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Game changer: Youth mountain biking offers participation for all

Think about the last time you attended a high school athletic game. There are the familiar scenes – the fans, the concession stand, the coaches, the players on the court or out on the field.

But take a closer look. Do you see them? The players on the far end of the bench. Do they look interested? Sure, some do. But others are giving the impression that they’d rather be doing something else.

That’s where high school mountain biking comes into play. It’s a sport that has surged in popularity in Wisconsin in just the last few years – and it’s not hard to see why, said Jay Johannes, American Transmission Co. senior project engineer. Johannes assists in coaching the Waukesha County Homeschool Team – a group of 6th through 12th grade boys and girls who are having a great time doing “something else.”

“Every kid has different abilities,” Johannes said. “We don’t exclude. Every kid gets a chance. You don’t sit on a bench, you participate.”

Paul Roltgen, senior estimator at ATC, agreed with his colleague. Roltgen is the coach and director of three teams in Sun Prairie and Madison. He struggled for years to find a sport that interested his son and daughter until he learned about high school mountain biking. His 15-year-old son, Owen, currently participates in the Sun Prairie High School team.

“I really like that we are an all-inclusive sport,” Roltgen said. “All the kids participate, and we are not all performance based. Our objective as coaches is to make cycling and staying active a lifelong pursuit – not just something you do during your school years – but something the athletes can take with them through life.”

A five-year history in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin High School Cycling League was originally founded as the Wisconsin Interscholastic Cycling Association in 2013. Later that year, it became an affiliate of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association and adopted its new name.

What began as a 60-member league now serves 953 students on more than 50 teams across the state and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Across the country, 25 leagues are made up of more than 17,000 riders.

Johannes became involved in the league last year. A friend’s children were previously involved in a local composite team and thought it was a great opportunity for his 15-year-old son, Paul. In 2017, the Waukesha County Homeschool Team had 10 riders on the team ranging from 6th through 12th grade. This year, 16 students participated.

Rules of the off-road

Each Wisconsin League season begins in July with practices twice a week through August, learning basic off-road biking skills and building endurance. Riders average 367 hours of participation and training each season.

For Johannes’ team, practices are held at Minooka Park in Waukesha and Lapham Peak in Delafield. In Sun Prairie, Roltgen worked with city officials to develop trails in Sheehan Park, where most of his team practices are held, in addition to other local off-road bike trails.

An expensive mountain bike isn’t always necessary to compete – in fact, many team members have cheaper models. What’s really important is that members ride safely. Both coaches and participants must adhere to NICA rules and undergo annual training.

“You can’t even put your leg over the bar unless you have a helmet on, and that goes for coaches, too,” Johannes said. “We know that this sport has hazards, so we encourage safety.”

Five league races are scheduled throughout September and October. This year’s races were held in Waukesha, Mt. Morris, Eau Claire, Wausau and Waterloo. Each race draws nearly 1,500 people and requires 140 volunteers. Races are held on the weekends and are typically 5½ miles long for each lap. The number of laps vary based on grade and/or ability level.

Johannes said mountain biking is a sport that “really grows on parents” and he has seen families that have embraced a healthier lifestyle because of it. A survey of Wisconsin League riders showed 95 percent of student athletes report an increase in health and fitness.

An opportunity to build confidence, endurance

As team coaches, Johannes and Roltgen inspire and encourage young people as they build confidence, strength and endurance to accompany their academic pursuits. Eighty-nine percent of riders have a GPA of 3.1 or higher.

“Mountain biking in itself is extremely challenging, so to see the youth put themselves out there really shows their ability to adapt and overcome,” Roltgen said. “I think today, where just making the team in high school sports requires so much, it’s good to see there is an outlet for some kids that don’t fit the niche of the big three sports.”

For Roltgen, the comradery at the events is what lets the coaches and parents know they are part of something special.

“I know this when the crowd is cheering and clapping as loud for the last-place athlete as the first, recognizing that each athlete is overcoming their own monumental challenges.”

If you would like to learn more about high school mountain biking in Wisconsin, visit wisconsinmtb.org.