Luke Daquila has raced at home before, but not against a field of mountain bikers exclusively in his age group.
Though the 17-year-old from Niskayuna has entered cycling competitions around his hometown, they’ve been contests including racers of all ages. His first year with HRRT Bicycle Club’s junior team was spent racing at a circuit of courses hours distant from the Capital Region.
All that changed this year. The team last year joined New York’s league in the National Interscholastic Cycling Association last year, and on Sunday it put together a competition in Schenectady’s Central Park, drawing roughly 100 racers from around the state to compete on a course Daquila has ridden regularly for nearly half his life.
“I’ve ridden these trails every week since I was 8,” he said after finishing second in the junior varsity competition. “I know all the turns, where all of the logs are. I basically helped make the trail.”
And then there are the fans. Used to flying through a course with only a few spectators, Daquila said his race Sunday was noticeably different.
“I’m riding along trails and I hear ‘Go Luke, go Luke’ and I’m not even sure who it is cheering for me,” he said.
The expansion of the association’s circuit to Schenectady is part of its overall growth in the state. New York was the eighth program accepted in the association and has grown considerably since its inception last year.
The chapter started with two races, 42 riders and eight teams. Now it has five races, 100 riders and 14 teams.
“All that in just one year,” said Jason Cairo, the director of New York’s league.
Cairo said bringing a competition to the Capital Region was a natural progression for the league as it branches out from downstate. With three downstate competitions and one event in the Catskills, he said bringing a race to Schenectady should help bolster interest among clubs located upstate.
“We’re really happy to be here,” he said.
Of course, putting on a mountain bike race in Central Park is no easy task. Dozens of HRRT members and volunteers spent roughly three weeks getting trails ready for the races and cleaning up the park after a long winter.
But it all was worth it in the end, said Andrew Rizzi, who founded HRRT with his wife, Heather. Bringing the races home was a goal the team had from the outset and one the club achieved with great success.
“This was a huge goal for the team and the club,” he said. “This is their home field.”
Billed as a fast single track, the 3.7-mile loop through Central Park left some of the fastest riders in the league gasping for air. In particular, racers encountered a patch of mud right before engaging in a 100-yard climb.
“That whole climb definitely burns the legs,” said 17-year-old Sam Baskin of Oneonta, who finished first in the 11-mile junior varsity competition. “That last lap was tough — definitely.”
The 11 members of the HRRT team capitalized on their experience with the trails and placed in the top of most heats. In the sophomore boys competition, they managed to land second place through fifth place.
“We basically had our guys out for a group trail ride during that race,” Daquila said of his teammates.