SHIFTING INTO GEAR

How a 2-year hiatus, canceled 1st season only made the Chatham Chaos stronger

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BRIAR CHAPEL — The first time they dug their tires into the dirt at Browns Creek, they had no idea it’d be the last.

After all, it was the Chatham County Chaos’ first official race as a team on March 8, 2020, one sanctioned by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) and its North Carolina branch, the North Carolina Interscholastic Cycling League (NCICL), to kick off its spring mountain biking season.

The bright-eyed student-athletes, with participants from both middle and high school, rode with the expectation that there’d be plenty of races left.

Then, COVID-19 happened.

It tore through the cycling world just as it did any other — races were canceled, restrictions were imposed and seasons were over. Just like that.

“We were honestly just trying to keep the team together through the pandemic because there were a lot of restrictions to keep kids and the coaches safe,” said Michael Clamann, an assistant coach for the Chaos.

The NCICL canceled the remainder of its 2020 race season, followed by another announcement in November 2020 that it’d be canceling the entirety of its 2021 season, too.

For two years, all the Chaos could do was practice.

But 742 days after its inaugural race, on March 20 of this year, the Chaos stepped onto that same course at Browns Creek alongside 42 other middle school teams, where they earned 1,971 points across nine races to take first place as a team.

A couple of years of nothing but practice — and the occasional non-NCICL race for some of their more experienced athletes — clearly paid off.

“That was great, but there was something kind of bigger (about that win) because two years ago, the entire league got shut down all of a sudden and we didn’t get to finish our season,” Clamann said. “Yes, it’s important to watch the winners and their celebrations were great, but I think a lot of people were just so happy we were doing it again.”

The origin

The Chaos were founded in 2019, when coaches from the Carolina Crushers — a large composite team in Chapel Hill and Carrboro — split to form a number of different teams, including the Chaos, started by a group of coaches and student-athletes from the area.

While some teams are formed out of specific middle schools and high schools, including those at Chapel Hill High School, East Chapel Hill High School and even Hope Middle School in Pitt County, composite teams are made up of athletes from a larger area or region.

It’s safe to say that the Chaos are a Chatham County melting pot.

The 21 student-athletes on this year’s squad represent a variety of schools across the county, including Silk Hope (Siler City), George Moses Horton Middle (Pittsboro), Margaret B. Pollard Middle (Pittsboro), Jordan-Matthews (Siler City), Northwood (Pittsboro) and Woods Charter (Chapel Hill).

“In Chatham, because we’re new and we’re growing, we’re more spread out,” said Karin Clamann, the mother of Nicole Clamann, one of the Chaos’ top racers, and wife of Michael Clamann. “Our team stretches the whole county. … Our hope is to grow and get kids across the county interested in us and know that we exist, basically.”

The team’s student-athletes are not just representative of different towns across the county, but also of different skill and experience levels.

Some athletes on the team are there to compete in races, while others aren’t. And no matter an athletes’ past experience, there’s always room for them to race if they’re interested. The Clamanns said that’s one reason why the team’s special.

“The nice thing about it is that there’s no pressure to race, that’s not what the team is about,” said Michael Clamann. “It’s more about getting a bunch of kids together to have fun mountain biking and the races are optional, but the races are also open to anybody, so anyone on the team — no matter how long they’ve been riding — is allowed to race if they want to.”

The Chaos practice anywhere from two to three times per week — typically at Briar Chapel in Chapel Hill or at another course nearby that closely resembles the course they’re racing at next — where the team’s staff of 11 licensed coaches splits them into groups by ability levels, teaching them fundamentals and brand new skills to improve their riding habits.

Middle school-aged athletes make up 81% of the team’s total roster, with 17 middle schoolers outnumbering the team’s four high schoolers.

In this year’s group, there are nine student-athletes returning from the original 2019-20 squad, with the rest being brand new to the Chaos, a strong sign of growth for such a fresh organization.

“A lot of it is really word of mouth between the different students,” said Michael Clamann. “They bring their friends on board, but we also host efforts through the schools, reaching out through advertisements to get more kids.

“There’s kind of a push every fall, around October, and then we have an interest meeting in November or December, where we’ll get together to tell people what NICA is and all about the team,” he continued. “We’ll let anybody sign up, it doesn’t matter if they’re veteran racers or first-time riders. We take pretty much anybody between 6th grade and 12th grade.”

With 11 coaches and a tight-knit atmosphere, the Chaos have been a desirable option for any Chatham student-athletes interested in mountain biking since its creation.

Now, the addition of a successful racing program — aided by the break in 2020 and 2021 — is just the icing on the cake.

The build-up

After the NCICL shutdown in 2020, the team resumed practice following the required pause in all team activities with their own COVID-safe guidelines, including the phrase, “Foot Down, Mask Up,” which meant that if an athlete was actively riding, they didn’t need a face covering, which changed once their feet hit the ground.

They maintained their typical practice schedule, training in smaller groups called “pods” while also keeping their distance from one another as much as they could.

“If you ask the kids, I think one of the most important parts to them was getting out to be with their friends and riding,” said Scott Bredenberg, who was an assistant coach before taking over as the team’s head coach to start the 2021-22 season. “The racing wasn’t a huge loss to them. … It was difficult for the riders that wanted to race, so that was a challenge, but they were still able to pick up events outside of the league, as well.”

Nicole Clamann, an 8th grader, was one of the Chaos riders that chose to seek other options to get her racing fix in 2021 while still practicing with the team.

“Recently, I think it was October of 2020, I started training more and that opened a lot of doors for me,” she said. “I joined a junior development team in 2021-ish and I did my first national race last year. I’ve been doing a lot more cyclocross recently, too.”

Cyclocross is a form of bike racing that takes place on variety of course types (pavement, grass, dirt trails, etc.) and has obstacles that racers must avoid, often requiring they dismount and remount their bikes to get around them.

Over the course of 2021, Nicole’s training significantly improved the way she raced, paving the way for her hot start to the 2021-22 NCICL racing season.

In her first two races, she finished in the top two of the Middle School Girls A division, having taken first at Browns Creek (35:23.95) and second at Salisbury Community Park (41:13.85) in the season’s second leg on April 3.

The same could be said for Willie Boynton, a 7th grader that’s also recently raced at the national level in cyclocross and placed third in the 7th Grade A Boys race at Browns Creek (36:46.16) and fourth in the same race at Salisbury (41:26.09).

But even without outside activities, the Chaos’ commitment to practicing throughout the pandemic has worked wonders for many of the team’s student-athletes, not just Nicole.

“I can think of a few student-athletes in particular that we were teaching some more basic skills early on when they were in 6th or 7th grade, but now, a few of them are challenging me as a coach to ride faster because they’ve gotten that much better,” said Bredenberg. “Their skills and speed have improved so much, partially just with growing up, obviously, but partially because they continue to practice and stay on the bike both inside and outside of scheduled practices.”

Gwenyth Williams is an example of that, as her first race ever came at Browns Creek last month, where she took first place in the 8th Grade Girls division (22:06.37), followed by a second-place finish in the same race at Salisbury (25:51.05).

“She’s just good,” Karin Clamann said of of Williams. “She’s just good. She rode her bike a lot during COVID and was already in shape from other sports.”

Through two races in the NCICL circuit, the Chaos are sitting in second place in Middle School Division 2, having earned 1,971 points in Race #1 and 1,924 points in Race #2 (placing fourth in their division) for a total of 3,895 points.

They’re just 28 points behind the first-place Myers Park Thoroughbreds (3,923 points) with three races to go, including the NCICL State Championship on May 22 at Farris Memorial Park in Mayodan.

‘It’s just so positive’

Race results aside, the Chaos are striving to follow in NICA’s footsteps and create an environment that’s inclusive, fun and welcoming to all middle and high-school cyclists, according to Karin Clamann.

During races, parents cheer and ring cowbells for other riders as they pass by, not just their children and their teammates.

“Everybody cheers on everybody,” said Karin. “I’ve noticed that with all the cycling our daughter has done and it’s definitely true with mountain biking. Everybody’s just into it.”

At practices, Bredenberg has encouraged some of the older, more experienced riders to be leaders for those who are just getting started, a concept that has not only helped the student-athletes get closer to one another, but assists in building team chemistry.

“We try to always support each other,” Bredenberg said. “Once they’re out having fun, they’re just enjoying their time out, so that’s been really rewarding to see.”

Nicole Clamann is one of the riders also involved in Girls Riding Together (GRIT), a program put forth by NICA to “bring more girls and women into the cycling community to close the opportunity gap for current and future generations,” according to NICA’s website.

She became a GRIT ambassador after participating in some of the program’s earlier events, meaning she mentors young female riders that are new to the sport.

“For me, as a mom, I love seeing that there’s a lot of encouragement to bring the girls into it, too,” Karin said.

“That’s part of the reason why I got involved — being biased because I have a daughter who’s an athlete — was to help pave the way for her to make sure that there aren’t as many barriers,” Michael Clamann added. 

Karin praised NICA, GRIT and the overall atmosphere of a Chaos organization that’s in the midst of its first true racing season, giving those in Chatham a place to practice organized mountain biking and providing parents, coaches and athletes alike with positive experiences.

“I don’t really ride, so for me, it’s the enthusiasm, it’s that everybody has a role, has a way to participate,” she said. “It’s just so positive. It’s just a really, really good thing.”

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.  

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