The Western Albemarle High School (WAHS) mountain biking team is ascendant as mountain bike racing surges nationwide to become the fastest- growing high school sport in the country, according to the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). “It’s one of two club sports at Western,” said coach Wayne Fusco, “the other being rowing.” Fusco’s son Kai, a WAHS junior, said his mom Katie introduced him to mountain biking on a ride in Old Trail when he was younger, and he joined the Crozet Bike Shop team in sixth grade.
“From the beginning, it was just fun,” said Kai. “When you’re on a bike you can just explore and go anywhere and do anything, and that’s definitely a big appeal for me.” Katie helped coach that team with Crozet Bike Shop owner and certified instructor Cor Carelsen. After WAHS coaches John and Colleen Compton had run the high school club for five years, Fusco took over and is now in his second year as co-coach along with fellow parent Allie Hill.
“I don’t have great mountain biking knowledge, though I like to ride, and I’m not certified like Cor, so I would describe myself as a volunteer parent and a great cheerleader,” said Wayne. “We’ve tried to create an inclusive team of kids from all levels of ability.” At practices the team divides into as many as six groups based on skill level, with other volunteer coaches riding in front and behind each set of students to provide aid and encouragement. “During our season, we probably have 15 practices, and we don’t practice at any one place [other than WAHS] more than two times, because there are so many different places to ride. The number one goal is to have fun.”
A rider’s bike is their machine, their partner in a sense, and delving into its nuts and bolts can be part of the appeal as well. “My parents got me a bike frame for Christmas in sixth or seventh grade, and I bought all the parts and built that bike in our basement,” said Kai. “That was my start of getting into bike mechanics. I thought, ‘if I can teach myself to do this, why would I take it to a bike shop?’ You can really dive deep into the geometry of a bike and fine tune it.”
Mechanics aside, it’s the careening around narrow, hairpin turns and navigating obstacles like rocks, roots, and logs that is simply exhilarating, said Kai. “It’s fun to be pushing as hard as I can, sprinting, my heart rate maxed out going up and down the hills,” he said. “If I’m not locked in on that trail, I could wash out my tires in a turn or hit a rock or a tree,” he said. Kai also participates on his own in “enduro” races, where participants climb to the top of steep mountain grades and then are timed as they come flying down again, over and over. He recently competed in a national race that covered a total of 26 miles in six stages spanning a whole day.
But for Kai, the thrill of the sport was not the first thing that came to mind when asked what was best about it—it was the culture. “The people in the sport are just super positive, and everybody wants everybody to do well,” he said. “I do like the individual nature of it, where if I push as hard as I can it feels really good, and if I don’t do well, I’m responsible for the outcome. But when we’re at the races, I think we have the most supportive, positive team. Everybody is up against the tape, yelling their heart out for every rider going by, not just ours.”
Co-coach Allie Hill, who is also a Rivanna Trails Foundation board member, handles the paperwork and organization side of the team and said she loves the relationships among the students and the community the team has built. “To see these kids from different grades, different genders, just hanging out and supporting each other, waving at each other in the hallways—it’s a community within a large high school where you can feel you have a home,” said Hill. The team made a push to recruit more women to the sport last spring and summer, and now there are nine women among the team’s 35-rider roster.
Hit the Trail
Over the past year, Wayne, Kai, and a dedicated crew of teammates have spent untold hours constructing a new 3.5-mile mountain bike course that winds through the woods and flats surrounding the school’s buildings and athletic fields. The trail’s reality has been a long time coming, as the team began dreaming several years ago about building its own trail on WAHS property.
“The coaches approached the school’s athletic director, Steve Heon, who talked to county officials, who said yes, we could build a trail,” said Wayne. “The team found a designer [a volunteer from the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club], who used a plat map and sketched out where a trail should go, based on the topography and boundaries around the school.” The trail is a “cross country” type course, the most popular and least extreme mountain biking style.
Though the team raised funds for a firm to do the trail construction (including a large donation from WAHS parent and volunteer coach Chris Burke), the firm was able to complete only about 25% of the ground work, leaving team members to complete the project by hand. This meant hundreds of hours of dirt moving, branch cutting, rock and root clearing, raking, and grading, all done during students’ and coaches’ free time. “Since the start of last fall when we first got approval just to flag the trail, we’ve used any free day of the weekend and pretty much any time we could get out there to trail build,” said Kai.
While many hands provided labor, a core student group consisting of Kai, Ben Johnston, Carter Maples, and Harper Foster gave countless hours to the effort, and the crew left their personal imprints on the trail’s design and flow. “We’ve ridden in a bunch of different places, and Ben and I have been building trails in our neighborhood since like sixth grade, so that’s been good practice,” said Kai. “With online school during Covid, we’d get up early and go trail build, come back and do our classes, then go trail build some more. I have more of a sense of pride in the sections of the WAHS trail that we had to build by hand—I feel like I know where every single root is on that trail because I had to dig the dirt around it and move it.”
Hill also credits Wayne’s can-do attitude for making it happen. “I know how slow it is in a volunteer, nonprofit setting to get trails built,” she said. “We thought we might have this built in two or three years, but in Wayne’s world, that means six months.” Starting last fall, Wayne and Kai organized fundraisers and wrote to bike companies asking for sponsorships, and Wayne replaced barbed wire and built a half-dozen big wooden bridges for the trail after work and on weekends. “I’ve been so impressed with how Wayne chose this project and prioritized it in his life,” said Hill, “and now to be able to say, a year later, ‘the trail is open, come ride,’ is just so exciting.”
“We had two goals for the trail,” said Wayne. “One was to have a trail that we could practice on, and the second was to make the trail good enough that we could host a race on.” The first goal has been achieved and the second will become a reality when WAHS hosts its inaugural race on November 4—a scrimmage between the Western, Monticello, Albemarle, and Charlottesville High School mountain biking teams. WAHS’s trail is only the second public school course in Virginia to qualify to host a race—all the other race courses are on private school campuses or in parks.
Beyond providing practice and race space, the trail has also served to raise the sport’s profile at WAHS. “We were not visible on campus before because our practices were at other locations, so a lot of students didn’t even know we had a mountain biking team,” said Hill. “This past year the students have been there and working on the trail, and they are riding as soon as school’s over, and it’s a different level of awareness. People see the team and there are girls, there are freshmen, seniors, all kinds of students, and there’s a lot more interest.”
After the herculean volunteer effort to build the trail, WAHS has committed to providing signage for trail access points and directions, which should be installed in the next several weeks. The trail is now open to the public on weekends and after regular school hours. It’s easiest to access it starting at the front parking lot closest to Rt. 250, in the woods to the east. “If anybody would like to help us do trail maintenance or offer other services [or donations], they can reach out to us via email,” said Hill, at [email protected]. “It’s really for the whole community.”