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Teen dreams of sharing sport with peers (w/video)

By Melissa Crowe
Nov. 18, 2013 at 5:18 a.m.

Phillip Romo rides along the nature trail in Riverside Park on his off-road cycling Specialized all-terrain bike. Phillip wants to start a Texas Mountain Bike League in Victoria. Romo attended a training clinic in Colorado this summer before moving to Victoria from Laredo.

Phillip Romo kicked his leg across his red and white Specialized bike, pushing off toward the tree-lined path at the eastern end of Riverside Park.

The heavy rain, having fallen several days before, delayed his plans for an afternoon ride. The unspoken rule among cyclists is you don't ride when the trail is wet.

The state-ranked 15-year-old hasn't been on a "real" trail since moving to Victoria from Laredo several months ago - settling instead for the pavement at his stepfather's apartment and a gravel pathway at Riverside Park. But the thrill was present.

"Just being able to ride out in the trail - it's just amazing," Romo said. "Smelling the trees, being out in the wilderness. It's amazing."

He wants to share the competitive sport with teens in the Crossroads who seem to have, at least from his perspective, no idea about mountain biking.

"Kids at my high school don't really know what mountain biking is," Romo said. "They think I'm going to ride on the sidewalk. It's a lot more extreme than that."

Through the Texas Mountain Bike League, Romo and his stepfather, Chris Jochen, are rallying support for a co-ed youth team headquartered in Victoria.

"A perfect year would be to have five kids go to the races to compete," Jochen said.

Vance McMurry, founder of the Texas High School Mountain Bike League, said the sport centers on being inclusive and equal. The league is organized through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, headquartered in Berkeley, Calif.

Since Texas joined three years ago, Arizona, Georgia, Minnesota, New York, Tennessee, Utah and Washington State have joined, McMurry said.

The environment is challenging but helps teens develop the self-confidence they need to succeed in life, he said.

"We've sent these young boys and girls into the woods on a bike by themselves; it's their individual performance that contributes to the team," McMurry said. "If they can't fix a flat, a broken chain, overcome whatever that challenge is in the woods by themselves, then they're not going to live up to the performance their team is expecting of them. The challenges are difficult, but they're not unable to be overcome."

Texas' first year averaged 60 student athletes; last year, it grew to 100. McMurry hopes to exceed 140 for the league's third season.

"What's going on are several factors - I believe the family aspect of what we bring to our events is very unique," McMurry said. "Unlike other high school sports ... families do it together. Entire families ride mountain bikes together."

The league opens the sport to teens from all backgrounds with scholarships, financial support and the ability to get the proper gear.

"What we're after is building strong minds, strong bodies and strong character," McMurry said. "At the end of the day, bikes don't win races; it takes heart and some fitness to do that."

At Romo's old high school, he was ranked seventh in the state for his age group.

Laredo is one the state's core teams. The sport is growing to reach Abilene, Amarillo, Austin, College Station, Dallas, Houston, Huntsville, San Antonio and now Victoria.

Since Romo started riding last year, he said it has changed his life.

He worked to pay for his new bike without asking his mother or stepfather for money.

With the first race of the season coming up Feb. 8 at Reveille Peak in Burnett and another state championship scheduled for May, Romo has started his training regimen to keep up his skills.

"I'm not planning to go all pro, but I want to promote the high school leagues," Romo said.

Along with watching out for turns or changes in terrain, riders have to learn to stay aware of branches and animals, he said.

"You need a lot of patience and the right mindset," he said. "You need a lot of confidence. If you fall, you get right back up and keep riding."



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