An outsider perspective on bicycle infrastructure in Minnesota
As a kid in California, I was raised on two wheels. I grew up riding along some of the same tracks where the first pioneers of mountain biking invented the sport. Before cell phones, BMX bicycles splayed across a front lawn was how my friends knew where to meet. Our BMX bikes cut up the city, our mountain bikes carved the local trails, and as we watched it explode in popularity with local legends like Levi Leipheimer, road biking erupted in popularity with my friends picking up vintage steel to slice across town at lightning speeds.
As a Californian, Minnesota was famous for being a flat ocean of corn and soybeans in the south, while in the north, either a saturated marshland in the summer or frigid tundra in the winter. Moving here, I doubted the existence of a significant bicycle culture. Nevertheless, we loaded the car, bicycles and all, and cried out, “Wagons East!”
We settled in Mankato in the southern half of Minnesota. Though still apprehensive of bicycling opportunities, I was quickly proven wrong. My first (and admittedly ignorant) impression of this small city was as an oasis of natural beauty within an endless sea of flat unvarying farmland. It would take a few rides at local mountain bike parks and along the far-stretching trails interconnecting much of Minnesota before I discovered the true marvel.
I wasn’t wrong about one thing: Southern Minnesota is very flat. To say we would “mountain” bike made us chuckle. Fortunately, being “flat” is only a generalization and there is, in fact, plenty of elevation change. Instead of a merciless climb up a daunting mountain, long stretches of rolling hills meant one could maintain a larger net downhill without the burnout of a single endless climb. Local biking organizations such as Nicollet Bike Shop (nicolletbike.com) and the Minnesota Off Road Cyclists (morcmtb.org) understand this advantage, and, along with maintaining trails with volunteers, make sure there are plenty of optional jumps, berms, and unique features like the “teeter totter” and obstacle course at Kiwanis Recreation Area.
Unlike Californians, who have a strong preference for downhill skiing and snowboarding in the snowy months, Minnesotans have taken to fat tire bicycling with great enthusiasm. The wide footprint allows the tires to ride atop the snow, and with groomed trails and studded tires, biking is an all-season sport here. Bike dealers and rental shops now keep fat tire bikes well stocked and these monster-truck-bicycles are rocking trails year-round.
Not looking to add yet another bicycle in my garage, I found when the temperature gets low enough, the snowpack becomes plenty solid for our standard mountain bikes. Unfortunately, falling in this frozen landscape feels unlike fresh powder and more like hard earth. Good news: you’ll likely be too cold to feel the bruises until you get home…
The Minnesota bicycle communities have developed an infrastructure to support cycling through all seasons; this extends beyond dirt trails and onto pavement. I was already aware of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (railstotrails.org) converting old decommissioned railroad lines into hiking and biking trails. With more than forty thousand miles of trail, nowhere is this program more apparent than here, where a vast rail network once blanketed thousands of miles across the Midwest and central United States. These old rail lines have since become bidirectional non-motorized paths connecting farmlands, small towns, and big cities with the natural wonders of the region.
Along these mostly paved bike paths, we find a supportive infrastructure built to encourage an alternative to motorized travel. Self-serve bike repair stations with tools and air pumps are strategically sprinkled across the state and many state parks and recreation areas host bicycle friendly campsites.
This is obviously a large investment, but it produces significant social and economic benefits. Naturally, bicycling and getting outdoors has substantial health benefits, and doing all this without motorized assistance, can reduce our negative impacts on our environment. Economically, Minnesotans are proud of their local businesses. Unlike the interstate system, these old rails-to-trail routes interconnect the small towns bypassed by the big freeways. From my own experience, touring cross-country by bicycle along these routes highlights the small towns and countryside that make southern Minnesota special. The historical railtowns with their stores, hotels, and restaurants all directly benefit from the upcycling of abandoned tracks into a thriving eco-friendly tourism industry. In fact, we find this recycling-for-cycling in various industries across Minnesota. Some examples include utility service roads opening to mountain biking or old farm structures being converted into BMX parks (one so cleverly named “the Barn”).
The investment put forward by the state and its communities is emblematic of a Minnesotan desire for a healthier future. Be it off-road tracks, road bike trails, or even BMX parks, the health of the people, the environment, and local economies are improved as we embrace this two-wheeled culture. Now, I recognize the selection of popular alternatives to bicycling that have similar impact, and this paper is not attempting to make enemies of our cross-country skiing, canoeing, and hiking friends. In fact, many of us enjoy the myriad of healthier outdoor choices Minnesota has to offer. I am just a member of the cycling community first. And just as a skier might wish to do in kind, I am merely giving a tip of the hat in thanks to Minnesota for looking out for us bicyclists too.
– A Grateful Cyclist