During our two weeks of Bible of Bike Tests camp in Marquette, Michigan, we posted up at the South Noquemanon Trail Network, or NTN. With close to 30 miles of trails accessible from the main trailhead, the South NTN has everything from machine-built tabletop jumps and swooping berms on Eh Line, to the cheekily named tech trail Your Mom, which is only cheeky in the sense that you will be puckered all the way down.
Accessible by singletrack from town, the South NTN trails offer the widest range of difficulty between the three main networks in Marquette. The network has suggested loops based on difficulty and length for riders new to the area. In addition, there are a number of pedal-accessed, gravity-oriented trails spanning from small tabletops to 30-foot doubles.
Compared to what these trails used to be, a lot has changed. "When I moved here in 1997, there was no sort of network at all," says Lyle VanderSchaaf, the chairman of the NTN singletrack committee. "There were trails, but it was all kind of piecemeal." Back then, riders were putting in singletrack wherever they deemed best, rebuilding the rake-and-ride trails every year with repurposed lumber and a slowly growing presence of mountain bikers. In 2002 and 2003, the riders began to get organized and eventually approached the city, starting small with the idea of building a single bridge. The city discussed the proposal and came back with the intention of going further and signing on with the mountain bike group, which eventually became the NTN. With the city on board, the trailbuilding began in earnest. Loops started to connect and a true network began to form. Fast forward to the current trailbuilding scene and machines are in regular use, the NTN is contracting out work and for the most part, if builders want to put in a trail or feature, they can do it. "The community here has been a pretty bike-friendly community and has been pretty open to what we do," says VanderSchaaf.
Although the South NTN offers plenty of variety, testers mostly keep to a strict loop in order to maintain consistency, which I check out one afternoon.
From the bottom of a fire road, I pedal to the the beginning of Jethro Tull. Much like the band’s combination of face-melting guitar solos and what can only be described as the rock flute (not dissimilar from Ron Burgundy's jazz flute), the trail is a juxtaposition of non-stop chunky rocks and smooth shark-fin hits all the way down to Off Camber, where the climb begins again.
Climbing Off Camber tricks me into complacency, then throws in quick and punchy climbs when I least expect it. Passing under bridges and trail gaps, the bench-cut singletrack creeps along, forcing me to look ahead instead of around at the surrounding shades of red and gold foliage. Rounding the last corner, I take a tight right turn to cut up a steep slope that deposits me onto the same fire road I started on.
Following the fire road back to the top of Jethro Tull, I opt for a different trail, called Flow, on the way back to the parking lot. After a few tricky, slow-speed rock sections at the top, Flow opens up mid-way down and the surrounding colors turn into a blur until they are gone and I am back on the road across from the trailhead.
This loop of trail easily puts a bike through its paces, combining technical descending and climbing with fast sections and a slow dirt-road grind. Riding at normal pace, the loop takes around 30 minutes and is easy to repeat, setting a fast and reliable baseline between each bike tested.
The South NTN trails are complemented by the North NTN trails and Harlow Lake, both also in Marquette. The North trails tend to be a more rake-and-ride style, with cross-country options being the main draw and the rolling singletrack catering to a beginner and intermediate crowd. Harlow Lake balances this with trails catering to the expert rider who likes tech. Built on a mountain that seems to have more rock slab than dirt, Harlow lake is covered with steep climbs requiring adept use of body English and long rock rollers accompanied by tight sections of dirt on the way down.
Despite all that Marquette has accomplished, the mountain bike community still has ambitious plans for the future. The NTN board has set a goal of 100 miles of singletrack by 2020, a goal they could likely claim to have already reached if counting fire roads. "We want to have more of every trail type, from the beginner stuff to the advanced stuff," says VanderSchaaf. "We want to have more of a bike park and we want to improve our amenities at the main trailhead." Considering the local ski hill—Marquette Mountain—already has a few trails built, and the main South NTN trailhead has a pavilion, a pumptrack and a number of picnic tables, they are already well on their way to reaching that goal.