Mountain biking popularity not trailing off
Despite her father’s prodding, mountain biking never appealed to Amanda Susnik.
Funny, Susnik was speaking Tuesday from a parking lot off Hutchinson Road, an access point to the burgeoning network of trails developed by Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores. In her third year on the Duluth Composite Team, which competes in the Minnesota High School Cycling League, Susnik’s trepidation has disappeared. For so many years, Patrick Susnik, an avid triathlete, had tried to coax his daughter into mountain biking.
It didn’t take, not until she joined the DCT in 2013.
“I fell in love with it within the first month,” she said on a gorgeous fall evening that was ideal for a ride through Duluth’s gold-splashed woods.
Like the COGGS trail system it utilizes for training, the DCT has grown rapidly in three years. This fall, there are 47 riders — or more than double the 23 that participated the first year — for a squad that has enjoyed immediate success. The defending state champs in Division I have claimed two of the season’s first three races with a trek to Cuyuna Lakes in Crosby, Minn., on tap for Sunday.
The circuit concludes at the year-end championships Oct. 25 in Mankato.
“Our environment up here no doubt is conducive toward having good, strong riders,” the team’s coach, Brian Hayden, said.
Hayden’s club practiced near Piedmont on Tuesday because that section of trail is technically challenging and rocky, which mirrors the track for Sunday’s race. Others don’t have that luxury.
“Some teams are training on paved bike paths every day,” Hayden said. “Our trails are harder. We won’t race on anything as tough as this.”
Mountain biking, an upstart high school sport in Minnesota, has found its niche by attracting student-athletes that “don’t fit in the typical stick and ball sports” and by promoting cycling as a lifetime pursuit. Its governing body, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, emphasizes core principles like inclusiveness, along with strong mind, body and character.
Competition, of course, is part of the package, but it’s not the co-ed sport’s sole selling point.
Hayden, for example, is much more inclined to discuss the DCT’s ability to foster an active lifestyle via an endeavor “they can participate in beyond the high school years.”
The team is open to boys and girls in grades 7-12. This year’s group is comprised of students from all over the Northland, including Superior. Enough of them come from Duluth East that the school scores separately at races. East, responsible for last year’s state championship and this season’s two event victories, still resides under the DCT umbrella.
As mountain biking surges in popularity locally, the team figures to grow. Riding in Duluth never has been easier or more accessible. The city’s tangle of trails, expertly designed and meticulously maintained, offers something for everyone, from beginners to diehards.
Levi Hayden, the coach’s son, noted that many kids already are into mountain biking.
“Then they see we have a team and they’re like, ‘Oh, cool, I want to join that and try it out,’ ” the East junior said. “And they usually love it.”
The team trains much like cross-country runners or Nordic skiers. There are hard days, with intervals and hill repeats. There are easy days, where the focus is on honing technical skills. And there are long rides to prepare for competition — varsity races approach 20 miles and last between about 90 and 120 minutes.
At races, everybody on the team competes and all riders can earn points.
“Nobody sits on the bench,” Brian Hayden said.
This fall, there are 62 teams and more than 700 riders in the Minnesota High School Cycling League.