CAMBRIDGE — Three years ago, the Wisconsin High School Cycling League just was getting started. Now the club sport for middle- and high-schoolers is going great guns, and local riders are among the top competitors in the state.
The CamRock Composite Team consists of students from Cambridge, Jefferson, Lake Mills, Deerfield, and Lakeside Lutheran High School in Lake Mills. This year, it’s added a new coach from Fort Atkinson — Ben Weiss of 2 Rivers Cycle and Outdoor — and is looking to expand in that area.
Riders from Watertown and Whitewater also are welcome to join.
The program, associated with the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, joins a growing movement across the United States that started with a California science teacher who wanted to give students who didn’t fit into a regular sport a different option. It spread school by school until there were thousands of participants in the Golden State, and then it began branching out across the country.
The National Interscholastic Cycling Association started in 2009, and its leadership has set a goal to be in every state by 2020.
Kathy Mock, who coordinates the Wisconsin program, and her husband Aaron, the head coach for the CamRock team, reside in Lake Mills. They have been big boosters of the sport and helped to start both the Wisconsin league and the local team.
“We allow kids in our program from sixth- through 12th grade,” the state coordinator said.
The National Interscholastic Cycling Association got its start about 14 years ago, and Wisconsin joined up three years ago.
It seemed like a natural fit, Mock said.
“Wisconsin is such a good cycling state,” she said, noting that not only is Trek Bicycle Corp. of Waterloo a leader in the industry, but the state also has a great network of trails, with more being developed all the time.
On the state level, the program began with 150 riders on 16 teams throughout Wisconsin. Last year, the number went up to 310 riders on 27 teams.
Mock added that early registration for the coming season, which starts in July, promises more than 400 riders on 35 or more teams.
“Wisconsin is so rural, most teams do the composite thing, with more than one community participating,” Mock said.
As the program spreads, she said, teams might coalesce around specific school districts. For example, as the number of participants in the CamRock team increases, it might become practical to split into two or three teams, one centered in Cambridge, another in Jefferson or Fort Atkinson.
In that case, the organization would approach the local high schools to request use of their mascots. For instance, a Jefferson-centered team could become the “Eagles” and a Fort Atkinson-centered team, the “Blackhawks,” if the schools granted permission.
“It’s still a club sport — we don’t need anything from the schools, just a sense of community pride,” Mock said. “We wouldn’t need any money from the local districts, and we have our own insurance through the national organization.”
After just two seasons, the CamRock Composite team is a dominating presence on the state level, but there is room in the sport for both the highly competitive and those who roll along at a more relaxed pace, Mock said.
There are several levels of competition: both girls’ and boys’ middle-school, freshman, sophomore level, junior varsity and varsity.
If riders are good enough, they can get bumped up one or more levels.
For example, the CamRock Composite team has two reigning state varsity champions, both of whom are just 14 years old: girls’ champ McKenna Dwyer of Jefferson and boys’ champ Daxton Mock of Lake Mills.
Practices officially start early in July, but there are other early-season events — club rides and parent-student rides to provide a soft introduction to the season and to help young people get into condition.
“Our team practices Wednesday nights from 6-7:30 and Saturday mornings from 9:30-11:30,” Mock said.
The local team has grown a lot in three years. Already, there are so many riders participating from Lake Mills High School that they are scored as an independent team in the state competition.
Team planners look forward to the program growing even more in coming years as assistants and coaches step in from all of the participating areas.
At this point, the CamRock team has 14 coaches, all of them certified and trained through the national association.
Statewide, the Wisconsin High School Cycling League has upward of 100 certified coaches. Coaches participate in a two-day leader summit in April at Trek Bicycle Corp. in Waterloo. They especially enjoy getting to ride Trek’s private trail system during the training summit, Mock said.
“Trek has been our major funding sponsor,” Mock said. “Out of the gate, they gave $20,000 a year, and now it’s up to $30,000.”
Trek’s involvement makes sense, of course: in a generation where fewer and fewer youngsters spend a lot of time outdoors, it behooves the bicycle maker to boost the next generation of riders.
The official season for the Wisconsin High School Cycling League consists of five races, located around the state.
“The races are huge, like World Cup mountain bike races,” Mock said. “There’s a huge starting line and finish banner. The start and finish gates are all taped off. There’s music and officials calling the races.”
The races all take place on Sundays. A core staff from throughout the league helps set up the race courses on Saturday mornings, and then participants go out for a pre-ride on the afternoon before the race.
“The coaches help break down the course: where they should pass, where they shouldn’t, where to speed up,” Mock said.
The state coordinator said that 90 percent of the families involved in the league camp overnight at each race site, with the children, parents and coaches forming a cohesive, supportive group.
“When we ask kids what they’ll remember from the season, of course, the rides are great fun, but the camping is a big highlight,” Mock said.
The state coordinator said the best part of the sport, to her mind, is the fun youngsters have while learning the sport, working with coaches and mentors and spending time with friends out on the trails.
“It isn’t just about getting kids who are ready to compete at a high level,” Mock said. “The best thing for me has been to watch all of those kids who didn’t make a school sport or who didn’t want to participate in a traditional sport find their place on the team.”
Participants don’t have to try out to “make the team,” Mock said. They start from the level they’re at and work to improve from there, having fun along the way.
Mock said that when the Wisconsin league first got going, she and other coordinators were in close contact with the national league, officials from which actually recommended that Wisconsin open its program to high-schoolers only.
However, local organizers saw a place for participation on the middle-school level, and the community response has been terrific, Mock said.
“Every team in Wisconsin, hands down, has come to us and said it has been a great thing,” she said. “There was some concern that high-schoolers wouldn’t want anything to do with middle-schoolers, but that has not been the case at all. We have high-schoolers mentoring middle-schoolers, more-experienced riders mentoring the less-experienced ones all down the line. And they all have fun together.”
Coordinators are now starting to get things ready for the next season.
The CamRock Composite team will host an informational meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 20 at the Cam-Rock Cafe in Cambridge for anyone interested in joining or just in finding out about the team. All are welcome.
Meanwhile, coordinators are hoping to see some expansion in the Fort Atkinson area, thanks to the addition of a new coach, Ben Weiss, a Fort Atkinson resident and general manager of 2 Rivers Bicycle in Fort Atkinson and Watertown.
“Ben recently approached the high school bike league about signing on as a coach and we were thrilled to have him,” Mock said.
A mountain bike coach involved with an adult team, Weiss said he was particularly interested in recruiting and working with riders in the Fort Atkinson area.
He learned about the high school cycling league from McKenna Dwyer, who participated in some of his adult cycling activities.
“That was the first time I’d heard about it, and I was pretty impressed,” Weiss said. “They had team members from all around this area, but there weren’t any from Fort Atkinson itself. So I signed on to see if we can get any interest in this area.”
Weiss said that now seems like the prime time to become involved, as cycling as a sport and pastime is increasing in popularity. Meanwhile, new trails are being developed all around the Fort Atkinson/Jefferson area. which will expand opportunities for local bicycle riders at all levels.
“I’ll be a support volunteer for the team,” Weiss said. “I plan to go around and talk to kids at the schools, talk to the athletic departments, to help advance this sport … I see my role as that of a cheerleader to get the wheels turning here.”
He also will help by working with riders from the Fort Atkinson, Jefferson and Whitewater areas.
Weiss said he sees cycling as a great fitness option for young people.
“It’s something you can do as a kid, and you can continue to enjoy it throughout your life,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of football players are done after high school, and the same goes for basketball, baseball, softball ... These are high-contact sports and people can’t do them for their whole lives.
“Also, cycling is a really diverse sport,” he said. “There’s something for everyone. There’s road riding, cyclocross racing, snow riding, mountain biking — a whole lot of different flavors.”
Weiss said that as a low-impact sport, cycling is easier on the joints and the body in general than most “traditional” sports.
There are so many great places to cycle around this area, it’s a shame not to take advantage of them, he added.
“We’ve got the Glacial Drumlin Trail, the paved Glacial River Trail …” he said. “There’s more and more mountain bike trails in the area all the time.”
Furthermore, it’s a sport people can do independently or with a group.
“You don’t need to organize 10 people for a pick-up game,” he said. “You can do it on your own or with a friend. And if you want to bike competitively, Wisconsin has some of the best leagues and series in the nation.”
As for the Wisconsin High School Cycling League and the CamRock Composite Team specifically, Weiss had nothing but praise for the Mocks and other leaders who took on this project and opened up this opportunity to youngsters around the state.
“I am excited to see this all grow,” he said.