Sam’s Part in the Montana NICA League
photography by Aaron Teasdale // video filmed and edited by Logan Nelson // produced by Jeff Kendall-Weed
When Sam’s mother, Cindy, drove her 12 year old son, Sam, to his first ever mountain bike race, he was just one of only two junior competitors. Sam had already spent a solid year training in preparation for the event, and as we all can assume, proclaimed that, “I was hooked!”
Sam’s uncle got him into riding at an early age, and what would end up becoming a very successful career in mountain biking racing would rise from the trails around Sam’s hometown of Missoula, MT. Sam’s racing career quickly became the real deal- in his last year as a junior rider, he was selected for the prestigious US national team for the world championships. He went on to compete on the UCI World Cup circuit the following year. In 2012, Sam would represent the USA at the London Olympics. Now in his mid 30s, Sam has found a unique way to blend his own experiences, network, and skills to create a job that he’s uniquely qualified for- league director and co-founder of the Montana NICA league.
“I did start the process at one point, and quit. I was just like, this is too much,” Sam tells me mid-ride as we chat along a tiny campfire to fend off the chill and intermittent rain. “The hardest part was the initial push to get it going. So many hurdles, so many obstacles. Trying to get people to buy into it while getting people to fund it. All that stuff was pretty hard and daunting.”- Sam Schultz
One thing that needs to be made clear is that Sam is not what some of us would think of as the “prototypical XC geek”, as he’s as confident with flat pedals and flat table tops as he is with FTP and training cycles. While my former enduro career briefly overlapped with Sam’s, we never attended any of the same races. Despite dozens, if not hundreds, of mutual friends, I had never met Sam until late summer 2018, when a mutual friend brought Sam on a ride near my home in Washington. I was expecting to get my legs torn off on the climbs, and to be heckled for riding “jump trails”, as I’ve become accustomed to when attempting to ride with professional cross country athletes. While the first half was true, I was thrilled to find that the second half of my assumption was dead wrong- Sam styles his way down a trail like nobody else.
I might even go as far as to say Sam is one of my favorite riders to follow. And to be brutally honest, I’m still perplexed that someone without a BMX background, and instead a cross country background, rides so well. Go figure- stereotypes are meant to be broken!
Throughout the first wave of races in the 1980s, the resurgence and boom of the 1990s, and even the relatively dark 2000s, there weren’t many opportunities for junior mountain bike racers. NICA itself wasn’t even founded until 2009. Heck, I remember being 11 years old, and having to race the 12-18 beginner category because there simply wasn’t a class for anyone under 12- unless they wanted to do the “kids” race down in the infield. If you found yourself first experiencing mountain biking as a kid in the grunge era of the 1990s, you likely have similar memories of thinking about your 5th grade teacher while the kid next to you on the starting line had a full beard.
My own love affair with mountain biking really took off after attending the CalPoly SLO Parkfield Classic, which is a west coast collegiate cycling conference event. While collegiate cycling doesn’t get much coverage in the media, it’s a thriving scene, and many of today’s professional racers as well as industry employees have quite a few memories of those rather colorful events. While the mechanics of catering to middle and high school racers are VERY different than legal adults first experiencing sips of freedom, it does have a similar effect. It brings an otherwise very individual experience and shares it among a group of peers.
“Sam’s built for it, he’s the dude.”- Nate Madsen
“He’s got the energy and the attitude to keep everything going, and keep everyone excited about it.”- Jackson Melin, chief course marshall
I’m not here to champion NICA, as the league has some extremely strict rules that I do not agree with, but NICA does provide the framework, guidelines, and legitimacy to make a league the size of Montana’s possible. Seeing the success of this, I won’t let a one-size-fits-all rule book erase my memories of the positive experiences and relationships that all these people enjoy from the league. Sam’s ability to work within these guidelines is commendable, and clearly the product is something that really stands proud.
Mountain biking can only exist with legal, sanctioned riding areas. With other user groups also enjoying landmark growth, us mountain bikers have never needed to organize together more so than today. This is why I’m such a big supporter of advocacy. However, another part of establishing mountain biking as a legitimate user group with a strong future is to foster in the next generation of riders. What Sam, along with the work of many others, have built is something that will not only immensely grow the sport within Montana, but will help ensure that this sport is as strong as ever in the years to come.
If you’d like to help the league, please contact them through their website at montanamtb.org.