By Cimarron Chacon
Imagine a High School team sport where there is no school rivalry, no try outs, no gender specifics, and no experience or equipment necessary. The very thought might go against everything you were taught about high school and team sports, but the outcome, well it is everything team sports should be about – TEAM SPIRIT.
I am talking about High School Mountain Biking, and specifically the southern Utah team The Flying Monkeys. From the start this team was molded by the vision of one community leader; dad, mountain biker, and coach Ron Jensen. The Flying Monkeys were started unofficially only 4 years ago, according to current Coach Danny Christensen, when Ron got his kids together with a handful of other youth who were interested in forming a team. They would head out on mountain biking pilgrimages, seeking trails to ride and dreaming of joining the Utah High School Cycling League (UTAHMTB.org), a state chapter of National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). The group was small and the kids were all from different high schools in Washington County so they would form what is called a composite (multi-school) team. All they needed was a name. According to Christensen, this came from a quiet youth named Bridger on a return trip from Moab during one of Jenson’s early group training trips.
If you are from southern Utah you know the term “flying monkey” is synonymous with Hurricane Mesa, one of the first mesas you pass on your way to Zion National Park. After the end of World War II, the military built a small runway on the top of the mesa to test jet propulsion ejection devices. The track allowed for a 1500 foot vertical drop off the mesa to the valley floor below. Some of the earliest test pilots were apes. Since the project ended the mesa has been nicknamed the Flying Monkey mesa. In 2002, an old road that used to lead to the top was converted into a technical downhill mountain bike trail baring the same name. So the for a brave new group of youth mountain bikers, the name The Flying Monkeys was perfect.
Jenson was able to round up a few coaches and recruited 16 racers (1 female) the first season the Flying Monkeys composite team began. By year two the team grew to 45 team athletes, and this year (year 3) the official roster has reached 74 racers ( 59 boys and 15 girls), 8 head coaches, and 56 community and parent volunteer ride leaders. All coaches are volunteers and they dedicate a huge amount of time so the season can come together. In summer, it is not unusual for day time highs to be above 105 in southern Utah, so the Flying Monkeys training time starts at 6:00 am four times a week. Coaches put in an additional 4 hours or more on meeting and administrative duties, and those on the governing board put in even more time.
Since the team began it has belonged to the community. It is not unusual for the team to receive random donations of helmets, cycling clothing, even bikes, so that kids with no mountain biking background can have what they need to train and race. The Flying Monkeys have become the southern Utah Brand. Not just parents and coaches, but ordinary community mountain biking advocates can be seen sporting a “Monkey” Sticker on their car or wearing a “Monkey” hat around town. It is this brand that has helped the athletes surpasses the attitudes that can come with school rivalry as the sport has grown. The Flying Monkeys are now in fact 5 separate teams belonging to four of the major High Schools in Washington County ( Snow Canyon, Desert Hills, Dixie, and Pine View) , and a 5th composite team with students from the smaller schools and charter schools where there are no sanctioned sports. But when this group gets together to train and race they share the spirit of one team – The Flying Monkeys!
According to Coach Danny Christensen it is about building a cycling community. The unwritten goal is to achieve no less than 3 degrees of separation from any one person in the community and a Monkey. They are reaching this goal not just by doubling participation each year, but by recruiting the younger freshman and sophomore students. The coaching philosophy is about building a citizen mountain biker, not just honing an athlete. “We encourage kids and parents to contribute full participation in an event,” said Christensen, “They come to race, and to support others in racing, and the whole idea of the event.” He said coaches, athletes and parents will stay the entire day at a race and help with set-up, clean-up, and cheer for each and every kids who crosses the finish line. Whether they are 1st place or 71st place they get the same enthusiastic cheer and praise. Racers also contribute to trail project work days and support other mountain biking events held in Southern Utah.
Now that the team is back into the racing season, I asked Coach Danny Christensen how the kids did considering they train in 100 plus degree weather while other schools have the advantage of training in cooler high altitude regions. He indicated that according to professional coach and ultra-endurance legend Lynda Wallenfels (also a Monkey Coach), that training in heat can simulate training at higher altitudes. Further, since race day was exceptionally hot, the Flying Monkeys were fully prepared for the race conditions.
As any mountain bike racer knows, seeing women at a mountain bike race can be a rare experience. Statistically, participation by females at races is between 10 and 25 %, depending on the technical nature of the race. One half of The Flying Monkeys coaching staff are female, creating a comfortable atmosphere for high school girls to join the team. “NICA is different from other sports,” Said Coach Kim Christensen “It evens the playing field between genders. It makes the girls tough by encouraging them to make personal accomplishments and sharing them with their peers. For the girls it’s not about the competition, it’s about the comradery.” Coach Kim Christensen went on to explain how the policies of no try-outs and no experience break down the barriers that usually keep girls from joining high school sports. “It is not about popularity at all.” She explains how amazing it is to watch the girls gain a personal confidence that many women don’t get to experience until they are much older and away from stereotyped social norms.
The first race of the season was this past weekend at Soldier Hollow. It was the largest Utah Mountain Biking race so far, with 917 kids participating. According to NICA statistics, the Utah High School Cycling League now represents 25% of all NICA athletes, making it larger than either the NorCAL or SoCal Divisions. With a group this large, the Monkeys are also shining, with their share of exceptional athletes who are routinely on the podium. Watch out for Lex Avina, who often dominates his field and has also shown he can race and win against the big boys. Lex took 3rd at the True Grit 50 in 2014 in the age category 14-39 as a high school sophomore, and this year took 6th in the Single Speed Category, just behind his coaches Kenny Jones (4th) and Danny Christensen (3rd). Other star athletes worth mentioning include Greg Ball, Josh Wilde, Ethan Hurst and Stockton Jones. You can regularly see these guys racing year-round. They will follow up the high school season, by immediately jumping into the Southern Utah Cyclocross Series, then jumping onto teams during the 6 hours in Frog Hollow.
If we weren’t sure before, mountain biking has taken hold in Utah, and Utah High School Mountain biking and the Flying Monkeys are building our future racers and the mountain bike community for years to come.
Race Results http://www.utahmtb.org/results
You can follow The Flying Monkeys on their facebook page: facebook.com/groups/173024152863378/
To get involved with the Utah High School Mountain Bike League, visit utahmtb.org