Wayzata (Plymouth, Minn.) High junior Michael Kindler grew up mountain biking in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. He relished the feeling of gripping his handlebars, navigating on rocks and dirt trails and riding through the desert.
Kindler was disappointed that he had to leave behind the natural surroundings when his family moved to Plymouth two years ago with his father’s job transfer.
“I felt bad at the beginning because I thought I wouldn’t be able to ride,” Kindler said.
That changed this past August when Wayzata established a mountain bike team under the direction of Sheryl Golin and with help from the Minnesota High School Cycling League, founded in 2012 as a way to provide competitive mountain biking programs for high school student-athletes.
The league’s structure is modeled after the NorCal High School Mountain Bike Racing Series, founded in 2001 by Matt Fritzinger, a teacher and coach at Berkeley (Calif.) High. High school mountain bikers from schools in Northern California competed as semi-organized teams.
Josh Kleve, Minnesota High School Cycling League director and founding member, described mountain biking as the “tee-ball” of cycling. Competitors ride approximately nine miles an hour —compared to road racing, in which bikers can hit speeds up to 50 miles an hour.
“Every kid that races is contributing to the team. There are no benchwarmers.”–Josh Kleve, Minnesota High School Cycling League director and founding member
“Mountain biking is one of the easiest and least intimidating forms of racing. We’re not on public streets, and we don’t have crazy bikes that are hard to ride,” said Kleve, adding, “Every kid that races is contributing to the team. There are no benchwarmers.”
The league operates on five principles: to be equal, inclusive and to build a strong body, mind and character through cycling. The all-are-welcome philosophy combined with the opportunity for an individual to make an impact supports why the league has quickly grown.
The league started with 151 riders from grades nine through 12 and now allows middle school-aged students to participate. This year, 550 participants from seventh to to 12th grades comprised 41 teams in the state. Kleve projects the league will increase to approximately 700 participants and 60 teams in the state by next season.
Golin anticipates her 21-member team will double next season.
“It appeals to everybody,” Golin said. “We’ll make a way for someone who’s interested to ride. Equipment is never a barrier.”
That’s thanks in part to the league’s support. While competitors require a bike with wide tires and a front shock, Golin said if someone shows up to practice with a low-end bike, they don’t necessarily have to purchase a new one. The league offers bikes through its scholarship program, which is funded by private donations and corporate sponsorships.
Golin’s team practiced twice weekly for two hours of interval or hill training on the crushed limestone and dirt paths of the Luce Line State Trail — a 63-mile long former railroad grade from Plymouth which was developed for such varied activities as biking and horseback riding. A three-hour practice, which typically included a nonstop 90-minute ride, was held on weekends. All this in preparation for the five-race series, which ended with a championship Oct. 26.
Teams must register with the league to be eligible to compete. The registration fee ranges from $125 to $250, depending on team size. The league provides secondary health and liability coverage to all participants. Each athlete is responsible for the individual race registration fee, approximately $40, along with transportation and lodging. If a team or athlete can’t afford the fees, the league offers financial assistance.
“Costs shouldn’t be an inhibiting factor. If someone is willing to put in the time and effort, we want them to have the opportunity to participate,” Kleve said. “Our goal is to get kids riding bikes. For a lot of these athletes, it’s the start of a lifelong activity.”
Kleve said it typically takes up to two months to form a team, but some have formed within a couple of weeks if a strong support base is in place, which happened at Stillwater (Oak Park Heights, Minn.) High. He said last year the team formed in two weeks and showed up to its first race with 15 members. This past season, the team had more than 40 members.
Kleve said teams typically form based on interest from a parent or an athlete. A league staff member helps to organize a team, which requires at least four members to score on competition. Parents can volunteer to coach, and coaches are required to go through a licensing process before the team can practice.
Golin’s coaching staff is comprised of parents, members of the cycling community and a recent college grad who was A Division I racer. Her team consists of 11 high schoolers and 10 middle school members. Only three athletes had previous bike-racing experience, and members are predominately boys; three girls participate.
Kleve said the league is trending 70%-30% males to females. The league established Crank Sisters — a women’s outreach program that offers female-specific camps with pro-level female racers — to encourage high school girls to become racers.
Kleve appreciates that a vast majority of the league’s participants don’t come from cycling families, and a lot of the league’s athletes use mountain bike racing as a form of cross training. He’s grateful to provide a way to grow the sport and for athletes to get involved safely and cost effectively.
“Cycling has a different culture. It doesn’t matter if you’re racing or just riding for fun,” Kleve said. “There’s a freedom you get that’s hard to duplicate through any other activity.”