Growing the Sport With Independence Youth Cycling

Independence Youth Cycling promotes interscholastic racing in state and local series through its SoMont and PhillyWiss Youth Mountain Bike Teams, but its mission extends to increasing diversity, encouraging environmental stewardship, and trail advocacy. In this story, we celebrate the women of IYC.

Growing the Sport With Independence Youth Cycling
Photo courtesy Independency Youth Cycling.

Interscholastic Cycling in Southeastern PA

The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) was founded in 2009 as a non-profit to develop mountain biking programs for student athletes across the country. Currently, NICA is made up of 32 state or regional leagues that administer events, races, team practices, and other programs. In 2015, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League, or PICL, was founded by Mike Kuhn as "a youth development organization that uses mountain biking to inspire healthy lifestyles, build strong communities, and engage youth in trail stewardship" (PICL). Today, PICL is made up of 70 teams across Pennsylvania.

Since 2019, local non-profit Independence Youth Cycling (IYC), an organization distinct from NICA/PICL, has served as a local umbrella, promoting participation in PICL and other local race series through the SoMont (Southern Montgomery County) Youth Mountain Bike Team and the Philly Wiss Youth Mountain Bike Team. Among other accomplishments, this year IYC has formalized a USA Cycling affiliation, is expanding its programming to include cyclocross, and is partnering with local non-profits such as Riverfront North Partnership to ensure more kids are able to access resources like bikes and helmets needed for its programs.

Try It Rides

To kick off the 2024 season, SoMont and Philly Wiss will be hosting free 'Try It Rides' (dates and registration info at bottom). Try It Rides are a commitment-free opportunity for student athletes and their families to see what practices and the NICA community are like before registering for a season. Bikes and helmets are supplied to those who need to borrow them, and participants meet coaches who lead them through some introductory exercises.

To be clear, Try It Rides are not try-outs. Anyone who wants to ride can join the team. Try It Rides are just an opportunity to learn more about interscholastic cycling, a sport that is much newer and less familiar than legacy team sports like baseball and soccer.

In observance of Women's History Month, we wanted to spotlight leaders who are women and to explore the role of female student athletes in interscholastic cycling. Lead Head Coach Danelle Witkowski and Lead Team Director Jill Vanderpool graciously spent their time discussing their experiences and insights in development of this story.

Women and Girls in Cycling

Danelle Witkowski, a full-time teacher, had been riding mountain bikes for three years before she started coaching with SoMont in 2017. In youth cycling, she found a family-oriented and supportive community where people were growing together and achieving new levels of success through competition. The year after she started coaching, her son joined SoMont, where he discovered his athletic niche while cultivating lifelong friendships. Over time, Danelle's cycling techniques have steadily improved and her ability to assess and develop student athletes' skills has led her to the role of Head Coach.

Before getting involved with SoMont, Jill Vanderpool, a full-time nurse, would pedal around the neighborhood with her family enjoying the scenery and looking for animals, but she was not a cyclist. That all changed when her son was invited to a Try It Ride by a friend. Heading into seventh grade, he'd never quite found his passion. But that day it clicked. Jill and her husband found themselves on bikes more often also and little by little she started getting more involved with the team. Flash forward to 2024 and her son is a SoMont coach, Jill is a Team Director with six years of coaching experience, and the bicycle is a central theme to family social life and even vacations.

SoMont has a core leadership made up of seven Team Directors and Head Coaches. They have a wide range of responsibilities including planning the season, managing a roster of about 60 athletes and 40 coaches, maintaining equipment, and administering practices and off-bike activities. Organically rising to leadership positions by bringing the right ideas and skills, six of the seven core leaders are women.

Six of the Seven members of SoMont's core leadership are women.

Jill, Danelle, and the other core leaders' work is supported by a vast network of volunteer coaches and family members - many of whom are also women. Cycling, across disciplines, is a male-dominated sport, and this can be very intimidating for girls riding in or considering joining the league. Having so many women in leadership roles means that SoMont is extremely well-positioned to empower girls with the understanding and support they need to gain confidence and excel in cycling.


Girls Riding Together, or GRiT, is an effort promoted by NICA, PICL, and SoMont to give girls the space to train, talk, and support each other without the pressure of having the boys around. According to NICA, girls represent about 24% of registered student athletes in its programs, and recruiting and retaining significantly more female coaches and athletes is one of their top priorities. GRiT is a great way to empower girls to try things they might not feel comfortable doing in front of the boys. What's more, Danelle and Jill have begun racing to better understand what it feels like to train for something hard and to show GRiT riders that they can do it too.

Diversity in Cycling

Though IYC celebrates the progress being made to narrow the gender gap in cycling, it acknowledges it hasn't had the same success in attracting a ridership that reflects the demographics of the communities it serves. Although Philly Wiss and SoMont's athletes are predominantly white, many communities in Northwest Philadelphia and Cheltenham Township consist of a plurality or majority of racial and ethnic minorities.

IYC is committed to continued outreach in communities of color and aims to attract more people of color to its rosters, coaching staff, and core leadership as part of its mission to create diverse communities. I hope this story will serve as an invitation for members of BIPOC communities to join.

PICL Racing

Once the season kicks off, athletes are encouraged to participate in six PICL-sponsored events, including three all-state events featuring races with up to 1,000 student athletes in 6th through 12th grades, and two smaller Eastern Conference events. A final Adventure Weekend in Raystown Lake, PA celebrates individual and team accomplishments throughout the season and features team-based adventure competitions with teams exploring the vastness of the Allegripis trail network.

In addition, 'Local Dirts' are smaller, more accessible events that are closer to home and feature three to five local teams. Local Dirts are a great way to encourage more riders to join because they are accessible and visible to more people in the immediate community. This season, Local Dirts will be held at Belmont Plateau in West Fairmount Park on August 14 and at Twining Valley Park in Dresher on August 17.

IYC also supports teams and encourages athletes to participate in events outside of NICA and PICL. Circle Cycle Racing, a grassroots team that originated during SoMont's early years races in multiple disciplines outside of NICA, encourages athletes and coaches to race in the Mid-Atlantic Super Series, H2H Series, and Eastern States Cup series.

Stewardship and Advocacy

Though IYC's efforts center on racing, its mission extends to fostering diverse communities and enriching the lives of youth and families while encouraging environmental stewardship and trail advocacy.

Over the years, IYC has developed a bike fleet to help kids gain access to needed resources throughout the season. According to Danelle and Jill, not every family can afford to buy a new bike for the season and the ability to borrow a bike for a single day or an entire season is one of SoMont's most important initiatives. Their loaner bike fleet started with bikes that were simply outgrown or upgraded but were still useful. The program has grown through assistance from PICL's partnership with the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and through a sponsorship from Fuji Bikes in 2022.

IYC's devotion to making bicycles and equipment accessible to all is exemplified by their new Bikes on Demand Program, in partnership with Riverfront North Partnership (RNP). This initiative aims to provide immediate access to equipment for underserved communities in Northeast Philadelphia, enabling participants to join guided rides along the riverfront K&T Trail. This program, in addition to a Bike Skills Rodeo, will kick off on June 1 at RNP's Fish Fest at the Frankford Boat Launch in Bridesburg.

Mountain bike riding and racing enables outdoor experiences and a closer connection with nature but requires the infrastructure to support it. IYC's commitment to environmental stewardship and trail advocacy is exemplified by recent work contributed towards the advancement of the Cresheim Trail that extends from Wissahickon Valley Park in Northwest Philadelphia into Montgomery County.

Closing Thoughts

IYC's tagline is "Changing kids lives with cycling." Discussing this with Danelle and Jill, a few things stood out. In youth cycling, no one sits on the bench. Each athlete has their own measure of success - whether it's winning a race, learning a new skill, or just getting a good workout in while having a fun time - and that success helps them to excel in 'real world' challenges. At a youth cycling event, there are no referees to be mad at and everyone is cheering everyone on.

NICA, PICL, and especially IYC are relatively new in the world of youth sports. But the fact that Jill's son has already advanced from student athlete to coach illustrates how the sport provides new opportunities for growth and development. Jill is very proud to be a part of an organization that gives kids a place to thrive and be who they are. In closing, simply put, Danelle says "bikes are magic!"

Sign Up for Try It Rides

Want to learn more about IYC and their youth cycling teams Philly Wiss or SoMont MTB? Join them for their “Try It Rides” in preparation for the 2024 season.

Philly Wiss Youth MTB Team Try-It Rides – All events are at Blue Bell Park, 842 W Walnut Ln, Philadelphia, PA 19144

  • Saturday, April 13th, 10 am
  • Saturday, May 4th, 10 am
  • Thursday, May 16th, 6 pm

SoMont Cycling Youth MTB Team Try-It Rides

  • Saturday, April 20th at Lorimer Park, 10 am.
  • Tuesday, April 23rd at Twining Valley Park, 5 pm.

Loaner bikes and financial aid can be made available.

Visit their website to sign up for pre-season communications, or email them at

2024 Season Interest Form