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Competitive mountain bike racing is coming to Minnesota high schools next fall.
Students will race bikes on trail loops of up to six miles, competing on co-ed teams. Scores would be compiled based on time in a club sport concept that already has taken hold in five states.
"It's a great opportunity," said Gary Sjoquist, founding chair of the newly formed Minnesota High School Cycling League. "It's pretty cool that you can put something together that gets people active and makes them healthy. It provides them a way to hang out together all through their life, starting in high school and continuing."
The sport will be open to boys and girls, grades nine through 12, allowing them the opportunity to race in the lifelong sport competitively.
Three teams are in the formative stages. Last month more than 100 people, representing 22 suburbs, attended the league's kickoff event, Sjoquist said. Prospective coaches and riders learned about the race formats, volunteering options and task operations.
"I'm thrilled about the idea," said Valerie McGoldrick, 14, who races competitive cyclocross events and plans on joining Minnetonka's mountain bike racing team next fall. "I think that it's great that the high school is now going to bring in more people into the sport. Biking is amazing; you can do it from my age until you're an adult. There is no end period."
The league has tentative plans for four races in September and October. Two are in the metro area and two outstate. It is negotiating with sites to ensure appropriate youth-level courses, Sjoquist said.
The season could expand to six to eight races in later years, he said.
The tracks typically will be between 4- to 6-mile loops, according to Sjoquist. The cyclist's year in high school will dictate how many laps each they will take. Boys' and girls' scores will be combined toward a team totals, with girls' scores worth more in an effort to involve more girls in the sport, Sjoquist said.
Teams from Minnetonka, Minneapolis Washburn and Rochester have set up team websites to showcase their startup attempts. Minnetonka plans an informational meeting on April 18 at the high school.
Joel Woodward, who is helping launch Washburn's team, said, "We're hoping to just expose kids to the sport. If we can give them a taste for it and it becomes a part of their life, that's fantastic."
Woodward's son, Owen, plans to race for Washburn as a freshman next year. Owen, 13, competed in the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series last year. He said he hopes the league will help him gain experience, improve his skills and enable him to meet new people.
Teams could start registering April 1. A map on the league's website indicates several potential coaches, riders and parents throughout the metro and outer parts of the state have expressed interest in starting a high school team.
"I would definitely look into and see what it's about," said Adam DeCurtins, 15, of Savage, who rode the trails at Lebanon Hills Regional Park with his friend Jon Garbe, 15, last Saturday.
DeCurtins and Garbe started mountain bike trail-riding last year as a hobby. Neither had heard about the cycling league but expressed some interest.
"Personally, it would be a good excuse to work myself into shape for the ski season, also, just to get a break from school once in a while," Garbe said.
Griff Wigley, 62, who is trying to start a team in Northfield, said, "Yeah, it's a little pricey because you have to have some equipment, but compared to hockey or football, which pretty much ends for 99 percent of all kids as soon as high school is over, this is a heck of a deal. Pretty much everyone in their adult life has a bicycle."
Since it would not be a typical high school-sponsored sport, mountain bike racing would be governed as a club sport using rules and guidelines of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, a nonprofit organization formed in 2009 to expand mountain bike racing. It governs six high school cycling leagues in five states.
"This is not an official school sport,'' Sjoquist said. "The schools do not have to pay for anything. They basically have to allow the kids to start a high school mountain bike club. It operates independently, it is self-funded and self-governed with no cost and no liability for the school."
Sjoquist said he hopes to see about 200 students and 18 to 20 teams at the first race next fall.
"Typically these leagues double in size after the first year," Sjoquist said. "It very much will follow the trajectory of lacrosse and also soccer. It will grow quickly, the difference is it is co-ed."
The league has received start-up funding from local retailers Erik's Bike Shop and Board Shop and Penn Cycle.
The first high school cycling league started in northern California in 2001. Its success has led to the expansion of leagues in Southern California, Washington, Colorado, Texas and Utah. Sjoquist says that NICA's goal is to be implementing leagues nationwide by 2015, and that mountain biking eventually becomes a varsity sport.
Sjoquist, who lobbies for mountain bike racing as cycling advocacy director for Quality Bicycle Products, said his company is hosting a "leaders' summit'' on April 21 and 22 in Bloomington. The meeting will include training for prospective coaches, assistant coaches, ride leaders and parent volunteers.
Calvin Swanson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune