EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — While the leaves change colors and the air becomes crisp throughout Wisconsin, hundreds of youth at a time are leaving tread marks on nature trails across the state. It's cycling season for the Wisconsin High School Cycling League.

State competitors from grades 6-12 recently christened the twists and turns of paths at Lowes Creek County Park for the first ever mountain bike race the organization has hosted in Eau Claire.

Marcus McEllistrem, a high school senior at Eau Claire Memorial, said he has been racing for four or five years but only started competing last year. The love he has for the sport came from first watching videos. Now, he said he appreciates the camaraderie among his fellow athletes.

"It's a huge community with lots of people," McEllistrem told the Leader-Telegram . "And it teaches you skills you can use in other areas of your life, like perseverance."

One of the parents at the event was Rachel Davies, who drove three hours from Lake Mills with her family to watch her son Raife compete in his eighth race ever.

She said she was impressed with the race's setup because it looked very professional. Davies also complimented the youth who participate.

"It's incredible to see the kids all geared up and congratulating each other even if they were competing in the same race," she said. "There's such a community here."

Raife Davies, who won fourth place in the 11-mile Division 1 frosh boys race, agreed. Through his almost two years of experience, he said he has met many friends and has gained much self-confidence.

As for earning a spot on the podium: "It's an amazing rush. When you've worked so hard and it pays off, the release is great," he said.

A female athlete in the male-dominated sport, Grace Dorsey from Lake Tomahawk fell in love with cycling after a classmate persuaded her to give it a shot. She has only been a participant for two months, but already Dorsey has gained so much.

"I'm glad to be out here with such a great group of people and to be in this atmosphere," she said. "This sport showed me that it's fine to step out of my comfort zone and try new things."

Taking this step has led to rapid gains. She made the podium for the first time last month with a fourth-place win in her 11-mile junior varsity girls race. Before this achievement, she had finished twice in a row in seventh place. For this race, she made it her goal to make the podium, but in general Dorsey's goal is to keep using the sport as a way to have fun and be active.

Co-director and founder of WHSCL, Kathy Mock, said the league currently has roughly 900 competitors, up from the initial 100 it saw through its first season five years ago. That growing number, she said, has to do with the fact that the sport has room for everyone.

"The main thing is finding a home for all the kids who just can't," she said. "Everyone makes the team. We have a place for kids with special needs. We even have kids who don't necessarily want to race, and they can still be a part of the team."

The WHSCL has 56 teams statewide, and participating athletes, Mock said, get to create a huge network of friends that they likely wouldn't have a chance to meet otherwise.

Because the races are spread out across the state, Mock said it's a way to get kids exposed to other things and places.

"It allows kids to see a world outside of their high school," she said.

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Leader-Telegram.