KERKHOVEN — Participation in sports can lead high school athletes to everywhere from tennis and basketball courts to football fields. This sport leads them to adventures in the outdoors, from scenic woodland trails to rolling prairie hills.
“We get to some pretty cool places and see the countryside in that sense,” said the team’s coach, Riley Burgstahler.
We’re talking competitive mountain biking, a sport that students on the KMS Composite Mountain Bike Team have been enjoying for three years now. Coach Riley Burgstahler gives his team instructions after cyclists warmed up during a Kerkhoven Composite Mountain Bike Team practice in Kerkhoven on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
“It’s just an amazing sport,” said Justin Rosenbloom, a senior at the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg High School and three-year veteran of the team. “Everybody cheers everybody on,” said Rosenbloom. During races, the athletes are competing against themselves to improve, more so than to beat the other riders, he explained. “You meet a bunch of friendly people and race with a bunch of amazing people,” he said during a break during practice last week.
Competitions this year have brought these athletes to trails weaving their way to the heights of Spirit Mountain in Duluth and Detroit Mountain in Detroit Lakes, as well as to rolling terrain near Austin and Shakopee. This weekend, the regular season finale, has the athletes taking on Mount Kato near Mankato.
Time on the trail is but a part of this outdoor experience. This team likes to camp and gather around evening campfires, with family a part of the experience. Competitions are two-day events over weekends, and the team likes to find a camping location for most of the five races that are part of the season.
They also pick their own locations to explore. Maplewood State Park near Pelican Rapids was the team’s choice for a destination practice earlier this year. Some of the team members put on 40- to 50-miles a day exploring its wooded trails during the weekend.
“One of my words for the year was adventure,” said Coach Burgstahler. He’s helped by two assistants, Terry Soine and Eric Peterson. He has a lot of help from parents too. They take on duties such as reserving camping sites to hauling the equipment needed at competitions. There is a growing community of friends being built by this sport, according to Burgstahler. He especially likes the family involvement.
The sport is offered through the Minnesota Cycling Association. It is not a Minnesota State High School League activity. The KMS Composite team consists of 10 participants, a mix of students from KMS and the Community Christian School in Willmar, hence the “composite” title for their name.
Statewide, the Minnesota Cycling Association reports that there are over 2,600 student athletes participating on over 80 teams. They come from 125 or more schools. Most teams are sponsored by nonprofit organizations. This team is unique in having the support of the KMS school.
Burgstahler is an elementary school teacher with KMS. He said Superintendent of Schools Martin Heidelberger asked him a few years ago if he had ever heard of the Minnesota Cycling Association, and if he’d be interested in coaching a mountain bike team. “Yeah, I guess. I don’t know what that all entails, but I’ll check it out,” was his cautious response.
Ever since, Burgstahler said he’s been learning right along with the students. There’s much more to mountain biking than pedaling. There are a range of technical skills to learn to control the bike and handle the challenges of the courses.
Burgstahler’s said his approach is to introduce the students to the sport as an activity they can enjoy for a lifetime. Practices began last July, and the season continues into October. Some of the team members also participate in high school sports, including cross-country and football. The team holds its practices twice a week after school. They meet at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center on Tuesdays and on the KMS High School grounds on Thursday.
Without a doubt, this is a sport that builds physical health and stamina. Asked what he likes most about the sport, team member Ben Strickland, a junior, was quick to respond: “Ooh, just so much energy it takes. It feels good.” He quickly added that it’s “good to be part of a team.”
Burgstahler said mountain biking is still a male-dominated sport, but the Minnesota Cycling Association and others are working to encourage more girls to participate.
Mountain biking competition is open to students grades six and up. It’s a sport that students of all athletic abilities can enjoy, the coach added.
Races feature separate divisions starting with middle school students. Students are able to compete at the level they feel most comfortable. This team competes at what’s known as the JV2 level, meaning their races will cover two laps, or about eight miles, according to the coach.
The Cycling Association offers a free loaner program to provide bicycles for participants. Many purchase their own bikes, said the coach. Most purchase bikes in the $800 to $1,500 price range. It’s possible to spend up to $3,000 or more for a bike. Only those truly seeking a “podium finish” are likely to invest that kind of money, according to the coach.
Burgstahler said he’s hoping to see other schools in the area help teams get started. The teams in Alexandria and Hutchinson helped the KMS team get started. Bicycle shops are supportive too, and many offer discounts to students, the coach said.
The coach said he and others would like to see more trails developed in this area to help the sport grow. The Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center and Barsness Park in Glenwood are two area locations with dedicated, mountain biking trails.