By Karen Kefauver, Spin City
You won’t hear Lili Heim bragging about sweeping the NorCal High School Cycling League’s five-race mountain bike series this year. In fact, the soft-spoken Aptos High junior needs a nudge to talk about her cross country success.
Heim first gave fat-tire racing a try two years ago at Aptos and has stuck with it, steadily pushing herself harder. The results of her discipline and training are paying off: This season, she won every varsity race in the league’s series, traveling to Monterey, Folsom and Napa with her teammates.
“I did not come into the season with the expectation to win every race. But after I won a couple, I made it my goal to try and continue my streak,” Heim said. “I am pretty stoked that I was able to achieve that goal.”
On Sunday, the 16-year-old will be sporting a leader’s jersey when she lines up at the start of the California State Championships in Petaluma. It is her third time qualifying for state. Nine of her teammates will also be racing.
Salinas, Monte Vista Christian and Palma, among others, also field teams.
Team coach Kathleen Bortolussi, who’s heading up the Santa Cruz Composite team, will be cheering on riders she has trained from December through May. The composite team includes kids from a variety of local high schools, including Santa Cruz, Harbor, Aptos, Pacific Collegiate School and Soquel.
Heim is one of only two girls in the group, but that doesn’t faze her.
“My teammate Haley Molinar and I are the only girls on our team, but since everyone on the team trains and rides together anyway, it doesn’t really make much of a difference,” Heim said. “After all, we are all just out there having fun riding bikes and eating burritos.” That’s Heim in practice. In races, she’s a different animal, Bortolussi said.
“Lili can joke and have fun in practice, but when she goes into a race she puts on her game face like any tough competitor would,” the coach said. “She gets nervous, but she performs well under pressure.
“Lili’s had races where she finishes four-and-a-half minutes before the second-place finisher. She rode them off her tail. I think it takes a lot of grit and perseverance and focus to ride with the boys and stay within yourself to meet your own challenges.”
Bortolussi, 52, knows firsthand what it takes to win in such convincing fashion. A veteran racer. Bortolussi has racked up championship titles and a pile of medals during her years of road, mountain and cyclocross racing — not to mention logging 3,000 hours of volunteering as a team leader during her six seasons with the Santa Cruz Composite Team. “I find the children truly inspiring,” Bortolussi said of her 16-member squad. “They are happy, positive young minds and we get to teach them life skills with cycling as a metaphor for life. I get to do something I am passionate about and impart my love of cycling to someone else. Hopefully they will be lifelong cyclists.”
Heim is certainly a candidate for being a lifelong cyclist, perhaps it’s even in her genes. Her dad, Hans Heim, is the former CEO of Santa Cruz Bicycles and is currently a partner at Ibis Cycles. Her mom, Carol Easton, works at Spokesman Bicycles. Still, neither parent believes Lili’s accomplishments come as a direct result of their cycling pedigree. They point to her twin brother, Cole, who is focused on running, not biking, as proof.
“We never pushed Lili to ride, but I think it’s one of those things that’s fun and addictive and it catches hold of you,” Hans Heim said. “Our family being immersed in bike culture might have helped a bit, but the riding itself is the main draw for her.”
Easton agrees, “After Lili decided to be on the mountain bike team as a freshman, there was no stopping her. Yes, she comes from a bike-oriented family, but it’s all her, it’s not me.
“She’s super tough, really quiet and just really focused. I love that my teenage daughter loves to spend all day out in the forest out on her bike. That makes me happy.”
Parental involvement is critical to the team’s survival. Parents and other volunteers pitch in to be ride leaders.
“It’s a big commitment,” Bortolussi admitted. “You can’t just show up here and there.”
However, there’s a bonus for volunteers, she joked.
“It’s a guaranteed workout,” she said. “Teenagers are fast.”
As for Sunday’s championship race, there are plenty of unknowns for Heim and her teammates.
“I am not sure how I compare to many of the fast girls from Southern California, so my goal is to race my hardest, have fun and see where it takes me,” Heim said.
Whatever happens at the championships, the results won’t diminish Heim’s passion for mountain biking.
“What I love most about mountain biking,” she said, “is being out in the forest on my bike and the really great people I have met in the mountain bike community.”
Karen Kefauver (www.karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City bike column appears monthly and was launched in 2009.