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Race to the Top - One of California’s top mountain biking teams is based right here in El Cerrito

by Matt Larson

When considering what sport to go for in high school, mountain biking is rarely even on the list of options to choose from. Unless you’re attending El Cerrito High School, that is. The ECHS Mountain Bike Team just wrapped up their most successful season yet this past May, finishing first in Northern California, and second in the state! They competed against 85 other schools and hundreds of other riders; ECHS made their presence known, going undefeated in league races.

Established in 2001, Head Coach John Garrison joined the team about 4 years ago when his twin boys, Evan and Matt, reached high school age and joined the team as well. When they were in 8th grade he also helped start the El Cerrito Junior Mountain Bike Team which is still going strong today.

When Garrison came on board, the team was in last place with only 15 riders. The following year they got second place in their league and have remained a force ever since. Now, as NorCal champions, they’ve got about 27 riders on the team, 5 of which are girls.

A common conception for mountain biking is that racers are flying over gap jumps and forging down rocky declines, but Garrison explains that this is cross-country mountain biking, which is much more of a fitness sport.

“When you’re going in a race, you’re up against what your heart can basically sustain for whatever time you’re out there,” he said. “It’s a pretty demanding sport fitness-wise, certainly more than baseball or softball. You’re up against what we call the threshold on certain climbs at times, which is 90% of your max heart rate. So in a race that’s basically where you’re going to be for an hour, hour and half. Think about what it takes to maintain that level of exertion for that long; it’s pretty tough.”

While mountain biking is a bit different than the average high school sport, it’s still very much a team activity. “The entire course is scattered with your teammates who are on the sidelines cheering for you,” said 11th-grader Maria Wallace who races on their varsity team. “Racing by, as your teammates cheer, is probably the best part of racing.” It’s also a big confidence boost.

“As mountain biking is a primarily male-dominated sport, being able to race as a woman and show off my own strength and power fills me with so much pride,” she added. “On top of that, being able to race alongside some equally incredible female riders fills me with so much joy.”

Her teammate, Helen Stephens, would agree. “It’s a mix of almost every emotion you can feel,” Helen said. “It’s very surreal. Your nerves and adrenaline are going crazy, but sometimes you feel isolated if you’re in the middle of the woods with no one directly in front of or behind you. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve experienced.”

Though it’s more of an individualistic sport, Helen has found that the mountain biking community is very supportive. “I think it’s almost funny how nice people are,” she said. “If someone passes you, often times they’ll congratulate you on how far you’ve gone; and sometimes you get stuck with someone who’s the same pace as you for a good part of the race and become friends as you support each other.”

One of the most rewarding aspects for these students racing on a mountain bike team in high school, is that it’s something they can carry with them far beyond their academic years. “Take myself as an example,” said Garrison. “I just turned 50 and I’m out there all the time, no problem. It’s one of those sports where you don’t need a team. If you keep up on your fitness, it’s a life sport.”

To support or get involved, visit their website at or follow them on Instagram @echsmtbteam. As they plan for the next season, the team is always looking for support. Donations and sponsorships are always welcome, and especially coaches that can keep up with some of the faster kids would be a great help. You’d get a great workout while supporting a great cause!

So spread the word, and support these future champions next season!

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