On Friday, May 6, Nicholis Statz had to make some last-minute arrangements to show a reporter around the soon-to-be-opened Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails.
He was happy to do it. Statz is passionate about mountain biking ("I've got a singletrack mind," his bumper sticker says), and passionate about the trails - 25 miles of singletrack that people are calling a world-class mountain biking park smack dab in the middle of Minnesota.
"Cuyuna is unlike anything else out there," Statz said. "Every trail has its own personality, and it's all professionally designed and built. It's not some pirate trail in someone's backyard."
The tour begins on the west end of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area (SRA), north of Blackhoof Lake. The trails are still not open to the public, but Statz and two biking buddies, Peter Gustafson and Kelly Ziegler, are able to pose for some photos.
They begin with a cruise on some intermediate trails, then hit the switchbacks to the top of "Big Sandy" - a tall hill with grand views of the countryside and steep drops to the Alstead mine pit lake.
With the reporter perched camera in hand on the rim of a berm, the trio bombs the banked turns, then climbs the hill again for another run.
Statz was happy to get drawn into the Cuyuna project when his local club heard about it a couple years ago. They were hoping to build some trails in the Pillsbury State Forest near his home in Pillager, but the Cuyuna trails were coming together fast, and Statz signed on to help with a .8 mile demo trail, which they built by hand after attending a trail building school.
Statz is a reluctant spokesman, however. "I'm just a dirt boss and a MORC (Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists) member," he says. He gives credit to the movers and shakers who started the project and ushered it through to completion.
As long ago as the 1980s, locals were talking about a mountain biking park in Cuyuna Country. The landscape is perfect for it, with steep hills composed of rock dug from iron mines, now overgrown with birch, aspen, basswood and oak. The old pits are now deep, gin-clear lakes that draw trout anglers, scuba divers and kayakers.
The Cuyuna mines were named for their founder, Cuyler Adams, who had a St. Bernard named Una. Adams' wife allegedly combined their names into "Cuyuna" after he discovered the iron deposits in 1895. The region was mined extensively, giving birth to the towns of Crosby, Ironton, Cuyuna, Riverton, Trommald and Manganese.
Competition from overseas and the Mesabi range to the north led to the closure of the mines by the 1960s. After that, the area was used by campers and fishermen, with off-road vehicles and partiers eventually turning it into a "toilet," according to some locals.
From mining to biking
In 1993, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources made 1,824 acres of the region into a State Recreation Area. Manager Steve Weber championed the mountain biking cause and acted as the DNR's liaison with mountain biking groups, local riders and businesses. "I don't think we could've had a better land manager than Steve Weber," Statz said.
When they got the go-ahead for the project, things went fast. The trails were built with machines from May to September of this year. Jeff Schoenbauer, a top-notch trail designer, was the superintendent on the ground.
Also in the thick of it were Tim Wegner of the International Mountain Biking Association and Gary Sjoquist, the advocacy director for Quality Bicycle Products, one of the largest bicycle distributors in the world. Sjoquist has been called a "bike evangelist" by BikeRadar.com. He's a co-founder of Bikes Belong and MORC.
Twin Cities Biking News called Wegner, the Southern Minnesota representative of IMBA, which is promising $200,000 for the project, "a critically-important figure in making Cuyuna a reality."
Wegner in turn credited Sjoquist, the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota and John Shaubach from Cuyuna Lakes Trail Association.
Jenny Smith, who owns a bike and kayak shop in Crosby, also mentions Sjoquist, Wagner, Weber and Schoenbauer among those who turned the project into a reality that surpasses the original dream.
Smith, who has been in the area since 1992, testified before the state Legislature on behalf of the project. (The state kicked in $125,000 for the project.) After starting her business in 2005, she's spent as much time in the SRA as anyone, mainly leading kayak trips on the crystal waters of the mine pits.
"It was a party area, a dumping ground," she said. It could easily have turned into an unofficial or official off-road vehicle park, which she would've opposed. "We saw the mountain bike trails as an opportunity to do something positive with it," she said.
Smith, who is more paddler than pedaler, got a chance to ride the trails last fall, and she's now a convert. "It was like - Yee-ha! I've got a new passion in life!" Just as she's done with kayaking, she wants to get women and young people involved in the sport.
"It's empowering," she said. "Envigorating!"
The other force behind the project, Statz says, was 18-term 8th District Congressman Jim Oberstar, who used his pull as chair of the U.S. House transportation committee to secure $700,000 in federal funds for the project. An avid bicyclist himself, Oberstar advocated converting the nation's transportation system "from a hydrocarbon-based system to a carbohydrate-based system."
The money he brought to Minnesota for bike trails and railroads ended up working against him. Oberstar was defeated in last year's Tea Party revolution by political newcomer Chip Cravaack, whose rookie status and fiscal conservatism is unlikely to bring as much federal money back to the district.
"If it wasn't for Oberstar, this wouldn't have happened. He left a legacy here. We owe this trail to him," Statz said.
After their second run down Big Sandy, Statz and friends take the reporter to the east end of the park - a 10-minute drive away.
This time they let the reporter take his Trek 800 off the rack and follow them up to the expert park. Noting his street shoes and lack of a helmet, Statz says, "You better leave your bike here."
The expert area includes stairs built from rock, narrow ledges, boulders and bridges - every imaginable obstacle to the sane and uninitiated. Gustafson, who manages a bike shop in nearby Brainerd, crashes trying to climb a boulder - "Meaty paw!" he cries - then falls off a bridge, bending a brake rotor.
After a pit stop at an overlook at Yawkey Mine, Statz leads his friends and the reporter to the top of the Bobsled, an aptly named series of banked turns that can be hammered by an expert or gingerly negotiated by a beginner.
Back at the cars, the crew point out that you can bike the entire way from Big Sandy. "And it's all nice trails," says Ziegler. "Not like riding on pavement."
Speaking of which, there's also a six-mile paved trail from one end of the SRA to the other. All told, the trails add up to about 35 miles.
How long does it take to ride all the mountain biking trails? In Statz's off-road jargon, "A four-and-a-half hour hammer."
Although the trails were still closed in mid-May, come June, there will be plenty of hammering going on. After the DNR's grand opening and ribbon cutting on Friday, June 10, the Cuyuna Chamber, MORC, QBP, IMBA and the City of Crosby will sponsor the first ever, and probably not last, Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Festival.
The Festival will include bike demos, time trials, a downhill race on The Bobsled, a cross-country race, music, a night ride and a stunt exhibition with Hans "No Way" Rey. The festival will raise money for maintenance of the trails.
Jenny Smith thinks the festival will shock the residents of sleepy Cuyuna Country. "These towns aren't gonna know what hit 'em," she said.
Statz agrees and thinks that's a good thing. "After the festival, people who are skeptical aren't going to be anymore."
Brett Larson is the editor of The Mille Lacs Messenger, a weekly newspaper based in Isle, Minnesota. He is training for Grandma's Marathon and may just switch to mountain biking.
Cuyuna Mountain Bike Festival, June 11-12, 2011
Friday, June 10
DNR Special Program
10 a.m.: Ribbon cutting for the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails
10 a.m.: Choice of one of the following: 4 mile mountain bike riding tour of the new trails, short hike or visit to the Miner's Mountain Overlook
11:30 a.m.: Drive to Crosby Memorial Park
11:45 a.m.: Partner recognition
Noon: Lunch in the park offered by local vendors
Saturday, June 11
Mountain Bike Festival, Day 1
9 a.m.: Festival registration and check-in
11 a.m.: Grand tour/Burley parade; demo bike test begins at Pennington Boat Launch; Community Come Alive, Main Street, Crosby; pontoon tours
1 p.m.: Yawkey Time Trial
4 p.m.: Kids' bike parade and race at Crosby City Park
5-10 p.m.: Crosby City Park activities; bicycle stunt exhibition with Hans "No Way" Rey; Big Screen Presentation of Red Bull Rampage 2010; Seth Doud concert
10 p.m.: Cuyuna Night Ride led by Hans Rey
Sunday, June 12
Mountain Bike Festival, Day 2
10:30 a.m.: Hans Rey trials demo clinic, Yawkey
11 a.m.: Demo bike test begins at Pennington Boat Launch
Noon: Kryptonite Crusher Cross Country Race
4 p.m.: Awards presentation at Crosby City Park
For more information:
Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Festival Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/Cuyuna-Lakes-Mountain-Bike-Festival/135965159810153
MORC: Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists, www.morcmtb.org
Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce: www.cuyunalakes.com
Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area: www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/cuyuna_country/index.html#