Story 7 – Berkeley High


Photo: Karl Nielsen

Story #7 — Berkeley

Interview 1: Karl Nielsen

What is your name?

Karl Nielsen

What league are you a part of?

The NorCal League.

What role(s) do you play?

I’m a coach, and also the Berkeley High “Director of Development.”

Wow–you have a title!? And you raced in the league when you were in high school, didn’t you?

Yes, I raced in the NorCal League during the first two or three years it was around. I went to Benicia High, and there were three or four of us at most.

How long have you been coaching and volunteering with the team?

I’m going into my fourth year on the team as a coach, and I’ve been volunteering outside of the coaching responsibilities pretty much the whole time I’ve been involved with the team. But I only got a formal title in the last season [laughs].

Tell us more about what you do as “Director of Development” for the team:

I guess the best way to describe it is that I find things that would improve the team dramatically and take charge of them. It’s a lot of the things that don’t fall into other general categories of “Coach” or “Team Director.” The Director is dealing with a lot of management stuff and the Coach is dealing with coaching, but then something comes up like: “We need a new trailer!” So someone needs to figure out how to fund it, buy it, build it out… things like that. I put together a couple of videos for the team too. This year I helped find some alternative ways to train, like yoga and helping to facilitate a connection with CYCLEBAR, which is an indoor spin class. So it’s just sort of filling in a lot of gaps.

Sounds like we need to create a new role called the “Team Karl”! [Laughs]

Ha! I think every team ends up having somebody like this.

Let’s jump to the photo you took. Can you tell us the backstory behind this image? Who is in it, when did you take it, etc.

So that’s Renee, and she just graduated last year. She is an awesome young woman. She’s very self-sufficient, very driven, very motivated to be her own person. And life was not handed to her on a platter. She’s had to work hard to be on the mountain bike team, and do everything else. She worked hard to get this old car that she and her dad then rebuilt together. I think she got it for $600. She’s that kind of person. She has this very powerful drive that is underneath a very happy, bubbly teenager.

That race was the Monterey course. The kids showed up for the pre-ride, and everyone started out with a jersey and maybe some arm-warmers. No more than five minutes into the start of the pre-ride, it went from cloudy to just DUMPING rain. We didn’t have very much time to do the pre-ride, so we ended up just having all the kids do one quick lap in that weather. It was cold. It was pretty miserable. And when they got back, there wasn’t much time for the girls to get warmed back up or changed. Renee went right into the start of her race.

I don’t remember the exact results, but I think she did pretty well. It was a tough endeavor, and she dealt with it with a smile. I asked to get a portrait of her afterward, and you could see that. That drive I mentioned earlier–I think it really came out in that photo. You could see how motivated and driven she was. That specific moment spoke to more of her approach to life than just that race. That’s why I was really excited about that photo.

That’s a great description, and a good transition: does that photo illustrate something about the team or league experience more broadly?

I think that all athletic endeavors are a microcosm of life, and I think mountain biking is a really good microcosm. It has so many aspects to it. It’s challenging, and much more similar to life than some other activities. And that photo captures a general demeanor of how Renee approaches both mountain biking and life.

Switching to you for a minute, how did you first get started riding bikes?

I was a 7th grade kid that was quickly going in no good direction… [laughs]. I had a Costco mountain bike, and started riding it all the time. I didn’t know it at the time, but my 7th grade math teacher had been an alternate on the 1984 US Olympic road team. He saw that I was going nowhere, and used his background in cycling, and my interest in mountain biking, and started taking me out on occasional rides. As all of our kids do [on teams], I started to gain confidence and feel better about myself. He provided that guiding force that I needed at that point in my life.

From there I went on to race more in high school, and then in college. Once I graduated from college, it took me awhile to get back to the Bay Area and have the financial means to be able to coach. But I knew I wanted to come back and coach. It’s something that was deeply meaningful to me, and I felt like I needed to pay it back, or maybe pay it forward.

Now that you’re back and deep in it, what’s your favorite part about either coaching, or being a part of the larger #morekidsonbikes movement, or both?

I like helping solve the s**t. [Laughs] That’s what I like to do. The coaching is just a means to get kids hooked into something that’s positive. But it’s the conversations that you have between the rides with the kids where you ask them: “How are you doing? What’s going on? Why aren’t you feeling good today? What’s happening?” You start to ask these questions and things just start to spill out. It can be all sorts of different things for each kid. Whether it’s a confidence issue, or a home life issue, or a physical issue or whatever–you get to talk with them about those. Life was not always easy for me–it’s still not easy–but I remember being in middle school and high school, it was tough. But what my 7th grade math teacher did for me (he coached me through high school), I’d like to provide that same things to the riders now. He wasn’t my teacher anymore, he wasn’t my parent, and we could talk about things differently.

Last question: what can we do to improve as an organization?

Little things come up as the organization evolves. For example with the new coaching philosophy, there are “Performance” and “Adventure” areas. It’s really cool that we have an “Adventure” aspect of the program now, and I think it’s needed. But I’d like to see more events for the Adventure riders. Should there be a three-day mountain bike ride where we go to different campsites and ride from point A to B and B to C, and camp each night? It would be great to have something that draws teams out like that.

And for coach on-the-bike training, I think it’s good for coaches that are novice to riding and coaching, but there’s no training for people who already have advanced skills. Let’s be honest, after a year or two of riding, many of the kids know WAY more about how to ride a bike than us coaches do! It would be nice to be able to still provide more advanced skills, while still keeping it within the NICA safety guidelines.

But while I have my critiques, I think overall the organization is doing an awesome job. It’s just like with everything: there’s always room for improvement.

Great–thank you for the time Karl!

To check out more of Karl’s images, check out his site here.


Interview 2: René Warren


Photo: René Warren

What is your name?

René Warren.

What league are, or were, you a part of?

I was part of the NorCal League.

And what role did you play in the NorCal League?

I was a student-athlete for the Berkeley High mountain bike team, and in my senior year I was women’s team captain. We had six new female racers on the team my senior year, which was really exciting because the other years I raced there were very few girls on the team. The year I joined I was the only one, but I dragged a friend along. It was nice to leave a little bit of a legacy, so any new girls that came on the team knew it was possible.

Do you know if Berkeley is still doing women’s specific events of any kind?

From my understanding, they’re still doing women’s rides. I’m assuming that when racing starts that they’ll do a couple of pre-race dinners for the girls. I know there were a couple of coaches that got really into it as the season progressed. But I’m not totally sure, as I haven’t really been in touch with the team. I’ve been in and out of town a bunch.

How long did you ride with Berkeley?

I was on the team for all four years of high school.

Can you tell us the backstory of that photo that Karl took?

I want to say that was either the first or second race of my junior year, so that would have been the 2014 season. As California riders in this drought, we don’t get a lot of rain. But that year, we went down to Monterey for that race and it was pouring–just POURING. During the pre-ride there were rivers coming down the trails as we were riding them… [NOTE: the Monterey course holds up extremely well in wet conditions. NorCal would not run the race if it was going to damage the terrain.]

When the girls raced, it was still drizzling a little bit. But we thought, “Whatever. It’s a bike race, we can get a little muddy.”

Being my junior year, that would have been an 18 mile race. So I went out and did my race, placed well, did fine… and then Karl comes up before I can change. I’m soaking wet, covered in mud, but the sun is finally shining now. It wasn’t even cold or wet anymore because the ground out there just soaks up all the water so fast. So it’s a really nice day now, except all the girls that were just racing are covered in mud and soaking wet. The sand was in between your toes and fingers and everything.

And Karl comes over and says: “OK, René it’s time to go take pictures.” [Laughs] And I’m thinking “Why do we have to take pictures?” And I remember taking those photos and being so over it, thinking: “Can I change my clothes? Are we done now?” I’m pretty sure I had taken my shoes off by that point, and had been sitting on my bike seat with one of my teammates pushing me around so I wouldn’t have to pedal and wear my sopping wet bike shoes anymore.” [Laughs]

He actually got a lot of pictures that day, but that one kind of catches people. I get it–it’s a good photo!

How does this image reflect a larger experience you had on your team?

I always felt like that image captured a kind of essence of strength and power, which I think that the team gave me. I think that doing something solidly for four years of high school–when you’re really developing and growing up and you’re learning about yourself–that gave me a lot of mental strength as well as physical strength. I think the photo really does show that.

What was your favorite part about being involved with your team, or the broader #morekidsonbikes movement?

The community. I got to meet some incredible people, and learn a lot from them. Thinking back, Celeste was really involved with the Berkeley High team when I was a freshman and sophomore. And when I was a freshman, I got to meet Georgia Gould, I got to meet Katarina Nash… they did a pre-ride with me before my first Sea Otter. I just had some incredible experiences with people who laid down little pieces of wisdom. They gave me little pieces of advice and pushed me through those few years, and I think that really helped shape who I am.

Racing all the girls at the last race at Laguna Seca was another memory. There was one of the San Francisco girls–I want to say she was a freshman–and I was finishing my last lap and she was right in front of me about to finish hers. We were near the top of Hurl Hill, so we had about a quarter mile left of the course. I saw her race plate and knew she wasn’t racing me, and I said: “Alright, just race me to the end. I’m not in your race, this is just for you. You’re going to finish strong.” We pounded down that last hill and she ended up beating me! Like a boss.

She came up to me at the end of it and said, “Thanks, that’s what I really needed.” She was really proud of herself. Little experiences like that are always going to be my favorite thing about NorCal.

How did you first get started riding bikes–did you ride before the high school team?

No–I mean, I rode my bike around town like any other kid. But didn’t really ride before the team. I have a friend who I’ve known since kindergarten, and his big sister was dating a boy who was on the bike team. So that boy got my friend to join, and he got me to join.

Ha! So you got recruited by your friend, and the rest is history.

Yep–the rest is history.

Just one more question: what can we do to improve as an organization?

… [thinking] …that’s tough!

You can also email me if you want a little while to think about it. But we want your input!

Ok–I’ll think about it get back to you!

Sounds good, thanks for your time René!

Follow René’s travels by checking out her Instagram here.

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