The Minnesota High School Cycling League seems to be gaining speed like a downhill time trial at the prestigious Tour de France.
The MHSCL started in 2012 with roughly 150 riders participating from grades six through 12. There were 15 teams in the entire state. This fall, there are more than 80 teams and about 2,400 athletes riding the different competitive trails across the state.
"The sport seems to attract a wide variety of kids," Prior Lake Coach Mike Binkowski said. "We get kids that I would consider elite athletes on par with any varsity sport athlete who may have been riding or racing with their parents from a young age.
"We also get kids who have never ridden on a mountain bike trail before," he added. "The fact that there are no tryouts and no bench — everyone can participate in every race — seems to create a much more welcoming and laid-back environment. The kids also love the fact that the biking community is very welcoming, relaxed and low-pressure."
The Minnesota Cycling Association runs the league. There are a total of seven races during the season which lead up to the All-Team Finale at Mount Kato in Mankato. That is set for Oct. 30-31 this fall.
The first race this fall was supposed to be at Schlinder's Way in Austin, but it was canceled due to flooding on the course. The second race was held at Lake Rebecca in Rockford Sept. 11-12.
The five other races before the All-Team Finale will be held at Whitetail Ridge (Course 1) in River Falls, Wisconsin, Gamehaven in Rochester, Detroit Mountain in Detroit Lakes, Redhead Mountain Bike Park in Chisholm and Whiterail Ridge (Course 2).
For more information on each event or race results, go to minnesotacycling.org.
John Oman coaches the Shakopee team that started in 2015. In the first season, the Sabers had 15 riders and a handful of parent volunteers. Now, the team is 71 participants strong with 40 adult volunteers.
"This sport tends to grab students who aren't your typical mainstream athlete," Oman said. "These are kids who love to get outdoors, enjoy the woods, and long for a singletrack trail."
Oman thinks the COVID-19 pandemic helped grow the sport for teenagers.
"I saw more people on the local trails than ever," Oman said over the last year. "The problem was that bike shops and retailers were sold out of their bike and parts inventory for most of 2020, so it was difficult to advise new families how to get equipment.
"Quite often, the Facebook marketplace and Craigslist were the go-to places for bikes," he added.
Binkowski also believes the pandemic has helped increase participation. Kids were stuck indoors and parents were looking for ways to keep their kids active.
The pandemic impacted travel for many people, so long family bike rides were safe options.
"Providing a relatively safe, physically distanced outdoor activity that found a way to actually have modified practices and race events during the pandemic was a great opportunity for kids that were otherwise limited with online school or hybrid school," Binkowski said.
"Kids can choose to race and work really hard to achieve their goals or they can just learn to ride and improve their skills and meet new friends," Binkowski added. "The events are a fun, festival-like atmosphere where kids can interact with athletes from other schools/teams between races and spend time outside in nature."
Oman said biking is a life sport. For the young riders, there's camaraderie and shared experiences that help them bond with their teammates and make new friends.
"Getting out and burning off their energy becomes fun and a healthy addiction to them," Oman said. "We are putting emphasis on team building and giving back to the mountain bike community to produce well-rounded athletes."