In just four years, the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Biking Team has doubled in size.
It’s developed a state championship team, a third-place team and an individual state champion.
This season, talk has concentrated on creating three teams within the club and the coaching staff believes the numbers and talent matches those goals.
Head coach Shaun Anderson, who is a project coordinator for Wes Hanson Construction, volunteers his time as do his two assistant coaches Kate Swanson and Brandt Elson.
He said the key to growing from 17 athletes in the club’s first year to 36 this season has been creating a family atmosphere despite combining varsity athletes with junior high athletes and students from Brainerd, Pequot Lakes, Crosby-Ironton, Aitkin and home-schooled students.
Swanson, a registered nurse at Riverwood Healthcare Center in Aitkin, said when she was asked to help build a club team she figured it would be a small group and it would be a great way to get out on the trails. She had no idea it would grow to this level so quickly.
“It’s a part-time job year round and then it turns into a full-time job once the season starts,” said Swanson. “It’s gotten big. The real reason is because of the (Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area). The trails are super fun for the kids. They have a blast at practice. We are lucky to have a trail system that is unlike anything else out there. Arguably we have the best trails in the state.”
Swanson said location is the biggest factor for the team’s rise in success and popularity.
“It’s just so much different than any other high school sport because the coaches do everything with us,” said senior Nikita Finnerty. “They do the workouts and the rides obviously, and even some of the races that aren’t the high school races, they do those with us, too. They are so involved. I don’t think the unity can be matched by any other sport.”
Finnerty started mountain biking when the trails opened. She was in sixth grade and said she struggled, but enjoyed it. She kept going out and eventually her skills and confidence grew.
“It’s just a really good way to get exercise that doesn’t always feel painful,” she said. “Running, I can’t run. But biking, when you’re going up and down the hills and it’s so beautiful, it’s so easy to stay in shape. You become so much stronger. Once you’ve achieved some of these things like making it up a certain climb or finishing a certain race and do it the best you can, it makes you think you can do anything.”
The team consists of a varsity that incorporates freshmen through seniors and a middle school division. Despite being only 14, Braeden Anderson has already been riding on the team for four years. This year, he’s hoping to podium in a varsity event.
“Everyone is so nice on the team and it’s really fun riding with everyone and meeting new kids,” he said.
Apparently there is still room to grow the team, however. Anderson said when he tells his friends he’s on the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Biking team many of the responses he gets are confused looks.
“They’ll ask me what mountain biking is,” said Anderson. “They even ask if I bike on actual mountains. I just try to explain it to them. I just tell them how everyone is so nice on the team and how it’s just a really fun sport.”
There are no tryouts. Athletes who attend practices and do the work are on the team. Swanson, who participated in three sports at Brainerd High School, said that’s appealing to some of the student-athletes who have tried traditional sports and either couldn’t make the team or were frustrated with the year-round commitment.
Last season’s team saw two athletes, who were captains of their respective high school sports, choose to do mountain biking instead. Because the mountain bike team is not a Minnesota State High School League-sanctioned sport, yet, athletes can do a fall sport and still compete on the mountain bike team. Similar to those student-athletes that do a spring sport as well as participate in high school trap shooting.
“I figured it would just be something fun to do to train for downhill skiing,” said team member Trevor Hutchison. “I think I’m beginning to like this sport more now because you’re not cold all the time.”
Swanson said there isn’t an ideal mountain bike athlete, but she has seen athletes with a strong endurance background cross over to mountain biking well. Early on the coaching staff works on bike riding skills—cornering, shifting, braking and heads-up riding, as the team calls it.
“The priority is the foundation of skills,” Swanson said. “We don’t push the kids to go any faster until we know their foundation is laid out. To do otherwise would just create injury—a crash because you’re riding ahead of your ability, either riding faster than your abilities or riding on a trail that is above your skill set.”
From a coaching standpoint, that requires a hands-on approach to become familiar with each rider’s’ abilities and to recognize their needs. With the growing number of riders, that might seem like a problem, but the team has been helped by numerous adult volunteers who help watch riders and communicate what they saw back to the coaching staff.
The National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), which governs all the sanctioned state leagues, recommends six to eight riders per adult. The Cuyuna team goes a step further by requiring one adult for four to six riders.
Along with finding adult volunteers to help be eyes on the trails, transportation is the club’s biggest hurdle. Because the team draws from all reaches of the Brainerd lakes area getting athletes to the practice facility in Ironton can cause hardships. A few interested athletes held off on joining the team because they were too young to drive themselves or didn’t have a ride back and forth.
Adding to the travel burden, all of the team’s competitions this season are out of the area. The team’s first meet will be Sept. 18 at Jail Trail in St. Cloud. The team will travel to Rochester and Spirit Mountain in Duluth and finish with the state championship in Mankato. Athletes and their parents are in charge of getting to the events as well as taking care of lodging and food.
“We let all the kids know that this will be their No. 1 hurdle so they have to figure out a plan before you commit to this,” said Swanson. “The coaching staff can’t use their private vehicles to take kids back and forth to practice or to races and that’s a liability issue NICA spelled out for all the leagues.
“For the coaches, we’re teetering on this becoming a real big sport. We’re drawing a lot of kids and we like that it’s a club league because then the NICA and the Minnesota Cycling league is our boss. We don’t have an athletic director. We don’t have a community education director. But a lot of the metro teams have had it absorbed into their school districts so we are teetering toward that direction.”
Anderson said mountain biking will likely become a MSHSL-sanctioned sport soon. He said clubs across the state and the league were developed with that being the end goal so the assimilation into the school districts will cause little change.
C-I already allows mountain bikers to letter and the team has created criteria for that award.
Mountain biking is currently split into two divisions. The Cuyuna Lakes team and Crosby-Ironton team, placed first and third, respectively, in Division I or the smaller division. Division II is made up of metro schools with a larger population.
The top five bikers score for the team and each team must have at least one girl score for the team. Early on that’s where Finnerty stood out.
“I was the only girl on the team and it was just a bunch of boys and they didn’t really talk to me,” Finnerty said about her first year out. “Eventually we just got put into different groups and I met them all and they were all just hilarious. Then last year two girls joined and now they’re my best friends in the world, but they graduated this past year.
“Every point matters no matter how well you do. Especially that first year when I was the only girl on the team and they have to have a girls’ score. It really felt like I belonged to something.”
That feeling of belonging has helped turn an upstart club team into one of the area’s top up-and-coming programs.