The raucous, elbow-to-elbow start this past Sunday at the Mount Kato Ski Area looked like a group of veteran bicyclists, but under the helmets were kids, at least one of them just 12 years old, taking on a 4-mile lap that sent them climbing and descending at punishing speeds.
“This is my life!” said a winded but smiling Josie Welsh, a ninth-grader at Robbinsdale-Armstrong High School in Plymouth, moments after taking second place in her race.
In a state where hills largely substitute as mountains, the club sport has grown with startling speed across the state. In its inaugural season two years ago, the Minnesota High School Cycling League had 151 riders. Now it’s at 550 kids on 41 teams statewide.
“When we think of the stick and ball sports, there may be 40 kids on the team, but there’s a lot of kids who don’t get the court time,” said Josh Kleve, the league’s director and co-founder. “In our sport everyone has an opportunity.”
The league’s growth has been fueled in part by its decision this year to allow middle schoolers to race. A surge of seventh- and eighth-graders responded, taking part in the league’s fall schedule of five races from Rochester to St. Cloud.
Despite the growth, the sport still shows sign of its infancy. When riders wear their team jerseys to school, “other kids will say, ‘I didn’t even know we had a team,’ ” said Ted Siefkes, a middle-school teacher and coach for the Independent School District 196 team.
Even the riders are still catching up. Anastasia Antovich, 13, nabbed two first-place finishes in her first two races this fall while racing for the 196 team, then in the next race fell to third because she slipped off her pedals during a sprint for the finish line. Soon after, she bought a pair of the cleated pedals that lock to a cyclist’s feet and are standard issue in mountain bike racing.
The push of young riders includes at least one sixth-grader, who qualifies because he’s 12 years old. Braeden Anderson, from Brainerd, regularly posts the fastest times in the ninth-grade races. He did it again in Mankato, taking first place by 4 seconds.
“He’s just a tiny guy,” said his father, Shaun Anderson, one of the coaches of the Cuyuna Lakes High School Mountain Bike Team. “It’s fun to watch.”
The cycling league’s rapid growth has given fresh momentum to mountain bike trail-building projects around the state, with new tracks or major expansions planned or underway in Duluth, at Theodore Wirth Park, Lake Rebecca Park Reserve and at the Cuyuna Mountain Bike Trail System, the state’s mountain biking gem near Brainerd. The Cuyuna master plan calls for tripling its 25 miles of trails to 75.
After a team formed in Austin this summer, volunteers helped create trails around the city so the kids would have a place to ride, said Austin coach Spencer Salmon.
“Some of the residents wanted to build trails 10 years ago,” but it never got the city’s support, Salmon said. This year, once it became known kids were going to be competing, a plan was quickly put together and 4 miles of new mountain bike track were built on land owned by Riverland Community College.
“You’ve got to have the trails to help feed and foster the pipeline,” Stillwater coach Annie Perkins said. “If it’s there, people are going to do it. It’s the whole chicken and the egg thing.”
Stillwater, the state’s largest team with 60 riders, doesn’t have a “super great, close single track,” to practice on, Perkins said, but the team has made small courses at the high school fields, and they ride over stacked pallets and tires to work on technical skills.
Perkins said the sport has drawn Nordic skiers and downhill racers who use it for cross training. The element of danger appeals to kids, too.
“They think it’s cool,” she said. “What’s not cool about riding in the dirt and rocks and ruts and it’s kind of dangerous and you can skin your knee and you get blood?”
Several riders at Mankato’s race talked about their own crashes, most resulting in minor scrapes. It’s a challenging subject for all high school sports: Some 1.4 million U.S. children were seen in an emergency room in 2012 for a serious sports injury while playing the 14 most common high school sports, according to data from the National Sporting Goods Association and the Consumer Products Safety Commission. Perkins said that, at least in mountain biking, the goal isn’t to take down another athlete.
“You’re competing against yourself; yes, you’re competing against the team and the clock, but it’s not like you want to kill the other person. So we’re not banging heads,” she said.
Draws all competitors
Grandparents John and Gail Hill of Bloomington drove to Mankato over the weekend with grandson Luke for Sunday’s race.
“I thought it was a good sport for him; you’re part of a team but your score is your score,” Gail Hill said.
Luke Hill, 13, said he joined the team this summer, borrowing his sister’s mostly unused mountain bike. Soon he was navigating hills at high speed.
“That’s the funnest part,” said the eighth-grader at Bloomington’s Oak Grove Middle school.
John Hill stood at the base of Mount Kato as lycra-clad racers sped past for another lap up and over the ski runs and into the woods beyond.
“It is amazing,” he said. “How would you like to ride over tree stumps?”