UPDATE: Sir Francis Drake High's mountain bike club came in first on Sundays championship race! Watch for post-event coverage soon.
While a number of Marin high school mountain bike teams compete in the NorCal High School Cycling League's championship race in Novato on Sunday, it's probably the Drake Pirates who feel the most pressure.
"If we win the NorCal championship on Sunday," said coach Paul Chourre, "that'll be our sixth title in nine years. We're the big target. Everybody wants to take us down."
Leading the Division 1 pack at this stage is - by just 12 points over second-place Redwood High. The Pirates Mountain Biking (MTB) team are always contenders, and often champions.
Pretty impressive for any school, but mountain biking in Marin is big deal. Even though Drake has just over 1000 students, there are 40 riders in the mountain biking club.
"We have a pretty good program, especially with parent involvement," said Chourre. "Our parent volunteers program is pretty good. We like to pride ourselves on being the model for high school mountain bike clubs."
The race is being held Sunday at Stafford Lake County Park in Novato, which is not open to mountain biking. But Marin County Parks has opened the park for Northern California's top high school mountain bikers for this inaugural event, since the Stafford Lake Bike Park is in the design phase.
The 17-acre bike park is slated to include a single track loop trail of just under 5 miles, plus gravity fed flow trails with jumps and berms, several pump tracks, elevated trails, a dual slalom course and more. Marin County Parks is open to the possibly of this becoming an annual event, the Marin IJ reported, but park officials want to see how this event affects the environment. After the race, the trail will return to its primary use as a hiking trail.
Sunday's race is the next-to-last stop on a cycle that leads to the state championship on May 20, to be held in Los Olivos. The NorCal League, which was founded in 2001, includes teams from 36 schools, from Salinas to Redding, Nevada City to Marin. The state championship includes the SoCal league as well.
"This is the first time we've had a race in Marin County," said Chourre, "aside from Walker Creek back in 2004. Usually we have to go to Monterey or Folsom Lake or places like that."
That's surprising, as mountain biking is a sport that is identified with Marin County as much as any place in the world, and many locate the sport's origin on the trails of Mt. Tamalpais. Several early icons of the sport hail from Marin - including Joe Breeze and Otis Guy, both Mountain Bike Hall of Famers, and both on the training or support staff of the Drake MTB club.
Chourre himself started mountain biking in 1978, and has been coaching at Drake since 2004. "This is my eight season," he told me. "I got started when my son was a freshman. And after he left, I couldn't leave quit - it's pretty rewarding."
He listed several former MTB club members who have gone on to national championships, professional racing or the Mountain Bike World Cup, including Sam Bessetti, Sophie Hamilton and a current team member, Lucas Newcomb.
More than 500 riders from all over Northern California, are expected to compete in the race with more than 1,000 spectators expected to attend. Girls' races start at 10 a.m., and the boys' varsity and JV races start at 1 p.m. Points from both coed teams are joined in the school totals.
Does Chourre think that his Drake MTB team is going to win another NorCal championship?
"Redwood High School is only 12 points behind us," he reminded. "That's a broken chain or a flat tire. That's what it'll come down to this weekend, it's whoever has the best luck mechanically.
Watching the NorCal Mountain Bike championship is free, but it costs $10 to park a car at Stafford Lake. You can park at nearby San Marin High School and carpool - or you could ride your bike.