School Is in Session | How Rocky Trail Academy is getting school kids stoked on mountain bikes

At this stage, Rocky Trail Entertainment is running out of weekends throughout the year to put on its events. The relaxed racing format of the Fox Superflows is a unique take on enduro racing that sees a handful of trails marked. You can ride them up to five times, in any order, and only your best time counts.

However, a more recent addition to the Superflow weekends, which have been steadily gaining steam, is the Rocky Trail Academy. Geared for high school mountain bikers this series runs on Friday before the Superflow starts.

Rocky Trail Academy was born out of a want to create opportunities for kids to get on mountain bikes as part of school sport.

With its beginnings at Nerang, Bob Morris and Jo Parker, who joined Rocky Trail to deliver events in Queensland, saw a way to tweak the Superflow format and create a series where schools could compete while also fostering junior development. The pair worked for Mountain Bike Australia back in the day, and always had a passion for helping junior riders, trying to provide opportunities for them to ride and race.

“They had done a lot of work on the ground with the National Series and Clubs. They came to us with this idea to emulate Superflow and create a format for kids,” says Juliane Wisata from Rocky Trail.

That was in 2019, and now there are more than 20 Rocky Trail Academy race weeks across three states. Over the next few months, we’ll have Paul Van Der Ploeg and Michael Cooper on the ground at Rocky Trail Academy events, putting together some helpful features based on things they see and hear. But before all that, we need to explain what the heck Rocky Trail Academy is and how your school can get involved.

The first Rocky Trail Academy ran in 2019, and now they are running 20 of them each year across three states.

Rocky Trail Academy: In the beginning

Bob Morris and Jo Parker have been in the mountain bike event space for some time.

As far back as the 90s, Morris was working at Thredbo, where he created the original scoring system for the Thredbo Interschool Competition.

The pair created the National School Championships in their time with Mountain Bike Australia, which was the first event of its kind for school kids. However, they were keenly aware that regional events were also needed for schools to feed into the National Champs to build the sport.

Unfortunately, that never happened in the MTBA days, but the pair weren’t deterred. When they came onboard at Rocky Trail, they planted the seed about tacking a school event onto the Superflow weekends they were hosting.

“I used to work in schools as a business manager,” says Parker. “I actually worked at Nerang High School, and Micael Cooper (Ed’s note: yes, the very same Michael Cooper who you see writing for Flow and is also a teacher at Nerang High) got in touch with me and said, ‘Jo, we’ve got a group of kids riding mountain bikes. It would be great to create something,’” she says.

Michael Cooper (in the We The Riders jersey) started a mountain bike team at Nerang High School, where Parker used to be the business manager and they worked together to create an opportunity for the kids to race through the school.

So they all put their heads together, and the very first Rocky Trail Academy ran at Nerang in 2019. At that first event, there were 100 kids.

“We’re now doing two events on the Gold Coast and selling out every time with 300 kids, which has led to us running Rocky Trail Academies across Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria. And every day, there is an email or phone call from a teacher saying how we get involved,” says Parker.


Starting at the Grassroots

We know all too well about the massive proliferation of mountain biking in the past couple of years and even more so about the patchwork of opportunities for new riders and kids to ride and race together in an organised fashion.

In the US, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) was developed to foster student-athletes getting on mountain bikes to ride and race together. So far, there are programs in 32 states, and it has even brought on offshoot school programs in Colorado, Washington and Georgia. Running since 2009, in 2022, NICA reported 25,616 student-athletes across 989 school teams involved in its racing events — this doesn’t take into account those other three states. While it’s not the numbers you’d find in basketball or swimming, that is a lot of young riders getting hooked on mountain biking. As a bonus, the program played a hand in shaping riders like Scott SRAM’s Kate Cournty, Trek Factory Racing’s Gwen Gibson and Riley Amos, and Specialized Factory Racing’s Haley Batten, to name a few.

Everything starts at the grassroots of mountain biking, and often, it’s the most neglected area of the sport. Creating opportunities for kids to ride and race through school is a fantastic way to sow those seeds.

Here in Australia, beyond individual club programs, there was no proxy to reach school kids and get them stoked on mountain bikes. While we have spoken to folks inside AusCycling who are actively working to improve the grassroots support and events, the National Body is still sending out press releases touting how it will be spending Comm Games funding, “Leveraging research findings to maximise Track talent transfer to Road and MTB events.”

We’re now doing two events on the Gold Coast and selling out every time with 300 kids, which has led to us running Rocky Trail Academies across Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria

So Rocky Trail has picked up the torch to get kids stoked on mountain bikes.

“We took a step backwards and looked at how we can excite kids to get into cycling,” Wisata says. For us, AusCycling is currently a pathway. We are communicating to our students and teachers that there is a pathway, and there will be kids with huge potential. Still, a person needs a definite set of prerequisites — you have to have the right surroundings, the talent, the coaches and the support structure.”

The ultimate goal of the program is not to develop elite athletes, but get kids to love riding and show what it can bring to their lives.

We should note that Rocky Trail Academy is an AusCycling-backed event, and Wisata stressed they’re working toward the common goal of bums on bikes.

She also makes a point that developing elite athletes isn’t the ultimate goal of the Rocky Trail Academy program.

“If we can foster the excitement, have these kids be among their peers, and validate them by saying, hey, look how much joy riding brings to your life. Look how much you improved on that run, or since last race — that’s what we’re trying to do,” she says.

Wisata, Morris and Parker say that just about every one of the Academy events sells out, and they have schools travelling in from far and wide as Goondwindi to participate.

“Goondiwindi is flat, and those kids have never ridden down hills. But they came along on all different types of bikes, and they have a ball because they just enjoy being out,” says Parker.

Beyond just the on the bike aspect, Rocky Trail Academy also creates space for kids to foster friendships they may not have otherwise had.

Even in places they’ve never been, schools are champing at the bit to get involved. The first time Rocky Trail put together an Academy event in Wollongong at Cringilla Bike Park, it sold out with 300 kids and a number of schools from Sydney making the trip down.

“So we’re putting on two this year and doubling it two days,” Parker says.

If we can foster the excitement, have these kids be among their peers, and validate them by saying, hey, look how much joy riding brings to your life

How Rocky Trail Academy works?

The throughline for every one of these events that Morris and Parker have dreamt up for school kids is that the scoring and timing systems are designed to put the best all-around bike rider on the podium, not just the bravest downhiller or the kid who went through puberty at 11 and has a bigger engine that anyone their age.

Morris emphasizes creating a diverse course that is also approachable and won’t put new riders in uncomfortable situations.

“We didn’t really have downhill for the Australian School Championships, so we did things like put trials events in. So, in the cross country, you could get bonus points by completing the trials sections. That created the opportunity for the skilled rider, who may not have as big an engine, to gain bonus points and place better,” says Morris.

For the Academy event, they have used the basics of the Superflow event. Three tracks form the timed section of the course, which can be ridden in any order, up to five times. Adapting this format across also takes the pressure out of it. If a grom crashes or goes on an adventure off the trail, there is always another chance. The teachers are also encouraged to be out there with the kids on their bikes to provide support and help them work through a tricky section of singletrack.

I was the person asking the question when I was in that seat. So when we’re talking to a teacher, we can say, you’re going to need this, and this and this.

Morris designs all the courses and scours each trail network for a flowy descending trail, a more technical descending trail, and a cross-country loop, with the goal of having a different winner for each stage. He also makes sure to choose safe tracks for less confident riders, and they tell Flow the injury rate across their events is basically zero.

The kids take it upon themselves to help one another and try to improve times to earn more points.

Like Interschools, it’s all based on a point system. Everyone gets a point for completing the course; bonus points are up for grabs for winning a stage.

“The idea is to do multiple runs. So a rider that’s not as confident can ride a track and then go back up and improve,” says Parker.

“It’s all live timing, so all the kids are constantly saying, ‘What did you do? How did you go? Where can you improve? You’re a similar rider to John, who is really fast here; why don’t you follow them and see where you can improve,'” says Parker. “It allows them to see that they are progressing quickly and find the reward when they do improve.”

The points earned are also equal between girls and boys. It’s no secret that mountain biking is a blokey sport, even at the junior level, and Rocky Trail Academy is no exception. However, this gives the teachers and the kids the incentive to encourage more girls to participate — there is a set amount of bonus points available for the guy and gal who win a stage. If you only have boys on your team, you’re missing out on the chance for half those points.

Rocky Trail has made an effort to encourage more girls to participate in the Academy events.

Sponsors and brand activity

Of course, events can’t run without partners and sponsors — Fox Superflow, Shimano100, Jet Black 24, Whoop UCI Mountain Bike World Series, etc. — and Rocky Trail Academy does have brand partners. Moris and Parker continue to invite the local bike industry to get involved and support school events. HOWEVER, they’ve made a hard and fast rule that this is not the time or place to come in and try to sell kids gels, forks, tyres, kit or whatever else.

“It’s a school event, so it’s not about buying merchandise and whatever else. I’ve been very strong on not commercialising it, but I want to see industry come in and be involved in teaching. Sharing their knowledge of bikes, or bike maintenance or nutrition or any of those things,” she says.

In our growing markets, we may have one or two that are coming as schools, and the rest might be a group of mates that are coming with one paren

How do schools get involved?

Academy has grown into Rocky Trail’s second-biggest product, only outdone by the Superflows to which it is tacked on. That success has grown out of the dogged work of the Rocky Trail team getting schools and teachers on board.

“Jo has been a force in contacting schools. We find schools in the area around the venues or clubs that we’re coming into, and we send them information—we’ve put together a parent and teacher guide,” says Wisata.

As we mentioned at the top, Parker was the Business Manager at Nerang High School for a time, meaning that she was the one that teachers would come to propose an excursion like Rocky Trail Academy.

Rocky Trail Academy has only been around for a few years, but it’s already attrated more than 200 schools to participate.

“I was the person asking the question when I was in that seat. So when we’re talking to a teacher, we can say, you’re going to need this, and this and this. I work closely with the schools and the teachers to make their lives as easy as possible,” Parker says.

Having insight into the financials and permissions that are required, they provide the schools with a number of options tailored to their needs to get kids out of the events.

According to Morris, broadly speaking, well over 200 schools are already involved in Rocky Trail Academy events. But it’s not just schools that are fielding teams of a dozen kids to race at these events.

“At Nerang, for example, two-thirds of the schools that are turning up are coming as schools or with support. In our growing markets, we may have one or two that are coming as schools, and the rest might be a group of mates that are coming with one parent — the school has backed them, but they haven’t got any teachers,” says Morris.

Whether you’re a teacher or a parent with a young mountain biker and would like to get involved Parker says to reach out and they will guide you through the process.

Even with the success the Rocky Trail Academy events have already had, it’s still an evolving segment for them. Wisata says they’re currently working on a program for primary schools which takes the racing element out of it, and there’s also new for this year is the Graduation Cup, the best riders from each school qualify for what is not unlike a varsity team to compete at the Academy race.

Each event is limited to 300 kids, however Rocky Trail says its goal is to keep expanding and adding at least one new school to each event they run. If you’re reading this and you are a parent, teacher or school admin and you’re keen to get your school involved, Parker says to send her — or anyone else on the Rocky Trail Team an email — they’d love to hear from you.

For more, head over to the Rocky Trail Academy website.

Photos: Rocky Trail/

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