By Graham Averill | Photography by Ryan Creary
The dirt is perfect. I can’t stress that enough. Perfect. It’s smooth, like someone ran a Hoover over it, vacuuming up all the pebbles and carving the trail into a series of head-high waves that fall down the mountain. These berms are immaculate, as if molded out of plastic by some obsessive-compulsive engineer. And there are so many of them. As soon as you exit one curling wave, you enter the next, like a corkscrew of dirt. It’s not technical riding, but the fun here is seeing how much speed you can carry as you move from one berm right into the next, and the next, and the next, until you’re almost dizzy–but in a good way, like coming off a roller coaster. Sure, you might throw up, but you’re giggling. This is Candyland, a lift-served trail on Spirit Mountain in Duluth, Minnesota. And it’s not at all what I expected to be riding on my first day exploring the Midwest’s burgeoning new mountain-bike hub.
Duluth is an industrial port town on the shores of Lake Superior. If it’s famous for anything, it’s for being the birthplace of Bob Dylan. Or maybe for being one of the most economically distressed cities in the ’80s–the city where the Steel Belt started to rust. It also has a killer record store called “The Electric Fetus.” It should be famous for that. But mountain biking? Ice fishing, sure. Canoeing on the nearby Boundary Waters, definitely. But mountain biking?
I have certain stereotypes when it comes to the Midwest. In my mind, it’s a land full of polite people who often wear flannel. Cars come standard with canoes strapped to them. I believe Midwesterners are heavy drinkers, but have an unparalleled work ethic. I believe they eat cheese curds and say things like, “don’cha know.” None of my preconceived notions include mountain biking. Don’t people typically drive as fast as they can through this part of the country to get to the Rockies or Appalachians?
And yet, here I am, already giggling my ass off as I whip my bike down Candyland, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the mountain biking that Duluth has to offer. The local club–Cyclists of the Gitchee Gumee Shores, or COGGS–is spearheading one of the most ambitious trail projects in the country, a 40-mile point-to-point flow trail called the Duluth Traverse that connects five different trail systems. When the project is complete, Duluth will boast 100 miles of singletrack within the city limits. And I mean literally in the city.
“Our vision is to become the premier in-city mountain-bike system in the world,” says Duluth’s mayor, Don Ness.
It’s a bold vision, but one that Duluth is uniquely suited to fulfill. Picture a really long, skinny town with a mountain running through it, and that’s Duluth. The city is shaped like a pencil–26 miles long and 3 miles wide. On one side, you have Lake Superior and the St. Louis River. On the other, a long, undeveloped ridgeline that rises 700 vertical feet from downtown. The Duluth Traverse, or D.T., will run the crest of that ridge, offering mountain bikers instant access to flow.
Adam Sundberg, the co-chair of COGGS, shows me where the trail will connect with Spirit’s lift-served system, on the west end of town. Sundberg and Hansi Johnson, a former IMBA regional director, are the architects of the D.T. and the masterminds behind Duluth’s booming trail scene. They’re showing me around Spirit’s nine-trail system, all of which has been built within the last few years.
A boom box, like the one Lloyd Dobler hoists in “Say Anything,” is wedged into the window of the lift-operating room, blaring hair bands as we run laps on Candyland and Smorgasbord, a schizophrenic collection of babyheads, flow, rock slabs and hips.
“You can’t compare Duluth to British Columbia,” Hansi tells me as we ride the lift for another go at Candyland. “We don’t have those big, dramatic mountains. We don’t have the jaw-dropping scenery. What we have is the trail. Purpose-built, beautifully engineered trail.”
Not that the riding is ugly. On Spirit, the trails wind through thickets of ghost-white Aspens. Touch their trunks and you get a fine powder on your hands, like chalk. The view from the top of the lift isn’t bad, either. On a sunny day, Lake Superior shimmers like diamonds in the distance.
We knock out a couple of laps on Calculated Risk, where huge granite slabs require a series of techy boulder moves. Hansi shows me the steep, intimidating sequence while squeezing the life out of his brakes. I walk most of it. Then one of the lift-maintenance guys shows up, sporting full-body downhill riot gear and a brand-new squishy bike with shiny gold rims. He hits the techy slabs fast, turning the sequence into a series of hucks where his tires only hit the rock three times, briefly, like an Olympic skier on moguls.
He’s only been riding for two years. This is his first bike. If you build it, they will turn into rippers. My Midwestern stereotypes are crumbling.
LAST ONE TO LEAVE
My flight landed at 4 p.m. the night before, and by 5:30 that same night I was ankle deep in wet clay, whacking at a tangle of roots with a rogue hoe as part of COGGS’ volunteer trail crew. A dozen guys were hitting the dirt hard after their 9 to 5 workday, arguing with each other about which line the new trail should take across a broad stretch of bedrock. We’re in Piedmont, a system stacked with purpose-built trails that feature big slabs and boulder drops. This new trail, Bones of the Beast (BOB), promises to maintain that ‘drop and huck’ nature that locals expect from Piedmont. The D.T. will continue its berm-filled stroll across the top of the park, but take any of these skinnier outlets down the ridge and you’re in for an adventure.
Two guys, Rudy and Dave, argued about how technical BOB should be. Rudy wants more fall line down a series of steep slabs that feel like Moab’s slickrock, but Dave wants to contour the trail across the slope so you’re not on your brakes the whole time. Everyone stepped aside while they argued like brothers.
This is Duluth on a Thursday night. Every week, the same group of guys shows up at Piedmont to build new trail. On Wednesday night, another group of guys does trail work on the other side of town in a different park. Ditto on Tuesday night and Monday night. Four nights a week, volunteer trail crews lay new tracks and spruce up old lines at the various systems along the Duluth Traverse. In addition to these volunteer efforts, the club has raised enough funds to hire two full-time trailbuilders throughout the summer. On top of that, two professional crews have been laying down miles of machine-cut goodness on the Duluth Traverse since the spring thaw.
What you have in Duluth is a fury of trailbuilding, with an army of excavators and shovels shaping dirt almost every day of the week. Building has become as important as riding to Duluth’s mountain bikers, who’ve managed to knock out 70 miles of purpose-built singletrack in just a few short years. They’re on track to finish the entire Duluth Traverse within the next few years.
“It’s the perfect storm for this sort of project,” Adam says. “The town is the right size, with the right terrain, the right energy, and the right mayor.”
Not only has the city of Duluth given COGGS the green light to build on this undeveloped ridge that hovers above the town, the mayor has pledged $100,000 a year to help fund that trail building, which Mayor Ness sees as a key component to Duluth’s economic future.
“We’ve seen success stories across the country. Places like Bend and Asheville–these towns have captured that adventure niche for their regions,” Ness says. “Duluth can be that city for the Midwest. We’re looking at what makes Duluth unique and translating that into something big.”
What makes Duluth unique is the sheer amount of undeveloped land that’s still available within city limits. Duluth was supposed to be the next Chicago. In the late 1800s, it was the fastest-growing city in America, thanks to the iron ore being mined west of the city. That’s why the town’s borders are so damned big. The city’s forefathers wanted to leave room for the inevitable development. It never came, thanks to a series of booms and busts. In the early 1900s, there were more millionaires per capita in Duluth than anywhere else in the country. By the ’70s, the city had busted so hard that people were fleeing in record numbers. There was a billboard on the edge of town that said, “Last One to Leave, Turn the Lights Out.”
FAT TIRE FUTURE
A healthy percentage of the land that COGGS is building the Traverse on is county tax-forfeit land–parcels that owners stopped paying taxes on decades ago. The bones of Duluth’s shipping and mining industries are all over town. Smoke stacks still speckle the skyline. Piles of coal and taconite are lined up on the banks of the St. Louis River. Rusty train lines dead end into the river, where raw materials are loaded onto giant ore boats. If industry is Duluth’s past, then fat tires are a large part of its future.
To get a sense of how bright that future is, Hansi and Adam guide me on an epic ride of the D.T. We’re talking 50-plus miles of dirt and pavement across town, sampling the best trails the city has to offer and finishing at a house party the club is throwing for its trailbuilders.
The day begins on the east side of town, where the newly minted and manicured D.T. runs through a city park, rolling fast over clay doubletrack that hugs the bluff above the Lester River. We pass joggers and dads leading kids on bikes. The climbs are short and punchy, delivering us to perfect machine-built flow. Suspension isn’t necessary. Later, that flow is replaced with old, user-created ‘ninja trails,’ where the D.T. has yet to be built. Tree branches smack our handlebars as we climb rooty terrain through a skinny trail corridor. Hawks soar above us and tiny white boats float in the lake below. For lunch, we drop The Dirty Needle, a steep, fall-line downhill that begins at an overlook directly above the city, braking past trash, diapers and broken glass (guess where The Dirty Needle got its name) into a neighborhood where Adam and Hansi hit a series of staircases next to a pistachio-colored house with a giant black, ceramic pig on the porch. I expect a woman in curlers and a robe to hang out of the window and yell at us. Soon, our bikes are parked on an industrial street and we’re drinking beer at the Bent Paddle Brewing.
This is the beauty of mountain biking in Duluth. You go from ridgeline singletrack to fresh beer in a matter of minutes.
“These old trails are here. The green space is here. Why not make it world class?” Adam says. One beer turns to two, then we order a pizza. Hansi thinks we can take a city bus up the hill to skip a mile of steep, grueling climbing. He whips out a bus schedule and we figure we can catch the No. 5 a few blocks away to carry us up to Piedmont, the next chunk of trails we need to ride. Is it cheating? We don’t care.
Piedmont is for rock addicts. Boulders, babyheads, drops, slabs…you ride over every form of granite you can imagine in this tangled trail system.
“Some people thought we were trying to sanitize the trails in Duluth,” Adam says as we begin our descent of M’Dropolis, a fun series of 2-to 4-foot boulder drops. “But once we started building trails like this off the D.T., people stopped complaining.”
We cross beneath the highway, then climb into Brewer Park, where the club is finishing two big loops. We ride Home Brew, which plays out like a backcountry pump track with rock slabs that never disrupt the flow. We’re riding into the setting sun, trying to beat it to the party.
Hansi used to do these big point-to-point rides back in the ’90s, using a mix of ninja trails and road. “We used to dream about it being all singletrack,” he tells me as we drop down a grassy snowmobile trail past a government-funded housing project. Hansi worked for IMBA for six years and saw some clubs succeed and others flounder. “The clubs that get things done have a vision and a goal. The D.T. is easy to get behind. It’s easy to communicate and it’s easy to understand.”
We take a quick break beneath a highway underpass where there’s a kid on a 50cc dirt bike who looks like he’s 12 years old, but a mean 12. Like, he’s got a knife in his jeans. He fires off a loud loop around the pillars, and kicks up a wake of dust before cutting us a look like we’re not supposed to be here. Every inch of concrete on the underpass is covered in graffiti. Really foul graffiti that cuts through the heart of any stereotypes about Midwestern politeness.
“This is no-man’s land,” Hansi says, referring to the west side of Duluth, which has yet to recover from the Rust Belt job losses of the ’80s. “You don’t know what you’ll see out here.”
I snap a picture of some of the graffiti (something about my mother) and continue west on the old snowmobile trail, deeper into no-man’s land. The riding gets tedious as we follow an old rail grade over thick, tire-sucking gravel and the occasional forgotten train trestle with gaps so wide in the planks you have to hit them just right or your tire might get stuck.
Adam keeps pointing up the hill into a dark forest and saying, “Up there. That’s where we’re going to put the Traverse.”
We hit Spirit Mountain again, but only long enough to get a Snickers and a Pepsi from the lodge, then it’s back on the rail line through a spooky train tunnel cut through the heart of a cliff. It’s pitch black in the middle of the tunnel, and I almost crash into a big hobo fire ring.
It’s dark by the time we hit Mission, the last park on the Traverse. Hansi and Adam lead the way down Loki, which supposedly has wicked flow, but I don’t know because I’m blind. This is how you make a flow trail hard. You take away the power of sight. Adam hits a porcupine then falls off a bridge.
We pedal directly from the trail into the party, where a massive bonfire kisses the leaves of the surrounding trees. We drink keg beer and I meet a kid named Brad, one of COGGS’ full-time trailbuilders. He works in the mines during the winter, then lives in a tent and builds trail all summer. He’s the artist that built Home Brew.
Everyone at the party is stoked to be in Duluth. The city is brimming with optimism. Entrepreneurs are turning dilapidated warehouses into small start-ups. An old Denny’s is now a sustainable diner with a working garden in the back parking lot. The mayor is using the success of the Duluth Traverse to begin other outdoor recreation initiatives.
“People have pride in Duluth again,” Dave Grandmaison tells me. He’s a Duluth native who opened the Duluth Experience, a tour/sightseeing business that’s starting to take off. “You didn’t see this sort of pride when I was a kid.”
THE PERFECT DULUTH DAY
On my last day in Duluth, we decide to re-ride the trails of Mission so I can get a feel for them in the daylight. Mission has 7 miles of fresh dirt on the ground, but the master plan calls for 12 more. It’s the western terminus of the Traverse, and it’s poised to be a ride destination all on its own. The parking lot is full when we pull up at 2 p.m. on a Monday. Half the riders seem new to the sport. Hansi gets giddy when he sees two dudes bomb out of the forest wearing jeans and wife beaters.
“Those are the same guys who used to ride here on their motocross bikes. Now they’re on mountain bikes. I love it.”
We enjoy the climb to the top of Mission. It’s 70 degrees, sunny, with a light breeze.
Locals call this “The Perfect Duluth Day.”
There’s no rush as we begin to ride Loki, where rollers lead you into berms that empty into bridges that lead to more rollers–the flow is endless. Occasionally, you have to pedal, but for the most part, you can pump your bike through the rollers to gain speed, then carry that momentum through big, sweeping berms.
The forest is stacked with mature hardwoods and evergreens that tower over a thick, grassy ground cover. The trees are bigger on this side of town. Some of the leaves are already turning orange. There’s a storm in the forecast, and locals say winter is coming early. But that’s tomorrow. Right now, we’ve got this Perfect Duluth Day and a little bit of this Perfect Duluth Trail left to ride.