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The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) is kind of a big deal.

NICA is the only national cycling program in the country dedicated solely to putting on mountain bike races just for teenagers.  Since launching in 2009, NICA has soared in popularity, hosting races in 17 states across the U.S. This month North Carolina becomes number 18.

“It really is a huge deal,” said Glenda Browning, executive director of the Leland Tourism and Development Authority who says it took two years to get North Carolina on the list.

“Leland was instrumental in North Carolina becoming sanctioned as an official NICA state,” said Browning.

On the weekend of March 11, the fruits of Leland’s labor will be displayed in full glory as more than 200 teens and their families descend upon Leland for the first ever NICA mountain bike race in the Tarheel state.

Held at the Brunswick Nature Park on River Road, the race will kick off a series of five North Carolina NICA races planned for 2017 in cities like Davidson, Greensboro and Wilkesboro.

“We’re with the big boys on this, we got it here,” said Browning.

The NICA quest was spearheaded by a dad, Mike Long, with a daughter who loves to mountain bike.

“We were watching the Tour de France, all these bikers on road bikes going amazingly fast, her eyes got real big, she said, ‘Daddy, are there races for mountain bikes?’. I said if grown men race lawn mowers, I bet they have races for mountain bikes,” laughed Long.

Laurel Long’s first race at age seven, the only one dad could find, mixed elite adult riders with beginning level kids all on the same track at the same time.

“I said, ‘I don’t know if I’m ok with this.’ These adults are really fast,” said Long.

Once Long learned about NICA, he was on it, putting in a bid to bring it to North Carolina.

“It had to happen for my daughter and it had to happen for the kids of North Carolina,” said Long.

At the same time, Glenda Browning was looking for ways to bring more visitors to Leland and, in particular, to Leland’s Brunswick Nature Park which, ironically, had just been newly equipped with, you guessed it, mountain bike trails.

“Cape Fear SORBA (Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association) raised money and made trails for us just like the ones you have in the mountains, with rock beds and streams and hills,” said Browning.

Spanning 912 acres and three different tracks, SORBA enabled a mountain bike sanctuary to exist in a coastal town.

Browning asked if “Visit Leland” could sponsor Long’s NICA bid. He accepted.

The NICA NC league was created, Long was made director, and the rest is history.

“This league would not exist without Leland. They put their faith and trust in us. We’re going to have a really good time,” said Long.

Now let the races begin! Five are scheduled from March through May, stretching from the coast to the mountains. The series means huge exposure for Leland and the Brunswick Nature Park.

“This is such an exciting opportunity to bring people in from all over to Leland and if they like us and like the area, they will come back,” said Browning.

NICA’s goal is to create life-long cyclists exposing teens to healthy living and clean competition.

“There’s not a bench, there are not cuts with this. The point is to get kids into riding a bike and get them out there,” said Long.

Registration is still open and filling up fast. Visit http://www.northcarolinamtb.org/race-series/ to sign up.

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