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Mountain Biking: Crosby-Ironton team runner-up

Mike Aulie Photo / Sam Elson (green helmet) of the Cuyuna Lakes team leads the pack for the start of the boys varsity race at the Cuyuna Recreation Area Sunday. About 700 racers representing 70 Minnesota schools participated in the Minnesota High School Cycling League race.

Nearly 700 high school and middle school mountain bike racers took to the hills of the Cuyuna Recreation Area Sunday in what may have been one of the largest high school athletic events ever contested in the lakes area.

By the time the red dust had settled, the Crosby-Ironton High School team had placed second overall in the 35-team Division 2 competition and C-I's Connor Rono was on top of the podium after finishing first in the boys D2 junior varsity race.

Rono finished 48 seconds ahead of second-place William Kerker from Southwest Minneapolis.

"I had a pretty bad start up the hill, but probably got up to about 10th place by the time we hit the single track," said Rono. "I got by (Kerker) on the last lap going up the overlook climb. I widened the gap going through the single track and finished opening the gap in the Sandhog downhill and held it for the rest of the race."

Sunday's race was conducted in summer-like weather with temps in the mid-80s that led several bikers cooling down after their race in the chilly waters of the Huntington pit.

In addition to Rono, six other racers representing C-I and Cuyuna Lakes reached one of the top five spots on the podium.

Javan Hemsworth (CL) was second in the seventh grade middle school boys race and Courtney Johnson (C-I) placed in the JV girls.

Recording fifth-place finishes were Gracen Hardy (CL) freshmen girls, Cuyler Rono (C-I) D2 sophomore boys, Noah Coughlin (C-I) D2 freshmen boys and Shane Donovan (C-I) eighth grade middle school.

For Hemsworth, his second place was his best finish of the season after struggling through some bad luck and equipment problems in the first three races.

"Connor's win was big for us and it was exciting to see Javan on the podium for the first time," said Cuyuna head coach Shaun Anderson.

There were also disappointments and struggles for some area riders. Margaret Stokman was in second place when she crashed on the third and final lap of the girls JV race. She finished seventh.

Midway through five laps of the boys varsity race, the heat took its toll and sapped the energy of junior Sam Elson who was wearing the leader's jersey after winning all three of the earlier races. He finished ninth.

Braeden Anderson, a seventh grader riding for the D2 JV boys, struggled through not feeling well and still managed to finish eighth out of 61 riders. He entered the race wearing the leader's jersey after winning two of the first three races and placing second in the third.

"All three of them are among the top performers on the team," said Shaun Anderson. "Braedan and Sam kind of 'blew their engines' in this race so to speak. I think it was more the effect of the heat than anything else although Braedan was getting over being sick. But that's the beauty of racing - you never know what's going to happen."

Racers started with a 200-foot vertical climb over two-tenths of a mile and ended with a .15-mile climb up an eight-percent grade to the finish. In between, racers circled laps around a 3.2-mile course that included climbing and descending a 340-foot elevation each lap.

Josh Klever, director of the Minnesota High School Cycling League, said 50 teams representing 70 high schools from around the state participated.

According to park rangers, it was by far the largest event ever conducted in the recreation area with an estimated 3,500 people watching racers compete in 15 races according to class and team size.

Spectators were parked more than two miles back into Ironton. Three shuttle buses ran non-stop from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. to an overflow parking lot at Graphic Packaging near C-I High School.

The Cuyuna race was the fourth of five scheduled races this year. The season ends Oct. 25 at Mankato's Mr. Kato ski hill.

Klever said the Cuyuna race was the most anticipated race on the circuit.

"Cuyuna, for mountain bikers in Minnesota and frankly in the Upper Midwest, is the premier facility to go mountain biking," he said. "These kids have been hearing about this place for years, but we haven't been able to hold an event here until this year. These kids are excited to be here, and for many of them, it is their first opportunity to come up here and 'shred the red' in Cuyuna."

Klever explained that many teams start as a composite team representing several schools, but according to league rules, once a composite team has seven or more athletes from a district, those athletes must break away and form a team for that school.

The Cuyuna Lakes team is in its third year of competition. Crosby-Ironton split away from the Cuyuna Lakes composite last year and now has 13 members while Cuyuna Lakes has 12 members from Brainerd, Pequot Lakes and some home schools. Coaches anticipate the Cuyuna Lakes team might see another split next year with a growing number of participants from Brainerd.

The teams practice together and are all coached by Shaun Anderson and assistants Kate Kunz and Brandt Elson.

"One of the things that is unique about our sport is that it is a co-ed sport," said Klever. "Both men and women are competing on the same team and ultimately are contributing to results of their team.

"The way our scoring works, there are no bench-warmers. Every kid that puts their time in in practice gets to race, and more importantly, if they're racing, they're helping to contribute to their team. It doesn't matter if they win varsity or are dead last at the middle school level, they are contributing points to their team.

"We started in 2012 and that first year, we had 151 athletes. In four years, we've grown to 750 registered athletes and have grown by almost 40 percent every year.

"Most of these kids come from families that have never raced a mountain bike before, but what we are seeing is that they starting to become bicycling families — they stop going to Disneyland and start taking a week's vacation going to places where they can go biking."

Division 2 Team Results (35 teams): 1-Southwest Minneapolis 2060, 2-Crosby-Ironton 2049, 3-Lakeville North 2003, 4-Cuyuna Lakes 1962, 5-Roseville Area 1918...

Division 1 Team results (10 teams): 1-Hopkins 4181, 2-Duluth East 4054, 3-Edina 3980, 4-Prior Lake 3792, 5-Stillwater 3764

Area Results

(CL=Cuyuna Lakes, C-I=Crosby-Ironton)

(place, name, grade, team, time)

Boys Varsity (17.5 miles)

9-Samuel Elson, 11 CL, 1:16.26; 12-Jack Nierenhausen 12, CL, 1:17.36; 22-Dale Yotter 11, C-I, 1:32.37

Girls Varsity (14 miles)

9-Nikita Finnerty 11, C-I, 1:12.48; 13-Sophia Carlson 12, CL, 1:56.19

Boys D2 Junior Varsity (14 miles)

1-Connor Rono, 11 C-I, 1:01.30; 8-Braeden Anderson 7, CL, 1:05.43; 10-Tyler Nordick 12, CL, 1:06.41

Girls Junior Varsity (10.5 miles)

4-Courtney Johnson 8, C-I, 52:14; 7-Margaret Stokman 12, C-I, 53:34

Boys D2 Sophomores (10.5 miles)

5-Cuyler Rono 9, C-I, 50:50

Boys D2 Freshmen (7 miles)

5-Noah Coughlin 9, C-I, 34:53; 8-Austin Schroeder 8, C-I, 35:10; 11-Caleb Wood 9, CL, 36:26; 12-Mitchell Pontius 9, CL, 36:38; 17-Kaden Sheflo 9, CL, 37:47

Girls Freshmen (7 miles)

5-Gracen Hardy 9, CL, 39:31

Middle School Team Results (34 teams): 1-Minneapolis Southside Composite

1926, 2-St. Croix Valley Composite 1912, 3-Stillwater 1877,

4-Crosby-Ironton 1713, 5-Mankato Composite 1706, 29-Cuyuna Lakes MBT 481

Boys eighth grade middle school (3.5 miles)

5-Shane Donovan 8, C-I, 17:08; 18-Trevor Hutchison 8, C-I, 18:31; 22-Joshua Yotter 8, C-I, 19:18

Girls eighth grade middle school (3.5 miles)

7-Madison Weigel 8, C-I, 21:17;m 9-Naomi Strange, 8, C-I, 21:29

Boys seventh grade middle school (3.5 miles)

2-Javan Hemsworth 7, CL, 18:00