DON KETCHUM is a native of Phoenix. He was a sportswriter for The Arizona Republic/The Phoenix Gazette for nearly four decades. He covered high school sports on several occasions as well as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State sports. From 2008-14, he was a staff writer for, the web site of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

It's always crunch time for Xavier mountain bikers

It’s the desert. Not much going on, right?

Well, take a closer look at some of the terrain at the Dreamy Draw Park in Phoenix, just east of the 51 freeway on Northern Avenue.

You can make out the whooshing sound of tires on the nearby freeway. Birds circle above and call to one another. Then there are the crunching sounds of bike tires on the gravel pathways along with the clicking of gears and chains.

Welcome to practice for the combined Xavier/Brophy club mountain biking team. About 10 or so girls and nearly two dozen boys work their way up and down the trails and the hills of the area.  If you look up to the top of a nearby ridge, you will see a handful of them. One moment they are there, then they are gone. They have to keep moving.

The fourth race of the five-race season is coming up on Sunday (Oct. 22) at the McDowell Mountain Park on the northern edge of Fountain Hills. The finale will be on Nov. 5 at the White Tank Mountain Regional Park in Waddell in the west Valley.

The temperature is in the mid-90s as the riders embark on their circuits and loops. Some of those courses offer more of a cardiovascular workout and the others give riders more of a sense of what an actual race will be like.

There are five racing groups, color-coded: Double Black for the most experienced, Black for very good, Blue for those nearly ready to race, Green for those just beyond beginners, and Beginner Green, for those just starting out. There are even some middle-school students who participate.

Coach Rich Perrott and about 11 volnuteer assistants, some of them on bikes themselves, monitor the riders and keep an eye on them in the event of injury/equipment concerns.

On this day, Perrott, a retired firefighter from the Phoenix Fire Department, must stay close to the team’s gathering spot, a canopy that also helps to provide a small bit of shade. He suffered a knee injury and expects to have surgery soon. He moves slowly up the path on crutches.

These riders do not take a back seat to their fellow students in other sports in terms of conditioning. When they are not out an actual location, they get a close simulation during “spin’’ sessions at the school. Spinning lasts about an hour, practice on the various courses in the area goes about 90 minutes.

Some riders use their own bikes, others use “loaners’’ kept at the school, provided by the coaches and through community donations.

In the early days of the club, coaches handled most of the mechanic-type work and maintenance, and now some of that responsibility is on the riders themselves.

“The more simple things, they are capable of handling,’’ Perrott says.

The sport, which had about 160 to start with a few years ago, now has about 900 riders statewide. Perrott envisions the number climbing to a big 1,000 next year.

The team, Perrott said, appreciates the support from family and friends. At many of the races, a little camp is set up where race-watchers cook out like at a football tailgate party.

“We have a vibrant, family type of atmosphere,’’ Perrott said.

The girls finished seventh at their most recent race in Sierra Vista, which the team has not done before. And sophomores Heather Kwapiszeski and Erin Hill have a chance to finish among the top five individuals in the state for the first time in team history.

“Both girls are very good all-around athletes,’’ Perrott said.

One of Perrott’s main goals is for the sport to switch from a club to a regular sport in the eyes of the Arizona Interscholastic Association. Also to become a year-round sport, similar to how the club crew organization operates.

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