Eugene Sorenson was plenty busy — he works as a global business manager at Bloomberg L.P. and is on the board of Trips for Kids Metro New York, a nonprofit group that introduces mountain biking to underprivileged children to provide exercise, expose them to nature and teach life lessons about setting and achieving goals. (His wife, Andree Sanders, is the group’s executive director.)
But after Mr. Sorenson learned last year that the National Interscholastic Cycling Association had started a mountain bike racing league for high schools in New York State, he had a new, if improbable, goal: to bring the sport to New York City high school students.
“I was definitely surprised,” said Jason Cairo, executive director of the cycling association’s New York chapter, who had not even contemplated finding youngsters, coaches and suitable terrain in the state’s most urban environment.
Mr. Sorenson’s team, the NYCranks, is now one of 14 teams in the state; the season concludes on June 1 with a championship race in Greene County. Mr. Sorenson had no mountain bike racing experience and said he had “no idea how I was going to find the time to do this.” But he did have some advantages from his role with Trips for Kids. “I have operational experience at producing outdoors events and in working with kids,” he said, “and I have a fleet of 40 bikes.”
Members of NYCranks mountain bike team, from left: Julian Maissel, Charlie DeRanieri, Campbell Sorenson, Seth Freedman-Peel, the team's coach Eugene Sorenson and Ari Papagianis. The team wants to recruit girls next year. CreditJames Estrin/The New York Times Most of all, he had a passionate belief in the sport’s value. “Mountain biking mentally prepares you for life,” he said. “It teaches you persistence and how to get past obstacles — my wife says that on the trail, if you focus on a tree, you’re going to hit the tree. You have to learn how to look past the tree to see how to get around it.”
Mr. Sorenson knew no one city school could fill a roster, so he established a citywide team and then expanded its boundaries to include high school students from Long Island. One day, before the season began, Julian Maissel and his father drove from Port Washington in Nassau County to Cunningham Park in Queens to check out the park’s mountain bike trails.They encountered Mr. Sorenson there.
“I never really knew mountain biking was a sport, I just thought it was an activity,” Julian, 15, said. Still, Mr. Sorenson recruited him on the spot.
“He hadn’t even seen me ride,” Julian said. “I was still unloading my bike.”
The six-member team includes boys from Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. (Recruiting girls is the goal for next year, and Mr. Sorenson hopes to one day have enough participants to create one team for each of the city’s five boroughs.)
Mr. Sorenson said mountain biking teaches riders persistence and how to overcome obstacles.CreditJames Estrin/The New York Times Joining the NYCranks is certainly different from being on a high school football or basketball team. When Julian tells friends about his new activity, he said, “people have no idea what I’m talking about.”
Ben Martinez, 16, a junior at the Academy for Careers in Television and Film in Long Island City, Queens, added, “When I tell people at school I’m on the mountain bike team they either think I’m insane or really cool.”
That may stem from the misconception that mountain biking is an extreme sport. “Some people think I’m doing motocross on dirt bikes,” Julian said. When Ari Papagianis, of Bayside High School in Queens, wanted to join his friend from Bayside, Charlie DeRanieri, on the team, his parents initially said no — they were unsure what he would be getting into. “Mountain biking is totally alien to many people in the city,” Mr. Sorenson said, explaining that it is safe, akin to “cross-country running but on a bike.”
Mr. Sorenson and Ari, 14, first persuaded his parents to let him practice with the team. Eventually his parents agreed that he could race once, but after they saw him in action, they were won over.
Charlie DeRanieri, a member of the high school mountain bike team NYCranks, racing at Stewart State Forest in Orange County. CreditJames Estrin/The New York Times “I love it,” Ari said at the head of the Cunningham Park trail where the team practices. “I like riding around the woods and getting away from society.”
Ari endured a tough race at Stewart State Forest earlier this month: On the first lap, he got a flat tire. Racers are penalized if they receive help, so Ari struggled in the muddy terrain to fix it by himself. “It was really frustrating,” he said.
Still, the day was not a total loss. “I was really happy I finished and was surprised by how well I did in my second lap,” he said. “Plus I saw a snake in the middle of the race.”
Enthusiasm is necessary in a sport that “gets very painful very quickly,” said Mr. Sorenson’s son Campbell, the team’s first member. “You have to learn to keep on going,” he continued, “no matter how many scrapes and bruises you get.”
So far, the team has finished far out of first place, but the bikers’ love of the sport has definitely made an impression. “They’re the most vocal team,” Mr. Cairo said.
The racers have formed a tight bond, cheering not only their teammates but also their competitors. “We’re part of a brotherhood of mountain bike racers now,” Ben said.
Correction: May 22, 2014 An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of an NYCranks member. His name is Julian Maissel, not Maisell.
Correction: May 24, 2014 A picture caption with an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified a participant in the Stewart State Forest in Orange County bicycle race this month. He was Campbell Sorenson, 14, of School of the Future in Manhattan, not Ari Papagianis, 14, of Bayside High School in Queens.