MILLIGAN COLLEGE — It’s Tuesday evening and the Milligan College Mountain Biking team is pushing through the pain. Per instruction of Coach Brad Hill, they’re headed back up the hill of the dirt track carved out along a tree line behind campus.
The extra lap will test their endurance while preparing them for an upcoming competition at Mars Hill College. The seven young teammates are dedicated to the relatively new varsity sport that’s in the midst of a third season.
“It’s more of an obsession than a sport,” said Jared Abel, a junior who was the first to sign on with the Buffaloes’ Mountain Biking team in 2009. “I ride bikes all the time, work on them, build them, race, watch it. It’s just become part of my life.”
While studying to become a nurse, Abel is somehow able to practice for cross country events by riding 10-12 hours per week. The Charlotte, N.C., native is competitive and always looking to improve his skills, no matter what it takes.
“On the rainy days, you have to wake up and get out on your bike and ride,” he said. “On cold days, you just put on a couple extra layers and get out there. It’s a lot of just your individual motivation.”
It’s that ambition that makes Hill’s job a little easier, although recruiting for a sport that has little participation on the high school level is a major challenge. The coach says he has more trouble finding cyclists than pushing his current riders to give it their all at each practice and contest. Since the mountain bikers receive scholarship funds in exchange for being on the team, Hill is looking for top talent.
In late October, Ethan Quisenberry of Unicoi will race in the Collegiate Mountain Bike Nationals in Angel Fire, N.M. Being the thrill-seeker that he is, the sophomore competes in the speed portions of contests — the downhill and dual slalom.
“It scares you to death, but it’s an absolute blast and there’s nothing else in the world like it,” he said.
At practice, Quisenberry darted down the back portion of the practice course to try out the new berm dug into the side of a small bank. Taking risks in the name of speed has resulted in a number of injuries throughout his mountain biking career.
“I normally get injured every single year,” he said. “I’ve broken my hip and too many ribs to count.”
Quisenberry isn’t the only rider with supportive parents who are willing to help with the hospital bills. Abel says his parents have been there for him through the best and the worst. Last season, a front chain ring went through his calf, resulting in 14 stitches, four weeks on crutches and several co-pays at the hospital.
According to the cyclists, being outdoors practically year-round, even in 2 feet of snow, plus the mental and physical demands of mountain biking, outweigh all the risks.
“The mind set you’ve got to get into is you’ve got to accept the pain,” Abel said. “It’s going to hurt a lot when you’re riding in longer events and you just learn to deal with it and think about other things. You reach a point when your body can’t put out any more power and you just don’t have anything left, then you have to find the point where you can go past that and push even harder and just keep going.”
Even though the team accrues points, Quisenberry says the sport focuses on individual performance and pushing yourself to the limit.
“I try to zone out before races,” he said. “I put my headphones on and just kind of let everything around me fade out and concentrate on what I have to do.”
On Tuesday, the Milligan mountain bikers rode for nearly two hours. As the final minutes passed, the two female riders on the team — Jeanine Vaszari and Kelly Chism — pedaled through back pain and fatigue to finish sprints before taking off for a final lap on the half-mile trail.
There’s an intense passion that pushes Corey Smith, Micah Redden, Brandon Jones and the rest of the group to gear down and get going. It all starts with two wheels.
“The bike is like one of the greatest inventions ever,” Abel said. “Every bit of effort you put in is going to be turned out as power through the back wheel. You are the engine.
“The more you ride, the happier you are.”