Ninth-grader Sydney Tezak loves biking in the woods.
Maneuvering her mountain bike down dirt trails through trees, rocks and roots takes her mind off any stressors going on at school, at home or with friends.
“The scenery and taking in the peace is calming, but at the same time, you don’t have to think about anything else. You’re focused on just riding a bike,” she said.
Tezak is a member of MKE MTB, a competitive mountain biking team organized through Milwaukee Recreation that’s made up of middle and high school students from Milwaukee Public Schools.
Tezak joined the team in middle school because her older brothers were already members, and she thought their practices looked like fun. She’d tried other sports in the past, including soccer, but said none stuck quite like mountain biking.
Racing brings her serenity.
“In the middle of a race, you just focus on going quickly, sweeping around the obstacles,” she said. “You feel rewarded passing people in that last stretch of the race when the adrenaline is kicking in.”
Milwaukee’s newest high school sport
MKE MTB started seven years ago after Wisconsin joined the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, or NICA — the national governing body for competitive youth mountain biking.
Technically, mountain biking is a high school sport just like football, volleyball or cross country, Andrew Rossa, the program coordinator for MKE MTB, explained. However, since mountain biking is overseen by NICA, rather than the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association as most high school sports are, the rules are slightly different.
For starters, NICA welcomes athletes as young as seventh grade.
Jennine Pufahl, assistant coach and team director of the Northshore Composite, Whitefish Bay and Nicolet mountain biking teams, sees this as a benefit.
“That relationship we make is so special,” she said. “In a traditional program, you might have the kids as JV or varsity or middle school. We have these kids for middle school and high school and get to see them transformed.”
There are two types of NICA teams — school-specific teams like Whitefish Bay and Nicolet, and composite teams such as MKE MTB and Northshore Composite, meaning they welcome any seventh through 12th graders in a specific geographic area, regardless of school.
MKE MTB accepts all city of Milwaukee and MPS students. Northshore Composite accepts students from River Hills, Bayside, Glendale, Fox Point and Whitefish Bay.
Both nationally and in Wisconsin, the number of youth mountain biking teams has grown tremendously over the past decade. Between 2009 and 2020, the number of teams in the US rose from 53 to 1,100, according to a report from NICA.
Less than a decade ago, Pufahl said, there may have been as few as five mountain biking teams in Wisconsin. Now, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Cycling Association reports there are more than 70.
Rossa and Pufahl believe the sport has grown so rapidly for two reasons.
First, mountain biking is a no-cut sport, differentiating it from many traditional high school sports.
Second, both coaches said they’ve found that it appeals to students like Tezak, who struggled or didn’t take an interest in typical team sports.
“Nolan definitely never liked baseball, basketball, football,” Pufahl said of her son, now a 21-year-old college student, who rode for MKE MTB before Pufahl and her husband started the Northshore Composite six years ago. “They were just not for him, but he’s very much an outdoors kid.”
Nolan, who was homeschooled, already enjoyed going for bike rides with his family, and took naturally to mountain biking. Participating in the sport improved his confidence and allowed him to set — and celebrate reaching — his own goals, Pufahl said.
This is something she has noticed with many of her athletes.
Pufahl said her teams have attracted many neurodiverse riders, and the Whitefish Bay team had a successful rider with cerebral palsy. For many of these athletes, she said, this was their first time achieving personal success in a sport.
“Their goal is not always to be on the podium,” she said. “They set their own goals, and we help them achieve them.”
Mountain biking for all
Despite mountain biking’s accessibility in some aspects, Rossa said some riders still face financial barriers.
A quality, entry-level mountain bike typically costs between $400 and $800, with some costing over $1,000, according to bikesreviewed.com. Meanwhile, almost 87% of MPS students are economically disadvantaged, according to the 2020-2021 District Report Card.
Since MKE MTB’s founding, Rossa said he and the coaches have always tried to have at least a few loaner bikes on hand for athletes to borrow.
Last year, the team received private donations of seven Trek bikes for its Riverside University High School practice location and six Giant bikes for the MacDowell Montessori School practice location.
These donations allowed MKE MTB to field its largest team to date: 30 riders.
In the team’s first year, Rossa said, they were only able to accept four kids due to a limited number of bikes and coaches. The team grew steadily each year as it added more volunteer and paid Milwaukee Recreation coaches, but Rossa said it didn’t grow nearly as quickly as teams like Shorewood, which has about 100 athletes.
“Each year we grew slowly because we never wanted to get to the point where we couldn’t afford that scholarship or provide that bike, that equipment or that helmet for that child who needs it,” Rossa said.
Despite smaller program sizes in the past, Rossa said he’s never had to turn down a kid who was interested. To fill the team, MPS and Milwaukee Recreation employees reach out to kids who they think would be interested in the program. Once the team comes close to reaching capacity, Rossa said, these recruitment efforts cease.
One year, when interest was much greater than expected, MKE MTB added another volunteer coach so all interested kids could join the team.
Each year, MKE MTB offers a summer practice session and a fall competition season session through Milwaukee Recreation. Athletes practice twice a week, some at Riverside and some at MacDowell, but compete as one team on race weekends.
Each session is $45 per athlete, and athletes and their families must also pay an annual NICA membership fee and race entry fees in order to compete.
Both Rossa and Pufahl said they work with families to see what they can afford and refer them to scholarships if they need financial assistance. Both MKE MTB and the WICA offer scholarships.
This year, three MKE MTB athletes were awarded NICA’s Trek Pathfinders Scholarship, a scholarship available to students of color.
The athletes received a free Marlin mountain bike, helmet, shoes, accessories and a cycling kit, as well as a stipend for NICA and race entry fees.
Rossa said scholarships like this are incredibly important in increasing access and diversity in mountain biking.
While 90% of MPS students are students of color, less than 30% (9 out of 30) of MKE MTB athletes are. All of the program’s coaches are white.
“We identify that as a problem in our program, and we’re actively searching for coaches of color and working with community members to find individuals who are interested,” Rossa said.
Pufahl said gender diversity is also an issue.
According to the WICA, 23% of riders and 27% of coaches statewide are female. On Pufahl’s teams, only one of the 45 riders is a girl — her 10th-grade daughter.
The goal of NICA’s Girls Riding Together (GRiT) program is to increase girls’ participation in the sport to 33% nationally by 2023. GRiT offers retreats for female coaches and athletes and encourages women to take on coaching and leadership roles.
For many athletes, race weekend is the highlight of mountain biking.
Second-year MKE MTB mountain biker and 11th grader Aaron Lewis said that although competing was difficult, “wiping out” helped him learn from his mistakes and improve.
NICA athletes have the opportunity to compete in five races each season.
On a race weekend, competitors ride the bus to the race location Saturday morning where they spend the afternoon riding the course before they race on it.
That night, coaches, athletes and families set up their tents and camp at the course. Many MKE MTB athletes have never camped before joining the team, Rossa said.
“There are really cool stories from race weekends outside of just mountain biking,” he said. “Kids will cook outdoors and go on hikes in the woods. There’s a lot of times they’ll say, ‘That’s the first time I got a chance to hike through the woods.’ So there are a lot of opportunities to open and broaden these kids’ experiences.”
For those who don’t own camping gear, the UW-Milwaukee Outdoor Pursuits club provides rental tents and sleeping bags. Coaches teach the kids to cook outdoors and set up and take down their tent.
MKE MTB eighth-grader Zach Cowap said he appreciates the chance to bond with his teammates while telling stories and enjoying food around the campfire.
Races begin the next morning, usually starting with the middle school boys division and wrapping up with the boys varsity race in the early afternoon.
The coolest part about races is “getting to ride with a bunch of other people and learning more stuff about mountain biking” from the other riders he meets, Cowap said.
Rossa said there are many benefits to racing.
Although NICA athletes are not required to meet the WIAA’s 2.0 minimum GPA requirement to compete, Rossa said over 95% of his athletes would meet that requirement, and all have graduated from high school. In 2019, the four-year graduation rate for MPS students was just over 69%.
“I see the confidence level of these kids growing season after season. They get more comfortable riding bikes, they get more confident in what they’re doing,” he said. “Kids are also having success academically, graduating from high school and going to college and trade school. We had our first athlete racing bikes in college this year.”