"The easy story to tell," Hansi is telling me over coffee as we chat lakeside. "Is this resurrection of Duluth. Duluth has resurrected itself
through a number of means, and yes mountain biking has been a part of that equation. But we have a lot of new businesses, food, and various social causes that the town has really embraced. I think it would be disingenuous to say that 'mountain biking did all of this'. It has helped change the way many people in this town look at their city now. We still have a lot of work to do. There are a lot of neighborhoods that we need to welcome into the fold, and make sure they know that they can be a part of the community as well."
Well hell. Who doesn't love a good old-fashioned, "mountain biking saved our city" story? But his point is well understood. On one hand, there is certainly a lot more to the story in this town than that. On the other, how to you extricate that underlying message from any discussion about Duluth mountain biking? The truth is, Duluth's mountain biking history is deep and there are more people involved, more narratives at play, and more trails you can shake a stick at in town than we have room for here. We'll get to all of that. First things first: there's that lake.
Prior to this trip, all I had ever seen of Minnesota was from inside of the Minneapolis - St. Paul International Airport
, and most of it was a blur even then as my time was spent sprinting across numerous terminals to catch a connection. After two straight days of driving from Arizona which included a number of thunderstorms, and many long, empty midwest roads, my first glimpse of Minnesota came in the dark at 1:00 am. I was still a few hours south of Duluth, but I was cooked at that point and needed to catch some sleep before my eyes decided to rebel and melt out of my head. The morning light didn't reveal much initially. Remnants of the previous evening's thunderstorm left low hanging grey skies and not much to see from the road aside from dense forests, some tall buildings in St. Paul, and road signs warning of possible moose crossings. I had no such luck witnessing the latter.
Two hours into my drive, blue skies began to poke through the clouds. As I drove over the St. Louis River, the topography around me suddenly became much more interesting. I was driving almost directly east on Interstate 35 when everything about my day changed drastically. The highway crested a bluff when Lake Superior first appeared below, a jaw-dropping backdrop to a beautiful, industrial aesthetic amidst a patchwork of low lying fog holding on for dear life as the sun grew more prominent in the sky. You know that pain that likes to live at the base of your skull after 30+ hours on the road over the course of two days? No? Well, I do and I was pleasantly surprised to feel it melt away as soon as I laid eyes on the glistening horizon line of the lake.
Duluth is situated on the westernmost coast of Lake Superior, and is home to the most inland international seaport on the planet. Duluth and its neighbor from across the St. Louis River - Superior, WI - combine to make the metropolitan area known as the Twin Ports, and shipping vessels up to 1,000 feet in length arrive in the harbor daily via a 2,300 mile journey beginning on the St. Lawrence Seaway and ending with the Great Lakes Waterway. The lake itself is vast, with a surface area of nearly 32,000 square miles, making it the largest freshwater lake in North America, and the third largest on the planet. It is also stunningly beautiful, a deep blue vastness that stands in sharp contrast to the rocky coastline, industrial cityscape, and rolling hills and bluffs that rise sharply above the city.
// Local FlavorsAge:
Philadelphia, PA, USAIndustry affiliations:
Pivot Cycles, Maxxis Tires, Stans No Tubes, Kali Protectives, MRP, Julbo, Deity Components, EVOC, Shimano, 9point8, TopeakInstagram: @bricyclesFavorite Trail in Duluth:
As I pulled off of the highway and made my way toward Canal Park, I had to remind myself that it was only Monday. The foot traffic was reminiscent of a busy weekend by most standards, and as the blue skies increased, so did the crowds. I was a bit early for check in, which was no problem once I looked to my left and through the windows on the opposite end of the lobby. There, basking brilliantly in the sun, was a partially submerged icehouse 30 feet from the shoreline just outside of my hotel. A number of people were swimming to and from the structure, with a few bold souls clambering along the edges and leaping into the water 15 feet below. Forgetting that my luggage was likely in everyone's way, and that neither of my bikes were currently locked to the Thule rack on the back of my car, I walked through the hotel and onto the back lawn to take in the scene. The icehouse was directly in front of me. To the left, I could look down the lakewalk towards downtown Duluth, with the prominent topography jutting up directly behind it. To the right were two lighthouses perched on the North and South Piers of Canal Park, situated across from one another and separated by the Duluth Harbor. At the mouth of the harbor was the Aerial Lift Bridge, a landmark relic originally built in 1905, and designed to rise 135 feet to allow for the passage of the massive shipping vessels that frequent these waters. Taking in the scene forced me to face the fact that I truly know very little about so much of this country. There's a certain level of joy that comes when you are able to dismantle your own ignorance in the face of such splendor, and had it not been for a series of chirps emanating from my phone, I might have continued to stare and forget the whole reason for my trip to Duluth in the first place. A quick glance at the screen brought me back: It was time to head for the hills.
Between the repurposed industrial aesthetic and the magnetism of Lake Superior itself, I have to admit that Duluth is one of the most surprising and brilliant towns I have ever been to.
I had a hard time keeping my gaze away from the water.
Great food, and a friendly and lively culture abound in this community.
Duluth has a bit of a funky geography. The city itself is nearly 27 miles long, but rarely exceeds a mile in width at any point. The city's layout runs in a primarily northeast-to-southwest orientation, with Lake Superior and the St. Louis River bordering the east, and a 700-800 foot tree lined prominence of gabbro and sandstone bookending the other side of town. This layout has had a profound effect historically on Duluth, and is equally paramount for mountain bikers in the region. Along the length of this bluff are 5 distinct trail networks, including Spirit Mountain Bike Park, all of which combine for upwards of 90 miles of singletrack and trails within city limits. Between those 5 networks, riders have a broad spectrum of riding opportunities to pursue. There's an abundance of hard pack flow in places like Lester Park and Mission Creek, to much more technical and even freeride options in Piedmont and obviously at the bike park itself. In addition to the various trail networks sprinkled throughout town, there's also the Duluth Traverse, a massive initiative that began years ago when IMBA and the Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores, or COGGS, combined their efforts to design a singletrack system that would connect all trails in the city, and essentially ensure that no one in town would ever be more than a mile from the trails. The city supported these efforts, as did the state by awarding them with a $250,000 Parks and Trails Legacy grant. Additionally, COGGS receives a $100,000 grant from the Duluth Park Fund until completion of the Traverse, which is already 90% finished. This level of support doesn't happen overnight. Duluth mountain bikers have been at it for decades, and early ambitions certainly didn't include hundreds of miles of singletrack throughout the city, or a lift-served bike park, or even a singular collective of area riders working together.
"I was road racing motorcycles in the 80's," Gerry Olson tells a group of us over lunch. "I raced everywhere from Daytona to Brainerd, and everywhere in between. A guy on our road race team had a mountain bike, so I jumped on it and rode it and just fell in love with it. It reminded me of dirt biking. I went out and bought one, of course, and then I found out there were hardly any trails around. I mean, there were no legal trails. I had my own little trails that I built, but I wanted to know the other trails, so I started a bike club called Superior Bikers
. It was kind of a selfish motivation, because I really just wanted to find out where the other trails were. So that's what we did. It was about four or five years of Superior Bikers, and then another group started called North Star Bike Club
. Eventually, we decided to combine our resources and started COGGS."
As Gerry recounts his involvement with the origins of COGGS and really the origins of mountain biking in Duluth, it's clear that these memories are cherished by the retired Superior Light, Water, and Power
employee of 40 years, and he has not only my attention, but that of former COGGS president Adam Sundberg, current president Alec Kedlac, as well as my Duluth guides in Hansi Johnson and David Grandmaison.
I asked him to describe the culture of the mountain bike community in those early days, and if he can pinpoint when it stopped just being about building more trails, and began to include real advocacy and land management relationships.
"It was such a variety of people." he tells us. "We had real rednecks, we had young hippies, we had old hippies. Seriously. We had old hippies that were riding with us, you know? And their kids were riding with us. It was everybody that loved being on a bike out there riding. I don't know how you would characterize it. Eventually, we were trying to build trails and we couldn't find places to build it. And then Andy Pollack from St. Louis County came and said Hey, we've got some great land to make trails on up here. That would be great if you could come in and make trails.
We thought it would be great if only we had the manpower to do it. We just didn't at the time. But IMBA came in, and I think it was IMBA that really impressed upon us that we've got to get to do this legally and do it correctly so that it shows people that we are serious about this, and it's not something that's going away."
Gerry held his post as the COGGS chair for close to a decade, but eventually needed to step down and let someone else take the reins. Unfortunately, it seemed that no one was really prepared to step into that role early on. I imagine that this was due in part to the standard set by Gerry was intimidating, something he'd certainly be uncomfortable admitting. But the reality is that in the immediate years that followed his stepping away from the lead role in the COGGS system, things slowed a bit in Duluth. Eventually, a young chiropractor would come to town and was itching to explore the trails on his mountain bike.
"I just went to the current COGGS group and was like, Are there any opportunities for more trails?
," Adam Sundberg says. "They were worn pretty thin, and were like, We're not really building anymore trail right now, because who's going to maintain them.
That became my first initiative in town. I just wanted to try and build something new. The problem was, I wasn't a very good mountain biker at the time. I had never built a trail before, and so for two years, we built a total of eleven miles of trail that kind of sucked.
"I mentioned before I still coordinate trail work in Piedmont, we've been rebuilding the entire thing. Literally, it's ninety percent different than the eleven miles we built originally. But that was how I first got involved, and the truth is that created a little bit of an upswell of momentum where people are like, Hey, some really good stuff is happening with these trails.
From there I became the COGGS chair for 8 years."
That upswell turned out to be pretty sizable. Right around the time Adam was taking over as chair for COGGS, Hansi had taken a position with IMBA as the Midwest Regional Director, and with him as a resource COGGS was able to partner with the City of Duluth, apply for and win hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, and steadily cement the mountain bike community as a force for change in Duluth.
"I remember when I first moved here," Adam continues. "People would talk about being excited to buy a house that was close to the trails. No one talks about buying a house super close to the trails anymore because everyone is super close to the trails. You can't get away from the trails. No matter where you are, you can ride out the door and be on trail. Because of that, there are more and more opportunities popping up that are allowing for more and more people to get involved, especially with the NICA and DEVO programs. None of those programs used to exist here. Mountain biking in Duluth used to be this fringe activity that meant getting lost in the woods, or beating your bike and body up, and if you put up with that for long enough you were suddenly a mountain biker.
"I was just talking with a patient yesterday, he has three sons that are 12, 10, and 8. He's bringing them to their Duluth composite practice, and he's riding with them. His 12-year-old hit the trails close to their house with his buddies. I think the biggest thing is just how many people are doing it and how accessible it is for so many people."
Alec Kadlec's fresh, bespectacled face is listening to both Gerry and Adam intently and respectfully. Between them, they have almost as many combined years of COGGS leadership as trips around the sun for Alec in total. The recent University of Minnesota Duluth graduate is half a year into his new role as COGGS chair. I am both surprised and impressed to see someone so young in this role, as many riders in their teens and early twenties are content to dig and ride, and are happy to leave the administrative duties to the "elders". I know I certainly was. I asked him how the transition from simply being a member of a prominent advocacy group to its leader is going.
"Don't tell my boss," he says with a smile. "But I keep the COGGS email open all the time at work because it's just constantly flooding. I started carrying around this planner because my life started getting complicated between meetings and everything else that I needed to actually keep track of."
Alec is very aware of the bar that has been set by people like Gerry, Adam, Hansi, and other leaders of the community here. Duluth is knocking on the door of a 100 miles of trail within city limits, with nearly 90% of the Duluth Traverse having been completed. As an organization, COGGS has nearly 700 members, and there's a very real momentum that mountain biking is responsible for here. Outside Magazine awarded the city as America's best place to live in 2014, and while the reasons behind such accolades extend beyond the realm of riding bikes in the forest, the reality is that COGGS and IMBA have played a monumental role in the city's current identity. Fortunately for Duluth, he has no intentions of easing off of the throttle.
"To be honest with you," he continues. "Before I got in a heavier role with COGGS, I was looking at doing some Board of Director work with Duluth Bikes
, which is a community advocacy group for cycling. It's the local chapter of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota
. Advocacy has always been a strong part of my relationship with mountain biking. I really want to get more people on bikes. The benefits that everyone in the entire community gets from having this great resource with these trails is why I want to be in this position. Yes, we're a mountain biking club, but these are multi-use trails; multi-use mountain biking optimized trails. That grants us incredible levels of accessibility, and it gives something to everyone that I think is just incredible. The way that it brings together the various communities in Duluth is really what I love seeing."
Businesses such as The Bent Paddle and OMC Smokehouse are not just offering up top-notch flavors for Duluth, but are also ardent supporters of the mountain bike community.
There are a lot of strong and talented riders coming from the Duluth scene at the moment.
Throughout my time in Duluth, there was a pretty interesting take on what it means for mountain biking to be good for communities. It's a phrase I personally seem to have on repeat and I often think of the benefits in terms of economic and quality of life, and those are tangible impacts that our sport can have on various communities around the globe. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it's mostly white dudes talking the talk and walking the walk. While there has been a significant uptick in the number of women in recent years and plenty of initiatives for youth participation, we have to acknowledge that there are still large segments of the population who look at what we do as pure flight of fancy, if they're even aware of it in the first place. There's an undeniable racial and socioeconomic deficiency in mountain biking that does kind of stand in the face of sweeping claims by mountain bikers and the benefits associated with our sport. Duluth is working to shift the paradigm.
"I feel like it started out really just kind of fun, cool, activation activity." Mayor Emily Larson tells me from her office downtown. "A straight up activity
. Then it became about connectivity, you know, bringing neighborhoods and various parts of the city together. Now I feel like we're getting into the; what for me is kind of the coolest part to see, which is that this is for everybody
Emily, a mountain biker herself, is 3 years into her office as Mayor of Duluth. Much of COGGS growth occurred on the previous mayor's watch, and I was interested in hearing from her what it was like to "inherit" this relationship, and her approach to assessing the role mountain biking can have for the community.
"I inherited so much awesome stuff from a great predecessor," she tells me. "One of them is this vision, this expansive vision for trails and how to get that done. There are plenty of things that you're all like, I'm all in, let's keep going.
But I was hearing from a lot of people because I was so actively campaigning around the city. I was door knocking like crazy because I love it, so I was everywhere. There was a lot of feedback from the community about feeling as though the trails were really an amenity and that we were overlooking the basic mechanics of a city. I realized that we kind of missed a message, I mean, some of that is a messaging thing, because the reality is we aren't building trails and amenities at the cost of other programs and services. They are funded very, very differently. The money we are using for this is not money I can pay police with, it's not money I can pave streets with. So, what I realized is we are missing a message on talking about how we're building out these systems in this city and we need to get clearer on that. Until we do, people just aren't understanding that. It's my job to just make sure we correct the message."
I asked her what she thought needed to be done to ensure that the trails are good for as many people in Duluth as possible, regardless their socioeconomic status, or the color of their skin, their gender, etc. If everyone in town is less than a mile from a trail, is everyone in town benefiting?
"I think it's first acknowledging that that's the case, right?" Mayor Larson responded in a manner that made clear to me the weight this issue held with her. "You have to want
to be a community that wants to acknowledge that that's the case. Not every community wants to do that. Duluth has really a strong history of just being a really straight-up, forthright, honest community. One of the things I love about living here is, we're imperfect and we know it and we kind of own it. We work on what's wrong and we talk about what we find challenging, and so this idea that there are people who can benefit from the trails but they don't know where the trailhead is is something we need to address. A lot of it has been community driven and so people who are into the trails are the ones who are really working on the trail. I think what we have found is that, when we slow down enough and we invest in strategies that get kids of out, regardless of gender, or race, or income, it's a big deal. It makes a difference."
Hansi Johnson was with me for my discussion with the mayor, and when he and I sat lakeside later in the week to have our own discussion, we were quick to pick up on the big picture of mountain biking's impact on Duluth. Hansi, the former Midwest Regional Director for IMBA and current Director of Recreational Lands for the Minnesota Land Trust, is basically a professional outdoor advocate. He was integral in getting several of Duluth's mountain bike initiatives off of the ground and is currently focused on working with the city of Duluth and helping them invest in outdoor recreation infrastructure, and creating engagement with the citizens of the city and showcasing the massive amount of open space in the region.
"Worldwide we’re seeing a revolution around mountain biking," he tells me over coffee while watching the fog slowly lift from the water's surface. "We’re watching trails pop up all over the planet. It’s creating a lot of great change for those communities as well. While we’re still seeing it pop up here, it’s important to remember that it’s not just a “Johnny Come Lately” thing. It’s been an evolution for us since the 1980’s. Over the last 10 years, we’ve picked up some steam and have leveraged a lot of our developments to get to an even better place as a mountain bike community.
"One of the key things we’ve had to acknowledge as a community is that simply putting trails in front of people doesn’t work. It’s not enough to just say Hey, there’s a trail now go get on it
, as there are other barriers to entry at play. Gear, transportation, cultural; some people are afraid of the woods for historic reasons as bad things have happened to some people in the woods historically. We want to knock down those barriers. We would get a group together and meet once a month with a contingent called the Adventure Gap Group
, combining all of the town’s youth groups, particularly at-risk kids. We’d get all of the various user groups involved as well, like the mountain bike club, the climbing club, all of the peripheral outdoor recreation groups. We got together once a month to discuss how we could work together and introduce outdoor recreation to everyone. A lot of times, whether we want to acknowledge or it not, these outdoor rec groups can be fairly affluent and white. We want to create trust between these other communities and let them know that our intentions are genuine. Out of that, we were able to raise the funds to create an organization called Youth Outdoors Duluth
, which has a full-time staff member whose job is to coordinate interactions between these groups now. Not only has this effort brought a bunch of people together, but it has also helped facilitate a dialogue within each organization where we are now asking ourselves how we might make efforts of our own to grow participation among women, kids, and develop programs to bridge this gap on our own. It’s important for us to broaden our message and our offerings. Mountain bikers have always talked a good game about how mountain biking is good for everyone, but when you dig deep you see that we don’t really have a lot of meat on the bone. I think we can do that here in Duluth. I want to see more diversity on the trails. Income, race, gender, I want everyone out on bikes."
Duluth, as is the case with virtually any major population center, is too complex and large a community for mountain biking to be considered a primary driver of finance and quality of life, and as Hansi pointed out early on, there's a lot more to the story here than mountain biking simply "saving" Duluth, but that's not to say that you can simply ignore the good our sport and community has done for this midwest gem. The truth is mountain biking has long been a part of the equation, and while its impact on life in Duluth is certainly measurable and significant, there's a prevailing sense here that there is work to be done within the mountain bike community itself. Duluth mountain biking is already lightyears ahead of many other riding destinations in North America, both in terms of land access and trail quality. The advocacy efforts here are now aiming to extend beyond the realm of rubber to dirt, with much bigger picture cultural and socioeconomic themes at work. The people here are doing something special, and the foundation they're laying is a model many communities could stand to embrace. A look at Duluth's mountain bike community provides a glimpse at a deep-rooted history, an inspiring present, and a future as big as the lake this town was built upon. Speaking of which, I was wanting to hear from a local whether or not the water's magnetism ever eased on the people who call this place home, as I was finding it very hard to keep my eyes off of it whenever I caught a glimpse.
"I mean, there is this primitive kind of connection we have to the lake." Mayor Emily Larson told me as we shook hands on my way out. "I find the lake's presence to be a very humbling force. I love looking out at that lake and going Okay, you're important, but that thing was there long, long before you got here and it will be here for generations after, so know your place
. I think the lake brings a nice humble spirit here. We all feel it."
The youth movement is a sight to behold here, with an emphasis on quality coaching helping elevate the level of riders coming up through the ranks.
Spirit Mountain biking trailsDuluth mountain biking trails
Local KnowledgeBike Shops:
There are plenty of shops to suit your needs here. The Ski Hut, Twin Port Cyclery, Stewart's Bikes and Sports, and Continental Ski and Bike just are just a few of the area spots for gear and wrenching.Favorite Eats:
This was a big surprise for me. I certainly wouldn't say that my expectations were low for this trip, but Duluth has some really awesome places for fans of quality food and beverage. OMC Smokehouse is a place I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life. In fact, you can order take out and bring it to The Bent Paddle for some great brews and live music. If you're hanging in Canal Park, you'll be overloaded with great options. Head to Lake Avenue for good eats and amazing cocktails. Duluth Coffee Company will help you start your day with your best foot forward.Area Digs:
Lodging options abound here. I stayed at the Hampton Inn Duluth. It was right on the water, an easy walk to restaurants, had great wifi, and they were cool with me keeping both bikes in the room with me! That's always a win when traveling.Local Mountain Bike Club: COGGS
(Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores) has been at it for decades here. What they have helped to develop and continue to cultivate is something very special.Brice's Key Tips:
1: Make a road trip out of a visit here. The Great Lakes region is unbelievably beautiful, and there are stretches of road between Duluth and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that are so stunning you cannot help but to drive distracted.
2: Bike choice: Between the XC trails throughout the city, and the bike park on Spirit Mountain, you can bring any or all bikes and have a good time here.
3: Consider an area guide service. The options for riding and additional endeavors are as vast as the lake itself, and there are people here who have dedicated their careers to helping visitors get the most out of a trip. The Duluth Experience
, Day Tripper of Duluth
and others offer up numerous means of exploring Duluth on and off of the bike.