Cook County Goes to the... Bikes! Superior Cycling Association brings single track cycling to Cook County
Tim Kennedy moves, constantly, and almost always in the woods. In winter, he glides and skates mile after woodland mile on cross-country skis.
In summer, he doesn’t glide: He pumps and coasts aboard a mountain bike – frequently on the same terrain as he skis. Kennedy is passionate about biking, a passion he shares with fellow aficionados who comprise the Superior Cycling Association (SCA), which advocates for biking in Cook County. Kennedy is a board member.
While the SCA supports biking in all forms, a central focus is “singletrack” mountain biking. A singletrack is a trail up, down and around hills about the width of a bicycle. Like cross-country ski trails, singletracks can be easy, challenging or downright scary.
The SCA slowly is building a singletrack network in Cook County. Right now, there are two sections of track, one at Britton Peak, three miles up the Sawbill Trail from Tofte, and one at Pincushion Mountain just outside of Grand Marais. Together, Kennedy says, the two sections total about 10 miles. The association plans to add two miles to each section this summer.
The trails have changed a great deal since the first one at Pincushion, Kennedy said. “That was a ‘rake and ride’ trail,” he said. It was “narrow, twisting and challenging. You could just get your handlebars between trees.” And it wasn’t built with an eye toward such things as erosion control.
That changed when the SCA became a chapter of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA). Now the Superior chapter builds all its trails to IMBA standards. That involves much more intensive planning, design and construction, he said, but the benefits are obvious: Not only do the trails provide a more enjoyable experience for riders, the trails put a premium on environmental stewardship.
“They require little maintenance,” he said, “and they are built on side hills so you always have drainage” that minimizes erosion.
Much as he enjoys mountain biking – “I like to be out in the woods, and I love feeling the exhilaration of sweeping down hills.” Kennedy also views bike trails as an important economic development tool.
Look at the growth of the Lutsen 99er, the third annual version of which is on June 29. “The first year, there were 75 riders,” he said. “The second year, there were 425, and this year there already are more than 400 registered. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 600 to 700 riders this year.”
Kennedy also points to the Chequamagon Fat Tire Festival in Hayward, Wis., produced, as is the Lutsen 99er, by Lifetime Fitness. “It’s 30-years old, now,” Kennedy said, “and they have a 3,000 limit on the number of riders. So many people apply, they use a lottery to choose the riders.”
That 3,000 riders represent a lot of heads on beds and butts on chairs for local Hayward lodging establishments and restaurants.
Cook County isn’t there yet as a biking destination, Kennedy said. It probably needs at least 20 miles in its singletrack network at both Britton Peak and Pincushion Mountain, he said. “Our eventual plans are to have 25 miles at Britton Peak and 25 miles at Pincushion,” he said. “We have outstanding terrain to work with: elevation, rocks, great views and overlooks.”
And, he said, continued attention also is needed for other kinds of biking, such as continuing to grow the Gitchi-Gami Bike Trail along Highway 61.
If we become a biking destination, Kennedy said, “it can mean a fairly significant increase for tourism. Investing in bike trails really pays off.”
Even now, he said, biking is one more thing to do for people “who are coming here anyway.”
“Already, you see as many bikes as canoes on cars headed here,” he said.
But the competition also is growing. Duluth, 120 miles closer to the Twin Cities, is getting into mountain biking in a big way, for example. “They plan eventually to have a trail system that runs all the way from Fond du Lac to the Lester River,” Kennedy said.
“It helps Duluth that their mayor, Don Ness, has really put the city behind the effort. When Duluth went for a [state] Legacy grant, city employees wrote the application. When we went for a Legacy grant, a few of us got together to write our own application. Duluth got funded; we didn’t. It really helps when government gets behind efforts like these.”
This fall, the SCA may again submit a grant application for Legacy funding, Kennedy said. “We need to rethink, to look at a couple different funding pools.”
Meanwhile, the group is preparing for its own race, the Sawtooth Mountain Bike Challenge, on Sunday, Sept. 8. The race will begin in downtown Grand Marais, climb to Pincushion, snake around the singletrack trails there and end in the open area adjacent to a place Kennedy knows well – the Pincushion warming house.