Having played football and soccer, Tanner Zelm knows the thrill of the game, but nothing tops the energy of pounding the pedals through rugged terrain.
“With this sport, there’s a lot more adrenaline,” said Zelm, 18, a former member and current assistant coach of the La Crosse Area Mountain Biking Team. “You can get into some sketchy situations where you have to make split decisions. I’ve hit a couple trees pretty hard ... but I got back on and kept riding.”
As with any sport, the occasional scrape and bruise is inevitable, but few players have a team of 50 rallying behind them when the going gets tough.
Composed of more than four dozen middle and high school students from La Crosse, Onalaska, West Salem and Holmen, the La Crosse Area Mountain Biking Team has quadrupled in size since head coach and Coulee Montessori teacher Josh Shively helped develop the local team in 2014. Under the umbrella of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, the La Crosse team is one of 53 in the Wisconsin High School Mountain Bike League and aspires to the association’s pillars of strong bodies, strong minds and strong character.
The team currently has 23 National Interscholastic Cycling Association registered and licensed volunteer coaches, three of whom have achieved the highest level of certification. Coaches and students meet twice weekly in Myrick Park from July through October, with one day dedicated to basics such as bike repairs and skill building, including proper accelerating techniques and how to round sharp corners and blind spots, and the other spent breaking into groups of four to six for practice on the Hixon Human Powered and Vista trails. Some participants, who range in age from 10 to 18, come with years of recreational biking experience, while others are trail rookies.
“I’ve seen kids start out four years ago and how they’ve improved in both their bike skills and their vision of what they can do,” said assistant coach Steve Klingemann. “One of our biggest goals is to get kids on bikes and get them outside enjoying nature.”
Seth Peterson, 16, a junior at Logan High School, was new to the sport when he joined in 2013 and now consistently places in the top five in his division at the state races.
“I like being part of a group,” Peterson said. “They did a good job showing me around. We focus on performance, but we like to have a good time.”
“I’ve been biking since I was little, but I never had a team,” agreed Brooklyn Waldner, 13, a student at Onalaska Middle School. “I’ve definitely improved with the regular practice. My team is really fun and energetic. We push each other to work hard.”
While team members will race individually in the five 2017 state competitions, in September and October in Waukesha, Waterloo, Hayward, and twice in Iola, each finish counts toward a team tally. Courses range from five to 20 miles depending on the age bracket and are divided in male and female divisions. In 2016, the La Crosse Area Mountain Biking Team placed second out of 33 overall, with about a third of the members opting to race. Races are open to any interested member, and include an optional pre-ride.
“I think what’s really cool is how you perform is definitely up to you — you definitely have to be independent — but you also have people helping you out and cheering you on,” said Ella Shively, 18, who is assistant coaching this year after three years on the team.
Greta Speckeen, 13, of Holmen Middle School has supported brother Nate from the sidelines in past races and will compete for the first time herself next month. While Speckeen is one of only eight girls on the team, Klingemann says that number is greater than average among teams statewide, and Shively says the team is recruiting to improve the male-female ratio.
“I’m excited to see the number of females is starting to increase — I had a really positive experience,” said Ella, who hopes to impart the same enthusiasm on new members. “With coaching, instead of of saying, ‘What’s going to make me faster?,’ it’s looking at the kids and saying ‘What’s going to make them faster and healthier and happier?’ “
It’s a goal shared by everyone involved.
“We have all these great resources around the Coulee Region. It’s great fitness and a great sport,” said coach Ben Jarman. “It’s been neat having three years with the kiddos and seeing them get better and better.”
Want to know more?
For more information on the La Crosse Area Mountain Biking Team, visit www.lacrossemtb.com. Students and volunteers may join at any point in the season.