At the end of last season, coach Joel Flory said the Rhinelander-Northwoods Composite mountain bike team was “ready to take on a few more kids” for its third year of existence. 
As it turns out, a few more meant more than a 100-percent increase. 
Twenty-nine riders are out for the sport at the high school and middle school levels this year, way up from the 14 the team had last year. 
“Part of it was just getting out and trying to promote,” said Steve Engle, Flory’s co-coach for the Hodag composite squad. “Joel had the older kids go to the middle school. They have (the activities fair) and a lot of the kids have families that are involved in biking so I think they decided to get on the team this year.”
Engel has been running most of the practices so far this season, with Flory’s job temporarily taking him out of state. The team is gearing up for the five-race Wisconsin High School Cycling League season that kicks off Sunday at Minooka Park in Waukesha. 
Virtually all of last year’s riders are back for the Rhinelander-Northwoods team and Engel said the influx of new riders has created a more varied team in terms of skill level.
“Last year we didn’t have quite as wide of range,” he said. “This year we have a wide range from people I can’t keep up with to people I could almost probably walk around with. It’s a wide range.”
The Hodag composite team is made up of several area schools, including Rhinelander, Lakeland and Three Lakes. Because there are enough riders from Rhinelander to support a standalone team, the Hodags have been forced to split into two teams for scoring purposes — Rhinelander and Northwoods Composite — for the second straight year under WHSCL regulations. 
Both squads bring back plenty of talent. The Rhinelander team is led by a quartet of seniors with previous racing experience. Bridger Flory returns for his senior season, and will be making the jump into the elite Varsity division this year. Flory was the runner-up in the sophomore class two years ago but missed much of last season due to injury.
Only a handful of junior and senior riders qualify for the varsity division, based on their ranking in lower classes and races outside the WHSCL season. Last year there were only 12 riders in the boys’ varsity field statewide, compared to 85 at the JV level. 
“He’ll compete with them,” Engle said. “The group Bridger’s in, he’s a great rider but I don’t know the competition. We didn’t have a rider on varsity boys last year.”
Seniors Alexis Pyrchalla and Emma Hjelle are back after placing seventh and ninth, respectively, in the junior varsity girls’ class last year. Freddy Wisner rounds out the foursome of returning seniors and comes in off a 24th-place finish in the Division 2 JV boys’ class last year. 
Gwyneth Lowry returns for Rhinelander, after placing ninth in the freshman girls’ class last year and incoming freshman Sage Flory posted several top-five finishes at the eighth-grade girls’ level a season ago.
Lakeland’s Johanna Craig headlines the Northwoods Composite squad. She’s moving up to varsity this year after finishing second in the sophomore girls’ division a year ago.
“It will be good for her to race at that level,” Engel said. “She has aspirations of racing after high school at college.”
The Northwoods team also figures to get a boost from a couple of incoming freshmen. Jakob Craig — Johanna’s brother — won four of the five league races last year in the eighth-grade boys’ division. Megan Lester, of Three Lakes, was a consistent top-five finisher in the eighth-grade girls’ division.
“I think it’s going to be a good season,” Engel said. “Numbers have a lot to do with team standing and the fact that we’re split now, three of our top finishers from the other years are actually on the Composite team. That will hurt us for team points, but it’s really more focused on the individual anyway.
“I want every one of them to feel like they’ve improved over the course of the season,” he said. “Out of our top kids, I would expect some of them to podium almost every race. Some of them in the higher, more competitive groups I would hope they podium a couple of times.”
This year’s schedule features a couple of tweaks that actually reduce some of the travel for the Rhinelander-Northwoods squad. Stops in Hayward and Iola were replaced with events in Eau Claire and Wausau. Nordic Mountain near Wild Rose will host the second race of the season Sept. 16. The WHSCL heads to Lowe’s Creek in Eau Claire Sept. 30 and Nine Mile Forest in Wausau Oct. 7 ahead of the state championship on the corporate trails for Trek bicycles in Waterloo on Oct. 21.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at jeremy@
rivernewsonline.com.