Riding Our Way To A World-Class Destination

I called my old friend Carl to see if he wanted to meet for a weekend of mountain biking. We used to ride together when we were MSU students, but we’d lost touch since he moved to New York. Carl was “all in” (he’s that kind of guy), and we decided Vermont would be a good place to meet.

I hung up the phone, opened my laptop, and Googled “best mountain biking Vermont.” After navigating reviews on a few websites, it was clear that the Kingdom Trails in East Burke was the place to go. I confirmed the game plan, achieved the all-important spousal clearance and booked a hotel reservation. We were good to go.

We weren’t disappointed. The trails were indeed a joy and the whole experience lived up to the high praise touted on the web. But what really struck me was how this little town of just 123 people became a nationally celebrated destination for mountain biking, continually listed in the top 10 places to ride in the U.S.

I learned that ten years ago, a group of cycling enthusiasts gained the support of the community and landowners and built more than 100 miles of trails – all on private property. Today, East Burke and the Kingdom Trails host more than 300 people on any given weekend. On my trip, we met people from all over New England, a surprising number of Canadians, and folks from as far away as Atlanta and Minneapolis. As you can imagine, the restaurants, shops and hotels were humming with people.

Ever since that trip, I’ve wondered what it would take for northwest Michigan to be recognized as a world-class cycling destination?

We already have a great network of trails and a strong cycling scene. According to a new study from the Michigan Department of Transportation, cycling in Traverse City generates $5.5 million in economic impact every year.

A big part of that is the Iceman Cometh – the largest single-day mountain bike race in North America now in its 24th year. In a few weeks, 5,500 riders and their families, most from out of town, will arrive ready to enjoy our trails and spend money in our local economy. And the Vasa trail serves a much bigger network of people throughout the year. A recent TART Trails-commissioned study found there are 55,000 separate visits to the Vasa trail every year, which contribute to $2.6 million in annual spending in the Traverse City area.

With all the debate in this town about festivals and tourism – with the exception of the Iceman weekend when our hotels and restaurants are full of mountain bikers – you barely notice all of this activity. I’m still amazed you can still head out to the Vasa for a quiet nature experience and see only a few people on the trail.

There’s so much more potential, and we can seize it by expanding and promoting the trail systems throughout the region.

One example: the Glacial Hills trail just outside of Bellaire. The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy worked with local governments to put together an absolutely beautiful 763-acre natural reserve. They took great care to design really fun and highly regarded biking trails – and now trail riding enthusiasts from all over the state and beyond are heading there to ride.

And where do they go after they’re done hammering 28 miles of trails just outside of Bellaire? Short’s Brewing Company, of course. Staff members there say they’ve seen a steady increase in riders since the trail opened a couple of years ago.

It’s a great fit because Joe Short and crew are big mountain bike enthusiasts. They report their first reaction to learning about Glacial Hills was simply joy that a new trail was going in nearby. Short’s is so vested in the success of this trail they recently donated $30,000 to support its ongoing upkeep.

Trails and events are also growing in popularity at Crystal Mountain, the Grand Traverse Commons, and in Arcadia. There are even plans taking shape to create a new mountain bike trail in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

And it’s not just dirt riding that draws people here. Our scenic roads and the wonderful network of paved trail — including the fabulous TART trail system, the new Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail, and the Little Traverse Wheelway that connects Charlevoix, Petoskey and Harbor Springs – make northwest Michigan a cycle touring draw as nice as any place in the country.

Yet we still lack the national recognition of a top-tier cycling destination. We can change that. We can expand the trail system and create more riding opportunities. We can grow our cycling culture to become a mainstream community priority. And we can work together to launch a serious marketing campaign to get the attention we deserve.

You don’t have to be a cyclist to see the benefit. It’s about growing a stronger local economy. Dollar for dollar, investing in trails and cycling is an excellent way to create good clean jobs and support our hotels, restaurants and shops.

Vermont is nice, but nothing beats what we have here in northwest Michigan. Within five years, my vision is when you Google best places to ride, our region will be at the top of the list.

Hans Voss is the executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a Traverse City-based non-profit working to protect the environment, strengthen the economy, and build community. This month Hans will be on his mountain bike as much as possible training for the Iceman.