Burnsville cyclist Jordan Horner didn’t hesitate in giving an answer.

“Which race has been my favorite?” she repeated. “The last one, definitely — the one at Whitetail [Ridge].”

The answer seemed simple enough to her, but to anyone following the Minnesota High School Cycling League this fall, it might come off as a little strange.

The Oct. 13 race in River Falls, Wis., marked Horner’s first loss of the season. The senior had won three previous girls’ varsity races this fall and is the overall leader in the season series.

“Kelly [Catlin of Roseville] just pushed me so much harder in that race,” said Horner, who finished more than two full minutes behind Catlin. “You want to race to be pushed to a new limit. I’d rather be pushed and have great competition and lose than to have it be an easy race and win.”

Horner’s take on the competition also reflects the philosophy behind the fledgling cycling league, organized around mountain-bike racing, that has become an increasingly popular alternative to traditional fall sports.

Twenty-six teams, from throughout the metro area but also from as far away as the Iron Range, competed this fall. That’s up from 14 a year ago and includes more than 275 male and female racers. The series wraps up Sunday with a race at Mount Kato in Mankato.

The league’s growth in its second year has been “very rewarding,” co-founder Gary Sjoquist said.

“It’s been a challenge,” Sjoquist said. “But we’re picking up momentum. This thing is growing, and it’s going to keep growing. It’s really catching on.”

A sport that caters to all

An initial obstacle for most parents is the price, Sjoquist said. Fees for the five races were $200 this year. Each rider must have a bike and a helmet.

“When people say it’s expensive, I always say, ‘Relative to what?’ ” Sjoquist said. “There is going to be some cost for every sport or activity your kid is in. But one of our goals with this is to never have cost be a reason someone can’t compete. We’ll do everything we can to find a way to make it work.”

Sjoquist helped put together a grant for the Crosby-Ironton team so it could afford a trailer to haul the kids’ bikes to races. He wrote a separate grant that enabled a team from Minneapolis Henry to purchase bikes for a number of its athletes.

The league of teams, which competes outside the purview of the Minnesota State High School League, is set up as a branch of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. That’s one of the reasons the league, either through grants or sponsorships, could give $6,000 directly to assist teams that needed financial help.

The funding, Sjoquist said, has helped develop the league’s wide-ranging demographics. And the lure of such a simple sport has proved compelling to many who are less interested in traditional ball-and-stick sports.

“I mean, it’s riding a bike. Kids love riding bikes,” said Steve Kolbow, co-head coach of the Chanhassen/Chaska co-op program. “The biggest thing about the sport is that it’s simple, and it provides something that’s fun and safe for the kids to do.”

Rounding into form

For a sport in only its second year of competition, the organization and professionalism of the races has been impressive, said Chris Harvey, head coach for both Burnsville and a co-op team from Lakeville North and South high schools.

Harvey, who is also the Burnsville Nordic ski coach, said the sport in many ways is similar to Nordic skiing; there’s an obvious endurance element, but also an extreme technical aspect. He has his team do regular drills in practices focused on technique, and also teaches them basic maintenance and repair of their bikes.

Still, in the end, the most appealing aspect is the competitive atmosphere.

“I was pretty nervous starting out, because I thought it would be really intimidating,” Lakeville North’s Nicole Jenson said. “But it’s a lot of fun.”

Jenson, a sophomore, races in the junior varsity girls’ division. Through four races, she sits as the overall points leader. Unlike traditional high school sports, Jenson’s JV points are essential to her team’s success. The cycling league, Sjoquist said, is set up to mirror conventional bike races, meaning competitors race in age-based divisions. Seniors are in the “varsity” category; juniors compete in JV. There is also a freshman/sophomore class. A team’s cumulative score is based on adding all points from all racers — boys and girls — competing in each division.

That helps explain why the top-five schools in the season points standings are co-op programs — Rochester, Roseville, Minneapolis Washburn, Duluth and Lakeville.

“That can make things a little difficult for teams like us, though,” said Kolbow, whose Chanhassen/Chaska squad has only six total racers.

The team aspect is what sets the high school league apart, Horner said. She has competed in summer mountain bike races the past several years, and said she prefers the atmosphere of the high school league.

“The competition’s been great,” Horner said. “I’m excited to see where it goes from here.”