There are few areas as ideal for mountain biking as Crozet, a town that boasts some of the highest elevations and most accessible mountain biking in the region. Crozet’s Jackie Neilon discovered her own passion for cycling and later mountain biking following an injury to her Iliotibial Band, a tendon that runs the length of the thigh, after which she began to cycle as a form of cross-training. Just a few short years later, Neilon has emerged as one of the top female mountain bikers in the state, recently placing second in the Virginia state ranking.
“I remember watching competitions like the Tour de France with my family when I was a kid and always thinking how amazing it seemed,” Neilon recalled. “But I never thought competitive biking was something I would end up doing. But after I got injured and began biking to stay in shape, I realized how much I loved it and wanted to start taking it seriously.”
Neilon got her first mountain bike as a Christmas present when she began high school and she entered races the following spring. Over the past few years, Neilon has competed in races across the state.
“After getting that bike is when I began really training. Unfortunately, the time that I wanted to really start entering as many competitions as possible is when Covid hit, but that just motivated me to get a lot of training in on my own.”
Neilon developed her mountain biking abilities largely on her own, as there was never a fully established team for her to race with in high school. Western Albemarle has a mountain biking club in which she was the only girl, and there was never an established head coach. Even after she transferred to Monticello High School to join the Health Academy for her senior year of high school, she continued honing her ability mostly independently.
“My mountain biking training looks different each day,” Neilon said. “Some days I practice my stamina skills like climbing or my technical skills like my track stands and wheelies. That sort of thing. Other days I work on descending or improving my endurance.”
While Neilon has worked on the vast majority of her training apart from a typical team setting, she credits her father, John, for much of her mountain biking success.
“My dad has played a large part in my biking accomplishments,” Neilon noted. “He used to race mountain bikes and has the background for it. When I stepped into biking, he really became my coach for a lot of it as there was never a fully established team to race on in high school. He’s a huge supporter of mine and I’m very thankful for all he’s done to help me.”
Neilon says she feels lucky to have grown up in an area that makes it so easy to become interested in biking, being outside, and overall athletics and wellness.
“Charlottesville is such a great place to learn how to bike. Locally speaking, I love Mint Springs. They have great climbing and descending, and I also think it was really great for me when I was starting out. It’s very beginner friendly and always a lot of fun. I also love Ragged and if you’re willing to drive a little, there’s some other amazing trail systems in the Charlottesville area.”
All mountain biking competitions in Virginia are statewide events, unlike other sports that have regional or division competitions. During each race that a biker enters and competes in, the points accumulated during that race will then count towards the overall statewide total by the end of the season. Over this past spring, Neilon competed in three races and accumulated enough points to take the second overall female spot in Virginia by the end of the racing season.
Neilon said she would love to see mountain biking grow as a more widely recognized sport in Virginia schools, hoping one day that high schools have fully established mountain biking teams and more kids compete in races.
“Mountain biking is such a rewarding experience. I would love to see more kids get involved in it,” she said. “It can seem intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a really special community to be a part of.”
Nielon will be attending Brevard College this upcoming fall, a small school in Brevard, North Carolina, not far from Asheville. Brevard has a strong cycling team that Neilon plans to compete for, a factor that heavily influenced her college decision. Brevard’s women’s team has attended national competitions and sent some of their bikers to various semi-pro teams across the country.
“I’m really excited for this next chapter of my life and that I can so confidently say that mountain biking will be a huge part of it,” Neilon said. “I’m thankful that I’ve been so lucky to get to become involved in it these past few years.”