Three-time national mountain biking champ Cassie Smith wants to spread the sport to kids in need
Morgantown, West Virginia is a beautiful college town, surrounded by tree-covered hills and split by the Monongahela River. It's those distant ridges and peaks -- and the trails, parks and wild country they hold -- that are especially gorgeous to Cassie Smith.
Smith came to the University of West Virginia from Virginia to be a Mountaineer nearly 25 years ago. As a life move, count it a win. She earned her degree, found the love of her life and discovered mountain biking. She says the sport "changed her life." Before being introduced to it by her future husband, Jeff, she says she lacked focus.
"When I met my husband he raced mountain bikes, so he showed me what it was like to ride in the woods and I just fell in love with it," says Smith, 47. "It just gave me a purpose, discipline. Before, I just had no real direction."
As a girl, Smith wasn't athletic. The first time she seriously spent much time on a bike was when she brought one to Morgantown for transportation. But once Jeff got her out on the trails, he coaxed her into a race at nearby Coopers Rock State Forest. There, she discovered a competitive gene she didn't know she had.
In the years since, she's trained and raced all over those West Virginia hills and mountains, won local races and three national age-group championships, taught her son to pedal over trails and worked hard to continually improve while exploring the wilds. She's also now the director of the new West Virginia Interscholastic Cycling League, eager to pass on her passion to middle- and high-school students.
"I love the challenge [of mountain biking]," she says. "I like to push myself and set higher limits."
Other than some time off to have her son, Levi, 15 years ago, she's been on her bike just about every day, eating up even the bumpiest, roughest trails -- the kind she loves best. There may be other states with bigger mountains, but she'll take West Virginia's.
"It's beautiful," she says. "Rocks, roots ... it's just really good mountain biking."
Smith has worked as a courier for FedEx for 25 years. These days, she works part-time, 25 to 30 hours a week. She's at work by 4:45 a.m. and out by about the time most people are clocking in, which gives her plenty of time to train.
Over the course of a normal week, Smith figures she rides 10 to 15 hours. She also hits the gym twice a week, doing a lot of work on her core and balance, with much of her time spent on bodyweight exercises. The one thing she's changed about her routine in recent years is building in more time for rest.
"I definitely need more recovery than I used to, yet it's hard for me because that's not really how my brain works," she says, laughing. "But I definitely need it as I've aged."
Whatever she's doing works. She's won three USA Cycling Mountain Bike national age-group championships, the last in 2017 in the 45-49 cross country at Snowshoe Bike Park in West Virginia. Her two previous titles came when the championships were held in neighboring Pennsylvania.
Mostly, she's happy to compete close to home, often in the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association series. Through the first four races of 2018, she was in first place in the Pro/Expert Women Open classification. She won the season championship in that category the five previous seasons.
She considers the women she rides against regularly to be not only terrific riders, but great friends. At series events, "the camaraderie is just awesome," she says.
"I've had some really good riders to really push my limits," she says.
She'll also do some long endurance events. Last year she did the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race in North Carolina, a five-day event. Cyclists covered 25 to 30 miles each day. She finished second among women and counts it as one of the most memorable events she's ever done.
"That was a huge highlight," she says. "It really tested my limits. The fun factor was really high there."
Each day she'd wake up feeling the miles she'd raced the day before, but excited about what was next. But, by the end, she was spent. "I'm not going to lie," she says. "I was definitely feeling it."
Mountain biking can be tough, especially over the tough terrain she loves most because it requires technical savvy. Flying down rough terrain, especially in competitions, can produce nasty crashes. She's been fortunate to have just one serious injury (broken collarbone), but has plenty of cuts, scrapes and bruises.
She says she's never burned out on the sport because she focuses on having fun. She has a good group of women to ride and train with ("It helps get you out there," she says), and has "Team Smith" behind her. That's Jeff and Levi -- who also competes now. Jeff doesn't ride as much as he used to, but keeps the bikes working and goes to races as cheerleader and crew.
"He's known in the mountain bike community as someone who'll be there when needed," she says.
That Levi has evolved into a training partner also keeps her going. "I kind of taught him how to persevere and now he's 15 and he's kind of teaching me how to ride," she says. "Because the ride style has changed since I started and he has the skills, he's taught me a ton. We really are training partners. We ride pretty much every day together. It's just nice to have him along, and he's probably part of the reason, too, that I've stayed in it this long, because he really loves it. That's kept the enthusiasm going."
A while back, Smith heard about interscholastic mountain biking in other states and looked into it for hers. She and others put together the West Virginia Interscholastic Cycling League, and it will debut this fall with four events. Students from all over the state will compete, representing their middle school or high school, or in many cases, combinations of schools from a city or area.
As league director, she hopes at least 100 students will participate in Year 1. She's dreaming of 150. "When I started it, I just wanted to give what's been so positive in my life to other kids," she says. "West Virginia has a lot of hopelessness. There's a lot of drug problems, obesity. [Mountain biking] teaches you so much and it's definitely a character-building sport. It's not easy and you definitely have to persevere when you want to quit."
In leagues elsewhere, participation has climbed steadily after the first year. She's hoping it will in West Virginia, too. "They've told me, 'Don't worry, the kids are your advertisements. They go to a race, they come back and they tell their friends,' " she says. "I think it will take off like wildfire."
If it does, those trails in the hills and mountains around Morgantown will be a little more crowded, but that's fine with Smith, who knows what the sport has done for her.
"It gave me a purpose," she says. "Something to always try to better yourself."