SOUTHERN UTAH – The Southern Utah Flying Monkeys, a cross-country mountain biking team for high school students, is reinventing traditional team sports by providing a casual, yet competitive, outlet for riders of all skill levels.
“There isn’t really anything like it,” Berlyn Slemboski, 17, said. “Mountain biking has always been more of an independent sport.”
Organized in 2012, the team is comprised of about 15 Washington County students in grades 9-12. It is part of the Utah High School Cycling League, operating under the National Interscholastic Cycling Association.
The Flying Monkeys challenge the conventional structure of team sports by eliminating tryouts and the bench. Regardless of skill level, any student willing to make a season-long commitment to the team, can join. Riders collect points depending on their race results, which are counted toward both their individual scores and the team scores.
“If you want to ride and race, all we ask is that you be dedicated,” team director Ron Jensen said. “If your goal is just to finish your first race, we’ll give you the same amount of support as if you’re riding to stand on top of the podium.”
Cross-country mountain biking is a sport of focus and endurance, in which the fittest athlete will reach the finish line first. Statistically less dangerous than most mainstream, especially contact, sports, the maximum speed a rider will reach is about 11 miles per hour. Trails cover mostly flat terrain.
Like rugby and lacrosse, mountain biking is rapidly gaining popularity among student-athletes in Southern Utah, even though it isn’t yet a sanctioned high school sport. Jensen and his colleagues are working with the Washington County School District and area schools to raise interest, and hope to eventually earn recognition from the Utah High School Activities Association.
Until then, the Flying Monkeys will promote, and enjoy, their passion along the dusty red trails of Southern Utah.
“It’s a really unique sport that hopefully gets bigger throughout the years,” Slemboski said.
The team is a melting pot of skill and experience levels, among them accomplished riders with serious talent. Lex Avina, 15, brought the Flying Monkeys pride by winning the state championship in Moab in November 2013.
Not a fan of more popular youth sports like football and baseball, Avina started mountain biking at age 5. In preparation for the upcoming season, he’s been taking classes at a local bike shop and “riding a lot harder” with the goal of repeating his big win.
Slemboski, already a proficient rider, joined the Flying Monkeys with the hope of sharing her passion with other youth. She was a solid competitor throughout the season, taking second place in her division at State.
Though she’s set to graduate from high school in May, she plans to keep riding and has been asked to be a Flying Monkeys coach.
“What’s great about mountain biking is that it’s truly a lifetime sport,” Jensen said. “It’s something people participate in from the time they’re teenagers until they’re retired. It’s something I hope they’re introduced to sooner, rather than later, in life.”
Jensen is among 12 volunteer coaches, all experienced mountain bikers licensed to instruct by the Utah High School Cycling League.
“The coaches are another amazing aspect of the team,” Slemboski said. “There are so many amazing coaches that have been riding for years and years, and they are all there on their free time, supporting and helping because they want you to improve as much as you can.”
The team’s practice schedule is designed in phases, so that each student-athlete is individually prepared for race season. First is the “base” phase, in which youth ride at lower speeds, learning bike handling and safety, and gradually increase their ride duration to gain endurance.
Next is the “build” phase, which adds strength and power by increasing the amount of hill climbing and extending the ride duration. Last is the “peak” phase, incorporating challenging, fast-paced race simulation.
After the first week of orientation, riders will be split into four skill-based groups. Each week, they’re evaluated and may be moved to another group as they advance.
“We provide the coaching, training and the skills they need,” Jensen said.
This summer, the Flying Monkeys will return to the dirt for the 2014 season. Registration is open until June 26, and membership is expected to increase to at least 25 students.
Practice rides are held three or four times a week throughout the season, starting July 1. The season consists of five competitive races at venues across Utah. The state championships will be held in the St. George area.
Registration costs $250, including a team jersey, shorts, T-shirt, hat, gear bag, water bottles and additional supplies. A $50 fee must be paid to the league, along with a race entry fee of $40 and travel fee of $50 per event. Additionally, every rider is required to have their own mountain bike and 12 pieces of equipment for maintenance, repair and safety.
To help with expenses, the team has partnered with a few local bike shops to offer student discounts, and for spare bikes. The Utah High School Cycling League has a scholarship fund available for students in need of financial assistance.
“It’s a sweet team, and it’s way cool because anyone can do it,” Avina said.
Resources and more info
- Coach Ron Jensen – 435-862-1666 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Southern Utah Flying Monkeys – Facebook
- 2014 season information (.PDF)
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