AUSTIN — The sound of cowbells filled the air in Austin on Sunday, but there wasn’t a cow in sight. Instead, there were hundreds of student athletes whizzing past on mountain bikes as the Minnesota High School Cycling League racing season began.
The first race of the season also marked the first time the course bore the name of the man who helped bring the Austin team into being – Dr. Richard Schindler.
Schindler was an avid cyclist and founder of the high school team. He died in October 2014 from injuries sustained in a fall while doing what he loved – bicycling.
“He was an amazing man, and he deserves this honor,” Libby Hurley, communications director for the league, said of Schindler. “He was just an inspiration … he emanated warmth. He drew people in with his smile.”
The Minnesota High School Cycling League began in 2012. Since then, the sport has seen “explosive growth,” according to Hurley. She said the league has seen 30 percent growth every year, amounting to about 400 new kids and four to five new teams a year
“It’s going crazy,” Hurley said.
Mountain biking is a sport for kids who might not have really fit in with the stick and ball sports, Hurley said. Many things about the sport are unique – students who choose to take part aren’t required to compete, there are no tryouts and each individual racer’s points count toward the team total.
“Even if you come in last, you’re helping your team,” Hurley said. “Kids find success not only on the podium but just being part of the team.”
The sport draws student athletes from International Falls to the Iowa border as well as Eastern South Dakota and Western Wisconsin. On Saturday, about 900 riders ranging from seventh-graders to seniors turned out.
Pop-up tents dotted the field, each tent bearing the name of the team who prepared to race underneath. On the Austin composite team’s tent, the sayings “Ride Hard!” and “Look Ahead!” sandwich a photo of Schindler.
The sayings, with Schindler often said while coaching, are also on the riders’ arms, reminding them they go where they look.
“Mountain biking is different than road biking. It takes a lot of focus to be on the trial,” 16-year-old Jacob Venenga said. “Dr. Schindler taught me how to keep that focus. Focus on what is ahead, not what’s around.”
Venenga joined the Austin team when he was in seventh grade and stayed on the team for four years. Now a junior, Venenga is no longer on the team as he is concentrating on cross-country. But when he joined the cycling team, Schindler was one of the first people that talked to him at school registration.
“He was super cool,” Venenga said of Schindler. “He was a lot of fun.”
The 3.75-mile track features a mix of woods and prairie. The land was donated by Hormel Foods Corp. and for a time was called the Austin Spam Trail.
“The passion and the growth of the sport is really amazing … statewide and in Austin, the number of kids that are interested in the sport has grown,” Austin Head Coach Gareth Hataye said.
He said what they have been able to put in place in Austin is a result of one person – Schindler.
Jon Burkhart said he became involved with the trail committee after Schindler paid a visit to the bike shop where he works.
“He started something from nothing. He started the team with just the kids, no trail,” Burkhart said.
Now, three years later, the team has a nearly 4-mile trail on which to train and host races. Practice begins every year in July and races start at the end of August/beginning of September and go through October.
“It’s pretty amazing where it’s at now after starting from nothing,” Burkhart said.