How to make mountain biking friendlier

Nikki Peterson on her work with NICA and getting more women into mountain biking

Nikki Peterson didn’t intend to become a full-time ambassador to mountain biking. 

She didn’t start competing in the sport until she was 28 years old. When she went to her first National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) event in 2017, she was studying to be an elementary school teacher in Idyllwild, Calif. Then she had a transformative experience.

“I always tell people like if you haven’t been to a NICA race, then you have to,” Peterson says. “I went to the first race and was just blown away. You would have like 7000 people at these races, and it’s just a big bike festival. 

“Racing is a part of it, but it’s fun to be there. I try really hard to surround myself with positive people and create that positive village, and so for me right there I was like, ‘Oh, this is my family.'”

I always tell people like if you haven't been to a NICA race, then you have to. I went to the first race and was just blown away.

- Nikki Peterson

NICA is a non-profit organization that promotes youth mountain biking events and programs across the country. That year, a teacher Peterson often substituted for encouraged her to attend an informational meeting to start a middle school team as part of the organization’s SoCal League. 

Peterson became the team’s coach. Then over the next two years she also began running coaching skills clinics, volunteering as an ambassador for Girls Riding Together (GRiT) and sitting on NICA’s SoCal League board of directors.

“Pretty soon I was literally volunteering like 20 hours a week to NICA, while I was taking all of these online courses towards my master’s degree and training and working and all of that,” Peterson laughs.

Peterson was also competing, first as a privateer and then as a member of KS Kenda Women, a team she co-founded with a mission to encourage and support women in mountain biking. When she struggled to find jobs after an administrative snafu delayed her teaching license, former SoCal League executive director Matt Gunnell offered her a job as the league’s program coordinator, and Peterson plunged into mountain biking full-time.

Nikki Peterson, master of the coffee ride.

Peterson simply followed a spark without intending to make it a career. Now she’s committed to giving others a clearer path into mountain biking than the one she had. She is currently racing for Competitive Metals-Trek with teammate Brian Scarbrough, and together they are focused on attracting kids and families to the sport, in addition to women. 

Peterson is happiest when she’s busy, and she is very busy. More importantly, she gets to lead by example, and show the world that the mountain biking community isn’t monolithic. That it can support everyone. 

For anyone who wants to ride on two wheels, Peterson will be there to keep them good company.

Peterson talked with the Trek Race Shop about her work with NICA and introducing women to mountain biking. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

I can show [kids], 'Look, if you make this goal and you choose to work hard and you learn to manage your time, it helps every aspect of your life.'

- Nikki Peterson

Did studying to be an elementary school teacher help you transition to NICA?

Nikki Peterson: 100 percent, it’s amazing. I recently gave a presentation on incorporating fun and adventure into practices, and even just with that I have so much knowledge on leading a group of youth, and how to talk with them. Maybe how to get things to stick with them, that type of thing. 

In that other sports there are teachers that are coaches; you have to work for the school district to coach. And with NICA, we have folks from the community, who have office jobs that show up to practice. They don’t have kids, they’ve never worked with kids, but they’re passionate about mountain biking. And so being able to help them learn to communicate with kids has absolutely taken pages from my education background.

You got into mountain biking pretty late. I’m curious how much that also helps you communicate enthusiasm.

Peterson: I got into mountain biking when I was 28, so it was later, but it like changed my life. I ran through college and loved it, but I was plagued by injuries and so I went through this period where I co-owned two coffee shops and I didn’t exercise and so I put all of the energy that I have into running a business, which was great, but I really thrive when I have exercise and structure. For me, it’s helped with the kids because I can show them, ‘Look, if you make this goal and you choose to work hard and you learn to manage your time, it helps every aspect of your life.’

Like you wake up in the morning feeling happier. Obviously not every day but overall, you generally feel happier. You make friends that have the same interests as you and so you’re not going to get in trouble in that regard. Also you learn huge time management skills, which is going to benefit you for the rest of your life. Anytime you have a job, you need to learn how to get your project done so that you succeed.

Nikki Peterson ran track and cross country in college, and didn't begin mountain bike racing until she was 28 years old.

What is NICA’s GRiT program? What does it aim to do?

Peterson: GRIT stands for “Girls Riding Together,” and it’s a national NICA initiative that was started a couple of years ago to get more girls into the sport. And so what we’ve found through NICA and the SoCal League is that once we get girls to join the teams, our retention levels are really awesome. It’s just the recruiting aspect that’s challenging. 

And so basically we’re trying to work together as one program, NICA National, to learn tricks and tips that we can work together to get girls out. And so with the SoCal League, I’ve really focused on making sure that GRIT is a place for these girls to make friendships and to see that even though you may be the only girl on your team, or one of a couple, there are other girls in Southern California that mountain bike, and that love it just as much as you do. And so by creating those friendships I hope that in the offseason, they still meet up for group rides.

And then my friend Jen, she’s the Ohio League director. We actually just got a grant from the Rapha Foundation to launch a GRiT-inspired podcast. It’s called Girls Moving Mountains, and it’s available on all platforms. And so our goal with that is just to basically tell stories that transcend leagues to bring everyone together. And so we’ll be interviewing student athletes, coaches, mechanics, professional riders — basically just all different types of girls and women to get their stories and find out how they got into biking, why they love it and what their goals are.

Once we get girls to join the teams, our retention levels are really awesome. It's just the recruiting aspect that's challenging.

- Nikki Peterson

You mentioned that it’s hard to recruit girls to the sport. Why does there seem to be that barrier there compared to boys?

Peterson: It can be true for boys and girls, but more so with girls, we’ve seen a couple of things. 

First of all they want to do it with their friends. So if their girlfriends are cheerleading or playing soccer, they’re more likely to go towards those sports than mountain biking. They don’t want to be the only girl. And of course there’s always outliers. There’s always the girl that loves to ride with the guys. 

The other thing is that they tend to judge themselves more, we found. And so they’re maybe more worried about how they look. That’s why we have these GRIT ambassadors, because if we get a girl that, say, is really outgoing and has a lot of friends and she’s a mountain biker, it’s so much easier to recruit her friends because they all want to hang out with her. So it really is about, again, showing that there are girls that mountain bike, having those positive role models and then having girls and women for them to look up to. 

It does help that I’m a professional cyclist and know how to communicate with kids. A lot of times girls do really like to ride with me. And so it’s easy for me at the middle school, I would be solving math and be like, ‘Come ride bikes with me,’ and I recruited girls that way.

Nikki Peterson currently rides for Competitive Metals-Trek, which wants to attract kids and families to mountain biking.

What advice do you have for girls trying to get into biking? Because on top of the fact that some potential riders don’t know many other girls in the sport, it is also a pretty insular community. And there are other barriers like the equipment and inherent physical risks.

Peterson: I think the first thing that I would say is stick with it. All good things are hard in the beginning, and it’s the same thing with mountain biking. It is very challenging, but it can take you to the most amazing views. You can get your skills to the point where you can ride at any trail in the country and see and travel to different places. And that’s something that’s really amazing. The bike is a really cool tool.

The other thing I would say is maybe try and seek out some girls or women to ride with for your first few rides, because it can also be intimidating to get out there with a group of boys that are shredding and hitting doubles if you’ve never been on a mountain bike before. So try and find a group that’s supportive of you, that will also help challenge you. 

And I would say reach out to your local NICA teams, or you can also reach out to me. I’m also a private coach, and I have a client that reached out to me on Instagram and she’s 29. She was like, ‘How do I get into mountain biking?’ And now I coach her. We went together and got a Trek mountain bike for her, got her a Bontrager helmet, got her all set up. Ask questions and don’t be afraid. 

There seriously is no bad question. Like, you’re not going to know about chamois cream if you don’t talk to someone.

There seriously is no bad question. Like, you're not going to know about chamois cream if you don't talk to someone.

- Nikki Peterson

How else do you think women’s cycling needs to be pushed? What can it still do better, and what are your goals right now?

Peterson: So I left KS Kenda Women and I’m now on Competitive Metals. My friend is on KS Kenda now and I wholeheartedly believe in the mission still, but I wanted to be in a program where I could focus more locally, and Competitive Metals is a local company in San Diego. So I’m really excited because I can still push the platform of getting more girls and more women on bikes, but Competitive Metals is going to support me at races to set up a booth in a tent, when it’s safe to do that, just to attract more kids and families. I’m not shifting from a goal to get more women racing, but I am really interested in getting all families out and active and living healthy lifestyles.

I really want to push girls and women, but also there are boys that look up to me, too, and I want to be a role model for them, as well. And so I think working alongside Brian, we’ll be able to meet a wider spectrum of people.

You’ve been in mountain biking for five or six years now. How has the scene changed, especially for women? Has there been a noticeable evolution?

Peterson: Before Competitive Metals, I co-founded an all women’s mountain biking team. And our mission was to get more women on bikes, and get more women racing bikes. Part of why we founded the team together is because we were all traveling separately to these races, and you would get there and you’d be alone, and you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t know how to warm up. And so we figured like, ‘Hey why not warm up together?’ I made it my goal where every race I would go talk to a rider. And now some of my best friends are all over the country because we race in the pro circuit together. 

And so I do think it’s changed. I do think it’s more welcoming and more friendly. Like, I can go up to a race and talk to Ellen Noble and have a friendly conversation with her. And then the next race we may go cool down together. I think when I first got into the sport, it was more private, and everyone was so protective over their assets and their secrets that it wasn’t as mainstream as it is now to have a group of friends go for a coffee ride. 

I honestly think one of the things that changed it is you have to have a few people that do what I did, and you go up and go, ‘Hi I’m Nikki, do you want to cool down with me?’ It takes a couple of people to start that movement.