A surge in mountain biking events has one bike shop owner calling Northern Michigan the “Durango of the Midwest.”
The likeness to the hard-core Colorado mountain biking town is reflected not only by growing rider enthusiasm, but also in the cash this group brings to the area.
A $10,000 joint study led by Traverse Area Recreational Trails (TART) hopes to find out exactly how much, said Julie Clark, TART’s executive director.
“We know we’re getting more out of the Vasa Pathway than just trees,” said Clark, referring to the growing number of events held on the Pere Marquette State Forest trail system southeast of Traverse City.
The soon-to-be-released study weighs the economic impact of events on the pathway as well as the impact an estimated 21,000 annual day users have on the trail, Clark said.
“Lots of industries have measurements, but parks and recreation typically do not,” said Clark, who contracted the study through the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce using marketing strategy consulting firm Avenue ISR.
Recent studies released by Wisconsin and Minnesota link $533 million and $427 million in annual revenue directly to recreational bicycling. Michigan’s Department of Transportation is also about to release a twoyear study on bicycling’s economic impact in the state, Clark said.
“We have this great trail system that attracts a lot of people to our area,” she said.
“There are measurable, direct expenditures that on certain days make a big difference.”
On the Vasa, “certain days” mean mountain bike races like Bell’s Beer Iceman Cometh Challenge (5,300 riders), Mud, Sweat, and Beers (1,000 riders), and the new X100 (250 riders).
Of the three races, Iceman and MSB are Michigan’s largest and third-largest mountain bike races, respectively. Number two is Marquette’s Ore to Shore, which draws 2,500 racers in August.
Steve Brown started the Iceman 25 years ago with a group of 35 friends who paid $5 to race from Kalkaska to Timber Ridge Resort.
Now the behemoth 29-mile event sells out in minutes each year at $75 a pop and bills itself as the “largest, single-day, point-to-point mountain bike race in North America.”
Brown says the mass appeal lies in mountain biking’s accessibility regardless of speed or ability.
“I could be 90 minutes behind the winners in a mountain bike race and still have a lot of fun,” said Brown, a former road bike racer. “But in a road race, if you get dropped, the fun is over.”
Brown, who helped finance TART’s joint study, is anxious for the results to come in.
He estimates his racers bring “millions” to Traverse City each November, with the typical racer profile – 44-year-old professional male making $60,000-100,000 a year – “ready and willing to spend.”
“These riders come to town and eat, shop, and sleep here…we’ve always known that,” he said. “Now we want to know how much because it could potentially grow our recreational infrastructure.”
Traverse City is not the first town to pay attention to mountain biking. Bellaire, home to the roughly 20-mile Glacial Hills Natural Area bike trail, has “definitely seen an uptick” in business since the trail opened about eight years ago, said Patty Savant, the executive director of Bellaire’s Chamber of Commerce.
“I’ve lived here 69 years and this place used to be a sleepy town,” she said. “The traffic, the cars coming in with the bike racks … it’s noticeably different.”
Short’s Brewing Company, a natural end to a Glacial Hills ride, said business has been boosted from the incoming riders.
“We have definitely seen significant activity,” said Matt Drake, the company’s chief operating officer. “There’s a lot of people who drive here to ride and hit the pub.”
Although pubs may be the second stop for bikers, the first stop is the bike shop.
Latitude 45 in Petoskey said that though casual bike path riding makes up 50 percent of their sales, mountain bikes are a close second at 30 percent … and growing.
“We’re starting to see more and more people convert to mountain bikes as the excitement of flat riding wears off,” said Chris McKay, the 14-year-old shop’s sales manager. “That’s why we love these entrepreneurs who start these races: It’s getting the casual rider looking for the next challenge.”
One such entrepreneur has really upped the ante for mountain bikers.
John Kolarevic started the X100 last August. The 100-mile race in the Pere Marquette State Forest used unmarked single track, two-track, and part of the Vasa pathway to create a loop that began and ended at Ranch Rudolf in Traverse City.
Kolarevic said he expects his race to almost double this year up from 250 riders last year.
“I wanted to have the most adventurous endurance race in the Midwest and with the trails we have available to us, I think we’ve done that,” said Kolarevic, who has loops ranging from 10 to 100 miles.
Like others, Kolarevic feels that more events earn the entire region cache among outdoor enthusiasts.
“I’ve ridden these trails for years and it’s never the same twice,” he said. “Most people check out all these events online and say, ‘I gotta try that – that’s cool.’” Bob McLain, who’s owned McLain Cycle & Fitness for 36 years, says the swell of mountain biking events echoes a similar spike when the sport first peaked in the late ‘80s.
Then, McLain and Brick Wheels’ owner Tim Brick ran the Sleeping Bear Mountain Bike Classic, the first World Cup race in the country and second largest race in the circuit, after the Mammoth Cycling Classic in California.
From 1985-1996, the race attracted 2,500 riders to various locales, including The Homestead, Sugar Loaf Mountain, and Shanty Creek Resorts.
“It was really exciting at the time,” said McLain, who saw mountain bike sales “take off ” during those years.
McLain said that mountain biking is expanding here because of more events, new products like larger and fatter tires, and road bike riders becoming weary of texting drivers.
A bigger reason? Northern Michigan’s trail system.
“I have relatives come here from Lake Tahoe and go nuts over what we have in our backyard. They think it’s the best thing ever,” said McLain, whose three stores sell hundreds of bikes each year. “Traverse City is the Durango of the Midwest and because of that, we influence mountain biking.”
NORTHERN MICHIGAN’S MOUNTAIN BIKING CALENDAR
Now that summer’s here, mountain bikers can fill their calendars with the following events:
• June 21: Lumberjack 100; lumberjack100.com
• Aug. 9: Ore to Shore; oretoshore.com
• Aug. 23: X100; x100race.com
• Sept. 21: Rock Road 50/50; rockroadrace.com
• Oct. 18: Peak2Peak; endomanpromotions.com
• Nov. 8: Bell’s Beer Iceman Cometh Challenge; iceman.com
• May 2, 2015: Mud, Sweat, and Beers; mudsweatandbeers.com
• May 16, 2015: Arcadian Grit & Gravel; endomanproductions.com
• May 23, 2015: Conquer the Village; conquerthevillage.com