An avid bike racer, Lori Harward noticed a trend in cycling as children would join their families in biking, then would drop the sport as they hit their teenage years.

“They would just disappear because they wanted to be with their friends,” she said.

Harward wanted to close that gap, she just didn’t know how to begin. That was six years ago. Now she oversees an organization that boasts 3,082 racers and 1,224 coaches for cyclists in grades 7-12. Suffice to say she has figured out how to reach the masses.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah High School Cycling League organizer Lori Harward during a pre-race briefing of her volunteers, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017. She oversees an organization with 3,082 racers and 1,224 coaches for cyclists in grades 7-12.

Under Harward’s guidance, the Utah High School Cycling League became the largest division of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, the organization that oversees interscholastic mountain-biking programs in the United States.

This year the Utah organization is sponsoring nine races in its regular season, culminating in the state championships in Cedar City on Nov. 3-4. The league uses both individual and team scoring, with the divisions competing against one another at state.

While the season revolves around the races, Harward said winning and losing aren’t really the main focus of the league.

“We wanted kids to have a great experience and stay healthy the rest of their lives,” she said. “We wanted them to experience the camaraderie of being involved in a sport with others and we wanted them to get out in the wilderness. There are so many benefits to getting out in the mountains connecting with nature. I was so surprised at how many kids didn’t have that experience with nature. I remember the first year we raced in Moab, we had so many families coming up to me who had never been there before.”

As the founder, Harward was a one-woman public-relations department for her organization, meeting the criteria to become a member of the NICA in 2012 and publicizing the league to anyone who would listen.

“I would be on group rides and start telling people about the league and pretty soon they were saying ’How can I start a team?’” she said. “My rides became PR opportunities.”

She did a good job selling, as the league had 320 registered racers that first year. “Racers” might actually be a loose term, as many had never been on mountain bikes before, Harward said.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) A racer leaves the starting line at the start of the Utah High School Cycling League "8th grade Beginner Boys" race Friday, Oct. 6, 2017 in Park City.

“That was the great thing, 90 percent hadn’t been on mountain bikes like that,” she said. “Then it would turn into a family sport because we needed help, so the kids would join and the parents would volunteer to help. We have Mountain Biking 101 skill classes and a training regimen, so it brought in a lot of adults.”

One of those adults was Kenton Peters, who became involved in the program through his children. Now he coaches the Salt Lake Composite team with more than 48 members. While he likened the managerial duties to “herding cats,” the real fun is exposing the sport to newcomers, he said.

He related a story of a farming-family member being proud to have fixed his own bike during a race and a girl who didn’t finish high in the standings, but earned critical points for the team. “Things like that are what make it cool,” he said.

While there were some newbies to the sport, others joined because they wanted to experience riding in group forums, since mountain biking normally is a solitary sport.

Lia Westermann, who finished consistently in the top three, said she joined for the chance to meet fellow bikers. “I loved that everyone got to participate at the practices and races and that the main aspect was to have fun instead of winning,” she said. “The experience made me love mountain biking, and I made so many new friends out of participating in it.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) The pack of racers in the Utah High School Cycling League "Advanced Girls" race, waits for the starting signal, Friday, October 6, 2017, in Park City.

Even though the league has grown tremendously, Harward still sees more potential for growth. A recent emphasis has been working with athletes who have disabilities. This season Harward estimates there are almost a dozen involved in the program. Race courses can be modified to allow them to compete, she said.

“It’s great to see those students who normally can’t participate in traditional sports like football be able to participate,” she said. “It’s a fantastic part of our program.”

Harward remains intensely involved in the program, to the point she notes her own riding time has been diminished. She isn’t complaining.

“I wake up happy every day doing something I feel passionate about,” she said. “This is my mission in life, so to speak. What I get out of seeing these kids competing is way more than what I could get out of racing myself.”

Races left in the 2017 season

North region • Oct. 20, Moab

South region • Oct. 14, High Star Ranch; Oct. 21, Moab