Spirit Mountain bike race draws 900 student riders
Here's mud in your eye isn't just an old-school toast, it was pretty much reality for most of the 900 youth mountain bike racers at Spirit Mountain Sunday afternoon. Everyone but the ones out front and ahead of the pack. An overnight rain caused ...
Here's mud in your eye isn't just an old-school toast, it was pretty much reality for most of the 900 youth mountain bike racers at Spirit Mountain Sunday afternoon.
Everyone but the ones out front and ahead of the pack.
An overnight rain caused race-day headaches for organizers and last-minute course changes and delays, but the second-to-the-last race of the season for the Minnesota High School Cycling League appeared to go well anyhow.
"Our first priority is safety. But we also don't want to trash Spirit Mountain. One of or core values is not to damage trails," said Ray Larson of Roseville, Minn, once a bike racer's parent who now volunteers as the league's communications director.
Racers on Sunday finished with mud caked on their bikes, their jerseys, their helmets, their goggles and their faces. The mud made the climb up 650 vertical feet - a grade affectionately called the "puker" - even more challenging than usual.
The ski area's steep downhill run offered a reprieve for lungs and legs, but each switchback turn offered a primo chance to wipe out.
"This is about the most demanding race in the state," said Brian Hayden, head coach for the Duluth Composite Team. "But we're used to it. We train here. We love it."
Easy for the coach to say. The faces on some of the racers showed a little less love at the top of the hill. A few of the 900 seventh-to-12th grade racers suffered cuts and scrapes in falls; others just tumbled and got back on. Some had to get off and push their bikes up the steepest grade.
"It's really muddy. The puker is awful," said Eli Jereczek, an 11th grader from Duluth East, after testing the course.
Eli Fresvik didn't mind. The Duluth eighth grader finished among the leaders in his "wave" of racers and remained relatively unsplattered.
"I think it was OK. The mud made it really slippery in some places but it wasn't so bad," the second-year mountain bike racer said after crossing the finish line.
It's a true endurance sport, with no breaks for quarters, periods, halftimes or time outs, or reserve players. Varsity racers are on the course, nonstop, for about 90 minutes, with JV racers about 40 minutes and middle schoolers about 20 minutes.
This is the sixth season for the Minnesota High School Cycling League, which is independent from the Minnesota State High School League that oversees more traditional school sports.
The goal, simply, is #morekidsonbikes, with the sport fledging at a time when bike use by kids was actually going down across the U.S.
The effort appears to be working. The league started in 2012 with 150 riders from 16 schools. In 2017 there are more than 1,300 students participating from 100 different schools competing on 60 different teams.
Hayden's Duluth team now has 65 kids, up from 15 when they started in 2013. Racers from Duluth East, Denfeld, Hermantown, Proctor, Marshall and even Northwestern in Wisconsin as well as home-schooled kids practice and race together, with Duluth East racers separated out as an independent team for scoring at races. Cloquet, Esko and Carlton riders also formed a team this year.
"It's a great group of people. That's the best part," Jereczek said, a sentiment echoed among many parents, spectators and racers at Spirit Mountain.
Every racer competes; there's no bench or second string. Coaches and the league focus on participation and individual commitment, not so much on who wins or loses. Mostly it's about being outside with friends and mentors and a sport that people can stick with for life.
"Our sons got us into this (mountain bike) obsession. They're graduated and gone on to college now but, for my wife and me, riding is our life," Larson said. "Now we plan our vacations around places with mountains and single-track trails."
The league's season started in August, with Spirit Mountain the fifth stop of the year. The final race, the state championship, is set for Oct. 28-29 in Mankato. There are both boys' and girls' races for middle school, junior varsity and varsity - but team championships are based on combined, co-ed scoring of the races throughout the season. There are two divisions based on school size.
The state program is sanctioned by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association which reported nearly 11,000 student participants in 2016 across 16 states. The national groups say they expect 18,000 student participants it the sport by 2020, not quite the 1 million students who play football but still among the fastest-growing sports nationally.
"We're increasing about 40 percent each year," Hayden said of the Duluth team. "I think that's going to keep up for a while yet. More and more kids are rediscovering how fun bikes are."