W hen Alexander Dawson School biology teacher Melissa Barker founded the school's varsity cyclocross team two years ago, she had a motley crew of five or six kids with varying levels of cycling ability. To some of the original team, cyclocross was a completely new concept, she said.
Now in its third season, the Dawson CX team has grown to almost 20 riders in grades six through 12 who can be seen at local races proudly wearing their black-and-blue Dawson Mustangs jerseys.
Dawson CX is one of the few high school cyclocross programs in the country, according to USA Cycling. Though the Colorado High School Mountain Bike League is growing, Barker said because of the high number of local cyclocross races in and around Boulder, a 'cross team felt like a better fit.
And, she added, 'cross is often a gentler transition for kids who go from no cycling experience to racing competitively.
"It's an easier entry point for kids," Barker said. "If you fall in cyclocross, it's not so bad as if you fall on the road. It's been really neat to see some kids who had never done much cycling at all get into the sport and start to love it."
Barker, who has taught at Dawson for 10 years and serves as membership coordinator for the GS Boulder Cycling Team, really started paying attention to cycling as a member of the Holderness School ski team when her coach told everyone on the team the bring a bike for the off-season.
Her then-coach Phil Peck said if any of them were still riding in 20 years, he had done his job.
She said she emails Peck often to remind him that she's still riding -- his plan worked. Barker keeps Peck's statement in mind at every Dawson cyclocross practice she leads.
"That's how I feel about this team," she said. "I want to get kids out on bikes, learning to love the sport of cycling and hopefully it's something they do for a long, long time. That's pretty different from other sports schools offer."
Dawson is a private, college preparatory school with around 450 students in grades K-12. Some members of the cyclocross team are as young 11 or 12. Barker's assistant coach, Brian Lehman, founded PedalProject.com, a cycling mentoring organization.
The most unique part about a varsity cyclocross team, Barker said, is that it caters to students who want to participate in a sport as part of a team, while still competing as an individual.
"It's a great opportunity for a kid who doesn't like traditional or doesn't fit with traditional team sports, but wants to try something a little different that's both team and individual," she said. "Training with a team, but racing on an individual level. It's really a lifelong sport."
Judy Goldman has watched her son, sophomore Jacob, compete for the last three seasons. She said she's noticed a change in his mental toughness since joining the team.
"Cyclocross is one of those things where you feel like you're done, and then you've got to lift your bike up the stairs," Goldman said. "What (Barker) has done is a really good job of training their minds. You don't often get to a place where you want to quit with every bone in your body, but you power your mind into finishing. She gives them a sense of empowerment and of responsibility and accountability."
Buck Thompson, a 17-year-old senior and captain of the Dawson 'cross team, said when he joined the team three seasons ago, he wasn't familiar with cyclocross.
Now it's familiar. Thompson had three top-five finishes this season, including a second place finish at the Back to Basics Cyclocross series in late September. He finished in the top 10 at all races this season.
Barker was his freshman advisor, and encouraged him to come out for the team. He also had her in the classroom for biology, and said he enjoys her teaching style both in the classroom and on the 'cross course.
"She's just great at helping make you understand," Thompson said. "I'm glad we've had a chance to be such a unique school team."
--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.