SNOWBASIN -- By his own admission, Weber High's Anders Johnson had almost nothing left as he began his fourth grueling lap in Saturday's Utah High School Cycling League Mountain Bike Race at Snowbasin. But somehow, someway, Johnson found another level of energy.
The winner of the 18-mile race had already been decided. Olympus' Justin Griffin crossed the finish line about a minute earlier. So second place was down to Johnson and South Davis Composite's Zach Peterson. Johnson trailed Peterson down the final switchbacks, but on the final short climb, Johnson passed his rival and finished one second ahead of him at the finish line.
The second place result was Johnson's goal and it took nearly everything he had to reach it. After the race, both legs were cramping badly and it was several minutes before he was ready to meet family and friends who were eager to congratulate him.
"That last lap I was just out of it," Johnson said. "But about halfway through I got a glimpse of (Peterson) and just caught him, barely, on the downhill and just gave it all I had. Right before the finish line, I started cramping, but tried to finish strong."
Mountain bike racing is not a UHSAA-sanctioned sport, so each team is part of an official or unofficial club at the high school. Some schools don't have the numbers to support a club, so several schools may combine to form a single team.
The league is only in its second racing season, but is growing exponentially. According to league executive director Lori Harward, the number of riders statewide has grown from 230 racers in 2012 to an average of almost 485 riders per race this year.
"My husband, Dave, and I are both coaches with USA Cycling and have been wondering for years how to get more kids biking," Harward said. "We were at the USA Cycling coaching summit in the fall of 2010 and we met a SoCal league coach who told us that they had 350 kids racing. We said, 'How did you guys do that?' So we contacted the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which is the national governing body for high school cycling and got more information. We were just amazed. We thought it was the greatest thing we'd ever heard of.
"Within a few months we started organizing a grass-roots effort to get mountain bike racing here in Utah," Harward said. "In 2012 we had our first race season and were the largest first-year league in NICA history with 230 racers and 325 registered athletes and it's doubled this year."
Saturday's race, which started and finished just below the Becker chair lift, began with a brutal climb that ultimately topped out at about 650 vertical feet from where it started. By the time the riders had reached the single-bike track partway up the mountain, they were breathing heavily and reaching for something to drink. At that point, the race was barely five minutes old.
"I love the course and I love the downhill, but the climb is super hard," Johnson said. "It's harder than any other race."
Johnson led all riders for the first two laps, but he and Peterson were unable to hold off the hard-charging Griffin, who finished the course in one hour, 33 minutes, five seconds. Johnson came in at 1:34:17, while Peterson finished at 1:34:18. Johnson's teammate McKay Hunt also had an impressive ride, finishing fifth at 1:42:30.
In the junior varsity race, Morgan High School had a strong showing as Carter Bailey finished second behind Ogden High's Jacob Mathewson, while Jeremy Lucas -- easy to spot with his plaid flannel shirt -- ended in fifth place.
Between the boys and girls races, Morgan High had a good day. Amber Harvey finished fifth in the JV girls race and teammate Ellissa Clark came in sixth. Add that to decent showings in the freshmen and sophomore races and coach Ryan Nielsen was very pleased with how his riders did on their home track.
"This is where we practice," Nielsen said. "We've ridden this race course numerous times. We come here every week and ride. We're just in our second year and it's exploded from the first year. Our team alone has more than doubled in size. I'm absolutely amazed at how these kids have increased their skill level."
Jenna Johnston of the North Davis Area Composite team finished fourth in the girls JV race.
In the girls' varsity race, everyone was anxious to watch Park City phenom Haley Batten, and she didn't disappoint. The 15-year-old freshman blew the field away despite suffering from a cold. Teammate Brenna Egan finished second and Ogden High's Cate Carabine came in third, finishing three minutes and 30 seconds behind Batten.
"I feel good," said the 17-year-old Carabine, who is in her first year racing. "It's a tough climb, but it's rewarding, that's for sure. With everyone cheering it definitely made it easier."
Batten, who has raced internationally and is shooting for a spot on the Olympic team in 2016, is the kind of talent that makes people take notice, including her competition.
"She's awesome, just incredible," Carabine said. "I can say in the future when she's in the Olympics that I raced with that girl."
"This course was super fun," Batten said. "It was really flowy and the downhill was awesome. It was pretty rocky and that made it a challenge for everybody. After three laps, that uphill really works you. It was hard, but I think it was great practice for all the riders out there.
"I was sick today so I was just going out there making sure I wasn't doing anything bad for my body," Batten added. "The first lap I wasn't feeling too good, but on the second and third laps I just pretended I wasn't sick and just focused on the race and did the best I could."
"There are pro-level racers at the varsity level," Nielsen said. "The top winners in varsity today have both raced overseas. What other sport can high school kids line up with pro-level athletes and race? It's just awesome to see all these kids out here doing this."
The race was the third of five in the high school cycling season. The riders have one more race in two weeks at Soldier Hollow before concluding with the state championship on Nov. 9 in Moab.