Back in summer 2012, then-14-year-old Zach Tracy took a ride on the single track of Theo Wirth Park. Mountain biking in Minnesota, generally a combination of winding grassy fields, gravel roads and trails that twist around trees and up and down rolling hills, long has provided a competitive aerobic activity and an environment of camaraderie—but generally among adults. After his first few rides, though, and with the recent advent of the Minnesota High School Cycling League (MHSCL), Tracy took it upon himself to bring the sport to his high school.
“I went out with my dad for that first ride and really enjoyed it,” he says. “It was just for fun; my goal was just to keep up with my dad. When I was interested in racing, I got together with a few other kids and brought it to my school.” He did this with the help of a couple of willing teachers and coaches, including coaches Aaron Kadera and Holly Solberg. “We had six riders the first year and continue to accumulate more as word spreads,” Kadera, a former road cyclist and triathlete, recalls. “When I moved to Osseo and started coaching, I began riding less on the road, and much more on the awesome trails at Elm Creek and Three Rivers Parks … Now, mountain biking is the obsession—one that I share with many of my riders.”
More than 900 middle school and high school athletes—about 30 of whom hail from Maple Grove, Osseo and Champlin—make up the MHSCL. The co-ed sport sends off racers in a group start by age level—first middle school and junior high, then the freshman, sophomore, JV and varsity—five to six Sundays each fall. Races travel between 4- and 5-mile loops, generally, with the number of loops raced dependent again on age and experience. Scoring is similar to cross-country running, Kadera says, with the top four riders scoring for the team (of which only three can be of the same gender), and points are assigned in descending order from the top finisher. The team with the most points wins the race, and riders accumulate points through the five races. “The race itself ends up being a carnival, with each school representing themselves at their tents, and the parents, siblings and dogs of all 800 athletes present,” Kadera says.
A (Short) Look Back
The MHSCL is a branch of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), which launched in 2009 in California with the mission of introducing mountain biking to younger kids as an accessible, individual and also team sport; the goal is to have a presence coast-to-coast by 2020, and the group currently has affiliates in 19 states. Remarkably, MHSCL is just five seasons old and one of the fastest growing subsets in the nation, with a total of 62 teams already formed in Minnesota and another eight or so in the works.
Bill Welsh is both head coach and founder of the Armstrong-Robbinsdale team, which is in its third year this season. Welsh is active not just locally in MHSCL but also nationally with NICA. “There’s Division 1 teams and Division 2 teams,” he says, noting D2 are smaller, composite teams from multiple schools, as is the case with Osseo-Champlin.
When it comes to equipment, the only requirements are that bikes—each athlete provides his or her own—have wide tires, ideally with front suspension, and that riders wear helmets. Trailhead Cycling is Maple Grove’s team shop partner; there, students can get team jerseys and bike needs, sometimes at special prices. Tracy spends his free time working there.
“That first year in the league was a wakeup call,” he says. “As I started working at the shop, that second year I improved a lot. I was racing JV, and took 11th overall, which I was very happy with.”
An Aerobic Activity
So what does this sport entail for students who perhaps have never participated in an organized sport before? Middle school races are quite accessible, usually just one lap of the course; varsity competitions, in comparison, often last an hour and a half or more. To prepare for this variety and rigor, practice starts in July. “It’s not like any other high school sport. The races are 90 to 140 minutes of sustained effort at kids’ anaerobic threshold (about 85 percent of max heart rate),” Kadera says. “There is no other high school sport that compares to that sort of length or effort.”
Tracy appreciates the ability to challenge not only peers but also his own records and goals. He’s taken on an off-season coach, Taylor Bodanski, and last summer competed in a series of national semi-pro events, including the Mah-dah-hey 100. “After 15 hours of racing, coming across that finish line and seeing I was the youngest finisher, that’s a favorite moment,” he says.
Not every athlete is a ball-and-stick athlete, Cadera says, and this sport offers an option outside of lacrosse, football and soccer, and has a very different feel than cross-country or swimming. “One of my favorite aspects is that, on the course, the students are the decision makers,” Kadera says. “They have to decide, ‘Should I jump that log or roll over it? Do I need to dismount and walk?’ There is no coach or parent screaming at them from the sideline while they do this. The course and the ride is not synthetic, it is naturalistic—and that is a very rare thing in modern sports. At the same time, once they round the corner into the carousel at the finish line, the crowd lights up, and they lean over the barriers to cheer on the rider, cowbells and all.”
“My favorite part is the challenge against yourself,” Tracy adds. “I do a lot of races outside the league, where I’m not racing against kids my age. I like the more individual aspect of the sport. Everything you put in shows in your results.”
The benefits of this sport are wide-ranging and differing for students, parents, coaches and community. “We’re focused on developing kids through mountain biking,” Welsh says. “We’re very much about building character, giving opportunities to grow as people. [NICA] has core values of inclusiveness, and we want all kinds of kids from all different backgrounds and ability levels.”
To this end, all teams do some sort of community work: trail-building at Theo Wirth park, as well as three to four community events for volunteer work, as “it’s important to teach the students to give back,” Welsh says.
It’s notable that female riders make up only 25 percent of most MHSCL teams, a trend groups like the NICA-affiliated Crank Sisters strive to reverse by hosting women-only clinics and demo rides.
But improved self-esteem is perhaps the biggest perk to student athletes involved in either Maple Grove’s or Osseo’s programs. “A few members, including Zach, have traveled the summer doing individual races,” Kadera says. “Zach completed the SilverRush in Leadville, Colo., last summer—a true feat considering his age.”
The aerobic value coaches allude to is recognized by the kids as well. In fact, when asked, 100 percent of participating students have stated that cycling in some form or fashion will be a lifelong pursuit. “I don’t know many 40-year-olds that still play football, but plenty ride,” Cadera says. “I think it’s odd so many of us receive a bicycle early in life … and then, for some reason, we take a break from it, only to come back to it as an adult. Why not keep the bike use? Why not continue to develop our children’s riding skills? Why not take what is a childhood pastime and make it a sport?”
(Osseo Mountain Biking Team)
By the Numbers:
Minnesota High School Cycling League
- 100 % of participating students state they will ride bikes for the rest of their lives.
- 85 % of participants have an improved GPA of 3.0 or greater. Many teams voted to include trail stewardship as a team activity.
- 96 % of student athletes report health and fitness benefits.
- 50 % of parents resume or start riding as a result of their child’s participation.mber 18, 25; October 6, 13 & 27.