A new craze in interscholastic sports has made its way to Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin High School Cycling League launched this year, bringing competitive mountain bike racing to the fall sports roster. Affiliated with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, the Wisconsin league is one of 13 competitive leagues that have formed across the country during the past decade.
“This is a great alternative for kids who have just not fallen in love with ball and stick sports,” said Kathy Mock, co-director of the new Wisconsin league. “It’s really catching on.”
Cycling has long been a favorite pastime in Wisconsin, which is home to Trek Bicycle Corp. and the Wisconsin Off Road Series, which is billed as the nation’s largest state mountain bike racing series.
And interscholastic cycling already had a strong presence in the Midwest. Minnesota joined NICA in 2012 and has since grown to become the third-largest league in the nation.
“I’m excited to see how fast it’s growing,” said Libby Hurley, who works with the Minnesota league and helped launch the Wisconsin league. “People are starting to take notice and realize that this is an actual sport.”
So far, there are 17 teams in the new Wisconsin league, including a La Crosse area composite team made up of about 20 middle and high school students from La Crosse, Onalaska, Holmen and West Salem.
Hobby cyclists and seasoned individual competitors alike, the La Crosse Area Cycling Team focuses on fun, fitness and skill building, coach Josh Shively said. There’s no strict attendance policy and no competition requirement. In fact, some of the riders even participate in other fall sports such as cross country and football.
“This is about getting families and kids out into nature,” he said.
The team’s twice weekly practices start in Myrick Park with a group gathering, gear check and a warm-up loop before the team hits the Hixon Forest trails for hill practice or flat riding, depending on the day. Athletes practice advanced tactics like bunny hops, wheelies, body positioning and braking techniques, as well as cycling safety and trail etiquette.
“I like that we get to be outside on the trails,” said Ella Shively, a sophomore at Central High School.
Cycling as a team provides support and camaraderie, said Ruth Hallstead, a sophomore at Onalaska High School who had raced on her own before joining the group.
“It’s great to learn from each other, to learn from mistakes and ask questions,” she said.
The team camped out together for the first race of the season over Labor Day weekend in Waukesha, Wis. Nine students competed, and the team finished third. The next race is Sept. 21 in Iola, Wis., and there are two more events in October.
More than 100 athletes representing all 17 teams participated in the first event, including 20 who raced as independent riders, Mock said. She’s hoping that in three to four years, the Wisconsin league could grow to 400 to 500 participants. Based on the interest she’s seen, as many as eight teams are set to to participate next year.
“We want kids on bikes,” she said. “We’re making it simple for kids and families.”