United States’ premier mountain biking program.
“Here, the sport is bigger than football, basketball, soccer, you name it,” Hufnagel tells me. “As strange as it may sound, cyclists are kind of regarded like movie stars.”
Indeed. A visit to MSA finds riders occupying top positions in the cafeteria and dormitory; they are shoo-ins for homecoming king and queen. They ride the best bikes Specialized has to offer and are sponsored by a hit parade of high-end brands. They congregate in a state-of-the-art riding clubhouse, workshop and gym, have former professionals and Olympians for coaches and are flown or bussed around the country and Europe to compete in the world’s most prestigious junior events. Student riders hail from many different countries and routinely win state and national championships. Last fall, junior Katie Clouse, 16, won national titles for both cross-country and short-track mountain biking, and this winter she became the youngest rider ever to represent the U.S. at the Cyclo-cross World Championships. After graduating, MSA riders typically become staples of top-level collegiate teams. Some, like Canadian Laurent Gervais in 2017, go pro.
“Our program is just seven years old and already has a rich history,” says MSA team director Andy Guptill. “At this point, we’ve graduated four riders into the professional ranks and had four chosen for [Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI] world championship teams. We’ve won more national and state-level championships than I can easily name. We get stronger every year and I anticipate that trend will continue.”
When Clouse turns 17, she will be the latest MSA rider to compete in professional-level UCI events. Both Guptill and head women’s coach Andrea Dvorak say it’s no secret that Clouse will be fielding offers from pro squads in the spring of 2019.
But how does something like this happen?
It all began in 2009, when Hufnagel took a job teaching English at MSA. After observing the school’s progressive philosophy in action, he had a revolutionary idea.
With its wooded 1,600-acre campus located just minutes from Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington and Jefferson national forests, the location was a cyclist and mountain biker’s dreamland. As a high-end boarding school — tuition costs as much as $50,000 a year — MSA touted a 6-1 student-teacher ratio, a learning approach that emphasized relationship building and hands-on instruction, and a 100 percent college acceptance rate. Additionally, students were required to participate in interscholastic athletics.
“I was an avid mountain biker and cyclist and had competed professionally and in college as a member of the University of Virginia cycling team,” explains Hufnagel, a former NCAA Atlantic Coast Conference champion. “Furthermore, my wife, Andrea Dvorak, was at the peak of her career as a full-time professional racer and was competing on the U.S. National Team. So I understood the realities of a kid trying to become a pro cyclist. Beyond the home, support is minimal, or even nonexistent. Chances are, you’re the only person your age that into bikes within a 150-mile radius. That can be extremely isolating.”
Factor in travel to national races and trying to juggle an education and it’s next to impossible for a serious young rider to achieve his or her full potential.
But what if there were a school that specialized in catering to the needs of mountain biking and cycling prodigies? Hufnagel envisioned a place where student-athletes would be surrounded by top-tier young riders, receive daily pro-level coaching and mentorship and compete in the world’s most prestigious junior races. Meanwhile, specially trained faculty would help them keep abreast of academics while training and on the road, ensuring they receive a quality education.
After months of mulling it over, Hufnagel decided to challenge MSA’s administrators. Setting up a meeting with the dean and various board members, he asked, “Why don’t we try to develop the world’s premier high school cycling and mountain biking program?”
Unexpectedly, the administrators loved the pitch and asked Hufnagel to develop a plan for its implementation.
“That’s when reality really sank in,” he says. “Nothing like this existed anywhere in the world. I realized [that] to make this work I was going to have to start from scratch.”
Luckily, Hufnagel had a ready-made network of consultants. With the help of former college teammates, Dvorak and professional riders and coaches from around the world, he created a strategic 20-year plan.
“Basically, I’d call our mountain biking and cycling friends and pick their brains,” he says with a laugh. “At first I’d sort of rope them into a hypothetical conversation about what they wished they’d had back in high school and they’d play along. As time went on, though, some got really invested.”
One such person was Guptill. A professional road racer and former pro mountain biker from Colorado, he was dating Dvorak’s sister and in the process of relocating to nearby Charlottesville.
“We started calling it the ‘Hogwarts for Cyclists,’ because that’s literally how Pete would pitch it,” recalls Guptill. “He’d say, ‘It has to be special enough to attract the best. Anything less than that won’t cut it!’ His enthusiasm was infectious and it drew me in. I started getting more and more involved.”
By 2011, Guptill had signed on as MSA’s first head coach.
Pragmatically speaking, to field a legitimate high school racing team, MSA needed a way to compete. Furthermore, that means had to have weight: To attract serious riders, the program had to offer a direct channel into the collegiate and professional ranks.
The solution? Create the first nationally recognized interscholastic racing series on the East Coast.
“We adopted an ‘If you build it, they will come’ mentality,” says Guptill. “We basically bet the farm on the idea that if we could provide the infrastructure and an arena for competition, students throughout the state and region would get on board and pressure athletic directors to pursue mountain biking as an interscholastic sport.”
Consequently, Hufnagel founded the Virginia High School Mountain Bike Series (VAHS MTB Series) in the spring of 2011. Sanctioned by USA Cycling, the five-race series allowed student riders to earn points, gain standing and qualify to compete in the USA Cycling National Championships. Once developed, it would serve as a conduit for collegiate, professional and Olympic teams.
The first year, however, was a major learning experience. With just 27 riders from four teams, it was about as grassroots as it gets.
“I did a bunch of calling around and managed to convince three other private schools and a composite team from the Shenandoah Valley to participate,” says Hufnagel. At home, the MSA squad consisted of seven riders pulled from the cross-country track team, riding borrowed bikes. “The races had zero production value. While we had some protocols in place, we were basically making it up as we went along.”
Today, however, things are very different. The VAHS MTB Series has become hugely competitive and offers events for elementary school kids on up to high schoolers. It has expanded to include 32 teams — 25 from public and private high schools, seven from county-based composite squads — and features more than 500 riders. Attend a race and you encounter a scene that looks much like a pro-level event. There are grandstands, food vendors, signs for sponsors and huge inflatable finish lines. As many as 1,000 spectators attend. Winners ascend podiums and are awarded medals before cheering crowds. Leader’s jerseys are exchanged and standings are tracked via the series’ website. Earlier this spring, the opening race, held at MSA’s 12-mile XC course, became the biggest junior-level mountain biking event ever held on the East Coast.
Fielding a team of 30 varsity and junior varsity riders, MSA routinely sweeps the podium and has been home to every state and series champion since 2011.
When Dvorak retired from pro cycling in 2014, she accepted official positions as race director for the VAHS MTB Series and head women’s coach at MSA. There, her immediate goal was to expand the school’s programming to include a fall season. While the team was traveling to participate in events like the Green Mountain Stage Race in Vermont, they needed more competition, closer to home.
“We’d had success with private schools but knew we could inspire a higher level of long-term participation and competition by making the sport more mainstream,” explains Dvorak. “We needed it to be viewed like basketball, soccer, football or whatever. But for that to happen, we had to get mountain biking into the public schools.”
Partnering with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), Dvorak sought to develop a Virginia High School League (VHSL)–sanctioned interscholastic mountain biking series. First, she contacted mountain biking clubs and organizations throughout the state. Citing the success of the VAHS MTB Series — it had grown to include 15 teams and more than 200 riders in just three years — she asked the clubs to help establish a network of willing coaches and student riders.
“Using West Coast programs as a template, I knew school-based teams typically began with a group of area enthusiasts and built critical mass from there,” she says. “But I needed a pilot team to show that the transition into a public-school environment would really work.”
If Dvorak could secure eight riders and a coach from a single school district, she could approach its athletic director (AD) about forming a team.
“NICA will take care of insurance, certifying coaches, scheduling competitions — pretty much everything you need to start an HSL program,” she says. “So, if you have active parental and community involvement, and adequate student interest, that makes it really hard for an AD to say no.”
Ultimately, Dvorak found a pair of willing allies in Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club president Sam Lindblom and Monticello High School (MHS) director of athletics Matthew Pearman. Together, the three founded Virginia’s first public-school-based mountain biking team.
In the fall of 2015, the MHS squad raced against MSA, 12 other private schools and two composite teams in the first Virginia Interscholastic Cycling League series.
“In a way, it was a big risk, because nothing like this had ever been tried before in the state,” says Pearman. “However, knowing I had MSA to turn to — that gave me the confidence to go for it. If [Hufnagel and Dvorak] wouldn’t have been there to answer questions and help with logistics, I doubt it would’ve happened. I would’ve been afraid we’d look like the Bad News Bears and embarrass ourselves.”
Instead, the pilot was a huge success. In just three seasons, the MHS team has grown to include 20 riders. Pearman has become instrumental in expanding mountain biking into more than 15 public schools around the state and is a go-to resource for ADs looking to implement programs in North Carolina, Maryland, West Virginia and elsewhere.
Looking to the future, Dvorak, now league director of the VICL, says she hopes to work with other state-based NICA leagues to develop both an East Coast and a national championship series.
For three-time VICL and VAHS MTB Series state champion and MSA senior standout Gus Myers, mountain biking is a full-time passion. Competing in the fall, spring and summer, he takes a short break from racing each winter — when his schedule is filled instead with long, cardio-heavy rides in the mountains.
At MSA, Myers’ mornings begin at 6 a.m., when he meets with fellow riders in the weight room. After an hour-long workout, they shower, eat breakfast and attend classes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then it’s off to the bike room to prepare for practice at the school’s dirt track, which runs until 5:30. Practice is followed by dinner with the team and a mandatory study hall. When Myers finally returns to his room around 9:45, he’ll either finish homework or read a bit before hitting the sack. Weekends are devoted to races, and the team often travels for weeks at a time competing in places like California, Colorado, upstate New York, West Virginia or even Europe. While on the road, they are accompanied by tutors who host study halls in hotel rooms, coffee shops or even on the bus. Meanwhile, Myers is expected to communicate with teachers via Skype, Blackboard and/or email on a daily basis.
The schedule is grueling, but Myers says it’s worth it.
Last fall, despite missing an entire race, he took fourth place overall in the VICL series. He is a favorite to win this spring’s VAHS MTB Series and recently signed a letter of intent to ride — on scholarship — for Davidson College in North Carolina next fall. This summer, he’ll race for the Kelly Benefits U23 professional development team. Like most of his peers at MSA, after graduating from college, Myers intends to compete as a full-time professional.
“To race at this level requires a lot of sacrifice,” he explains. “My life basically consists of schoolwork, sleeping and biking. It’s tremendously demanding, but we do everything together as a team, and having that support really helps. Plus, our coaches are there mentoring us at every turn. Along with the teachers, they help you sort of get into a groove. Eventually, you get used to it and it becomes a routine.”
Hailing from New Jersey, Myers came to MSA as a freshman. Like pretty much every other rider at the school, he’s quick to assert that the decision was life-changing. For him, it meant finding a home so ideal it seemed like a fairytale.
“This is a very, very special program,” he says. “Before I came here, I was viewed as ‘that weird kid that spends all his time on a bike.’ People didn’t understand, and they didn’t support me. In middle school, I didn’t know a single kid that lived within 100 miles of my house that was super into mountain biking. But here, I’m surrounded by peers that are as serious about the sport as I am. Our coaches and teachers care deeply about what we’re doing. I have a support structure that allows me to thrive and push myself as hard as I possibly can. People think we’re joking when we compare the school to Hogwarts, but we’re not. For us, it’s absolutely true.”