The Wisconsin State Park System currently has about 50 miles of constructed mountain bike trails.
Mountain bikers conquer trails from tame to treacherous.
Story and photos by Tim Sybrant
I remember when a bicycle was my only way to get around: to go to a friend’s house, to get to school, to go to an arcade or to a park. Throughout my life, my bike has always gotten me where I needed to go and even afforded a bit of fun along the way.
Owning a mountain bike for me today is like owning a time machine that transports me back to the magical time of my youth. At 31 years old, biking still gets me out laughing with friends while hanging out in the woods with shovels and making trails and jumps.
The only difference is that over the last 20 years there have been so many improvements in bikes and trails that today just may be the best time ever to be a kid with a bike.
Merriam–Webster dryly defines a mountain bike as an all–terrain bicycle with wide–knobby tires, straight handlebars and typically 18 to 21 gears. But what the dictionary doesn’t mention is that a mountain bike is an exciting way to travel. Worldwide the choices are endless, from a death–defying 18–mile race down a 6,500–foot glacier in the French Alps, to a nice, family ride through a grassy meadow in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s unique natural beauty extends from the bluffs of the western Driftless Area, through central Wisconsin’s rolling hills, and into unscathed woods “up north.” This gives mountain bikers the opportunity to make and ride trails through stunning areas statewide.
Many mountain bike clubs have a unique relationship with those who manage the public lands they use. This happens because of the stewardship and respect for the land and its agents that many mountain bikers and trail builders display. Bikers are usually just happy and thankful for the opportunity to use the land.
Chuck Hutchens, trail steward with Capital Off–Road Pathfinders, explains a conversation he had with a local park ranger at Camrock Park in Rockdale. The ranger said, “So let me get this straight. You guys want to build and maintain a bunch of trails in the park in your spare time for free, and then you want to pay us for a trail pass to ride them? That sounds good to me!”
Mountain bikers primarily build and maintain all the trails but encourage use by many others such as hikers, cross–country skiers, trail runners, dog walkers and bird watchers. The more people are out enjoying nature, the better.
Many people dedicate a lot of time to mountain bike trail building for no compensation other than the sheer satisfaction they get from riding, and the camaraderie shared among fellow riders. The people who labor to make the trails, the people who work with parks departments and land managers, the people who write grants, the people who advocate for the trails, and even the guy who is writing this article are doing it because they want to share their love of mountain biking.
Physically demanding and mentally freeing
Mountain biking provides direct health benefits. In terms of physical fitness and health, biking is great exercise. Throw in some steep hills with rocks and roots and you have brought a basic cardiovascular and leg muscle workout to a full body workout that builds endurance, muscle strength, balance and coordination.
There are also mental benefits. Trails get people out in nature, sometimes with spectacular views of landscapes that can only be seen from the trail. This helps build a conscious connection with the outdoors that puts many minds at ease. An arena for clear thinking comes about as riders easily slip away from the thoughts of the daily grind and truly live in the moment of pushing their bodies physically, while connecting themselves to beautiful natural surroundings.
Mountain biking does present an element of danger. Crashes happen and riders get hurt. The more difficult trails and terrains they cross generally bring greater punishment. Riders normally incur minor scrapes, cuts or bruises. Broken bones and fractures are rare. But this danger puts in place another great emotional benefit as the sport continually challenges even the most experienced rider.
Most trail systems are constructed in sections with varying degrees of difficulty. This allows and encourages riders to continually challenge and push themselves to improve: to ride a little faster and smoother, to get over an obstacle they haven’t before, to get up a steep, rocky hill they’ve had to walk up before, or to make it down a steep, uneven hill without crashing. To overcome most of these challenges, riders must practice overcoming fear.
The fear of crashing into a pile of rocks or trees, or even just the soft dirt trail, is real and scary. Mental conditioning gained from practicing helps build confidence.
The mountain biking community is mostly a friendly and welcoming group. As a biker, I can go almost anywhere in the world and have friends I haven’t met yet waiting for me. A good hard ride and a celebratory beer hold no barriers.
Don’t skimp on protective gear
The equipment needed to enter this sport safely is important. Modern technology offers bikers a variety of bikes and protective gear that vary in price and purpose. Generally, the price of a mountain bike depends on the quality of the components for basic and popular styles. The price can increase greatly when a very specific style of bike is needed, such as a heavy–duty “downhill” bike designed only to ride down steep, rough terrain, or an extremely lightweight “cross–country race” bike made to go as fast as possible.
Luckily for the beginner, most experienced riders will share information and advice on what style and quality of bike the trails in their area call for. The minor details of the geometry (angles of the frame tubes and other components) make a big difference in how the bike will handle, so it’s a good idea to consult some experts on mountain biking and to do some research to find a bike that fits comfortably and will be capable of withstanding the use it will take on. An entry–level bike off the shelf is a good start and can always be upgraded or tweaked as a rider’s skills progress. Lots of serious mountain bikers custom build their bikes to get the exact ride qualities they want.
Protective gear is important and will help prevent or lessen injuries in a crash. Helmets are the most important piece of protective equipment. A properly fitted and appropriate style of helmet can save a rider’s life and should be worn at all times.
A good pair of shoes — either special biking shoes or just a sturdy gym shoe with a grippy bottom — are important as a rider’s platform for riding. Gloves not only help in a crash but will absorb bumps and help keep a good grip on the handlebars. Glasses are a good idea to keep sun, tree branches and dirt and debris out of a rider’s eyes.
In more dangerous types of riding, such as doing jumps or downhill racing, protective equipment can get sophisticated with full–face motocross style helmets, ski goggles, shin guards, elbow and knee pads, shoulder/chest/ back padding and neck supports. To get started, a good helmet, gloves and shoes are sufficient.
A trail to fit your style
Most mountain bike trails in Wisconsin are volunteer–built and maintained on state, county or city property. Trails on private land exist, but are few and far between.
“Singletrack” is the name of a standard single–rider width mountain bike trail. A “doubletrack” is a double rider width or wider trail.
Local organizations often form from riders who want to take the initiative to not only ride but to make and improve trail systems. It’s more complicated than just picking up a shovel. Trail builders must work closely with those who manage the land the trails are built on to ensure the land is best used in everyone’s interest.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) is the parent organization of 10 local chapters and is affiliated with 14 clubs in Wisconsin. IMBA is a non–profit educational association whose mission is to create, enhance and preserve great mountain biking experiences. IMBA works to encourage low–impact riding, volunteer trail work, cooperation among trail users, grassroots advocacy and innovative trail management within their network of 35,000 members worldwide. Most importantly, IMBA has defined and helped implement trail building techniques deemed “sustainable.”
The principle of a sustainable trail is simple. Anytime vegetation is removed to create a trail, the potential for erosion increases. This happens as rainwater transports exposed soil. Modern trail building practices have been developed to prevent erosion, to strategically maintain certain trail grades, to armor trails with rocks, to implement wooden bridges for crossings and to build barriers within the trail to keep the soil from escaping further downhill. This practice ensures mountain biking leaves as little an impact on the land as possible.
Popular trails in Wisconsin
Northwest Wisconsin is home to the largest network of trails in the Midwest, winding through a 1,600–square–mile section of the Chequamegon–Nicolet National Forest, Bayfield County Forest and Sawyer County Forest. Eighty miles of mapped and marked singletrack are found within an overall 300 miles of multi–purpose trail routes. Trails here are free to ride. More information is available on the local IMBA chapter Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association website.
Centrally located in the state, Wausau’s Nine Mile County Forest Recreation Area consists of more than 10 miles of singletrack mountain bike trail. Trail passes here cost $4 for one day or $25 for the May 15 through Oct. 15 season.
Big Eau Pleine County Park is a half– hour drive from Nine Mile and has eight miles of newly constructed singletrack and offers camping near the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir. These trails are built and maintained by the local IMBA chapter, Central Wisconsin Off Road Cycling Coalition.
More information and maps are available at the Marathon County website.
The Eau Claire area has four trail systems comprising 32 miles of singletrack. All are free except one system that requires a $3 per day parking pass. The local Chippewa Off Road Bike Association is an IMBA–affiliated club. More information and maps available at the CORBA Chippewa Off Road Bike Association website.
Southern Clark County has 23 miles of singletrack around the Levis and Trow Mound recreational trail with views from about 300 feet up. This network features a trail route that was the first IMBA Epic ride in Wisconsin. Also, this trail has camping directly at the trailhead. Trail passes to bike are $5 per day, $25 per season and $50 for a family season. Camping is $12 per day at the trailhead and $7 per day in the county forest. More information and maps are available from the IMBA–affiliated club, and the Levis and Trow Mound recreational trail website.
La Crosse has a unique organization of outdoor enthusiasts called the Outdoor Recreation Alliance. This alliance includes mountain bikers in the Human Powered Trails (HPT) network. The HPT network consists of six miles of singletrack trail that is free to ride. More information and maps are available from the IMBA–affiliated club Human Powered Trails website .
Madison houses various trail types including 23 miles of singletrack. Blue Mound State Park has 15 miles of single– track, with separate bike/hike–in only campsites and a pool. Other trails in the Madison area feature specific, downhill free–ride trails and a dirt jump park. Some trails require a trail pass purchase. More information and maps are available from the local IMBA chapter, Capital Off-Road Pathfinders website.
The Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest in Wisconsin holds 50 miles of singletrack within the 22,000–acre forest. The area is also a popular camping destination. More information and maps are available at the Southern Kettle Moraine Chapter of IMBA website.
Whether you’re someone who is looking to get started biking off the beaten path, an experienced rider already, or you are someone who just wants to go hiking, the mountain bike trails built and maintained by local clubs across Wisconsin offer an excellent way to improve your health, both mentally and physically, while connecting you with the great outdoors that make Wisconsin a special place.
Tim Sybrant wrote this story while living in Madison and studying journalism at Madison Area Technical College.