The covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on many areas of life — but it has served as a boon for the Pittsburgh East Composite Mountain Bike Team, according to head coach Jim Pottinger.
“We’ve almost doubled our athletes and coaches,” said Pottinger of Murrysville, who works as a teacher at Gateway High School. “We’ve seen great growth this year.”
The team, which formed five years ago, comprises 45 area students in grades six through 12 and 21 coaches. Typically the team comprises students from the East suburbs, hence the name. But this year, Pottinger said students from North Park, Latrobe, Mt. Lebonan, Pine-Richland and Fox Chapel have joined. And more and more students have been joining every week, Pottinger said.
The team practices twice a week at Boyce Park, making the drive for some parents more than 30 minutes one-way.
“There’s a lot of dedication. It’s really exciting to see their faces when kids come and see each other after being locked on a computer all day. There’s a new energy level that comes out of them. There’s a lot of excitement,” he said.
Dylan Vitale, 12, of Export joined the team for the first time this year. The seventh-grader attends Franklin Regional.
“I really like being in the woods and being with my friends and hanging out with them,” he said. “It’s a really great group of friends.”
He said he used to race BMX bikes but that he walked away from it. Mountain biking reminded him how much he missed it and loves the sport.
“It’s just been a lot more fun for him,” said his father, Pete Vitale, who joined the team as a coach. Pete has ridden mountain bikes for years. The consistent practices have whipped him into shape as he tries to keep pace with his son, who is one of the fastest in his grade level, he said.
“I can’t keep up with him,” Pete said.
Although the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League canceled all races for the season in March and pushed the season’s start to July 1, the team grew and volunteered nearly 400 hours to trail work, Pottinger said.
“(The trails at Boyce Park) are the best they’ve ever been in the 25 years I’ve been riding there,” Pottinger said. “It’s just amazing.”
And the team was able to continue practicing by following social distancing guidelines. Instead of the hands-on approach, coaches gave verbal commands, Pottinger said. He also said the team was able to compete in time trials, which allowed racers to ride separately instead of head-to-head.
The bike industry as a whole has seen growth since the pandemic’s restrictions took hold. Bike sales nationally rose 65% compared to 2019, placing a strain on shops’ inventories, according to PeopleforBikes — a national bicycle advocacy group based in Boulder, Colo.
PeopleforBikes also reported a 50% increase in mountain biking in May compared to the same time last year.
The sudden surge in interest, likely because people felt cooped up from restrictions, meant a shortage of bikes. Pottinger said the team felt it, too. At one point during the season, an anonymous donor gave the team three mountain bikes.
The growth this year has given Pottinger hope for the sport’s future. He said next year he expects to see more people join the team and larger races.
“Or, all the people that bought bikes — they’ll be selling them in the spring if they don’t stick with it. So you might see some good deals,” he said with a laugh.
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