Thanks to the convergence of several factors, the sport of mountain biking is exploding in the state of Michigan, and Macomb County is a prime beneficiary.
As Michigan emerged from winter in the spring of 2020, residents found themselves in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries sealed their borders, sports teams canceled their seasons, schools closed and employees were sent home to work. People started wearing masks, and the term “social distancing” became part of the lexicon.
For recreation, Michiganders were left with few options. Gyms were closed and group activities were canceled. Michiganders turned to the great outdoors and their local park systems to get outside, to get some exercise, to and escape, if only for a short time, the restrictions of the pandemic.
That same spring, Stony Creek Metropark, based in Shelby Township, broke ground on what would become a $700,000 reconstruction of its mountain biking trail system. Word of the project spread like wildfire on social media.
Michiganders, tired of two illnesses, COVID-19 and cabin fever, started heading to bike shops. The mountain biking industry, which had seen steady growth over the last 10 years, exploded.
“It’s been tremendous. The whole biking community has benefited from renewed interest in outdoor activities,” said Gary Hopp, Huron-Clinton Metroparks district park superintendent for Lake St. Clair, Stony Creek, and Wolcott Mill metroparks. “Bike stores can’t keep bikes in stock. And we’ve pulled in new riders. It’s been a perfect storm of demand being there and the new trails being offered.”
Hopp said sales of daily and yearly passes at the park have dramatically increased since 2019, a surge due in large part due to increased interest in the mountain biking trails. In fact, data supplied by the Huron-Clinton Metroparks indicates usage has nearly tripled since trail redevelopment began. In the summer of 2019, the total number of barcode scans for yearly passes was 114,423. In summer 2020, that number grew to 153,863. And by the summer of 2021, when the redevelopment project was complete, the number grew to 299,366. The number of daily passes sold (an indication of new and/or out-of-town users) in the summer went from 6,328 in 2019 to 49,769 in 2020. The totals for 2021 are incomplete. Some of the increased usage is due to the pandemic in general, but the overflowing parking lots at trailheads, filled with out-of-towners and out-of-state license plates, indicates mountain biking is a major factor.
“We are pulling from a larger area. With the new trails, it’s pulled people in here. We’ve heard from people who say they had always gone to DTE (DTE Foundation Trail in Chelsea). But now they say they don’t have to travel there because Stony Creek is closer to home.”
“Part of it is the fantastic new trail systems and bike technology, which has come a long way. And you can ride different bikes in different ways,” added Aaron Barla, a member of CRAMBA (Clinton River Area Mountain Bike Association) who serves as its trail coordinator for Stony Creek Metropark. “But the pandemic definitely helped accelerate it. The industry has exploded. There is a lot of excitement over the sport and how it has evolved. Getting those 12 miles of mostly new trails really brought both new and returning riders back to the sport. It was a little bit of a combination of everything.”
Barla was so certain of the upcoming mountain biking boom, he quit his job doing outside sales for Volvo construction equipment and started his own business, Select Cycle Works LLC, a mobile professional bike service, in June 2021.
“I started kicking around the idea during the peak of the pandemic during the winter of 2020,” Barla said. “I’ve always had a passion for bikes and fixing bikes. I worked as a service manager at a bike shop in college saw the potential of what you could make if you did it yourself. I knew it would be lucrative."
“I knew there are enough riders in the Detroit metro area. I started with a truck and trailer just to get me going. When the summer went well, I sold them and went into a van and a more permanent unit. The van is a mobile repair shop. There is nothing I can’t do out of the van,” he added.
Jeff Radke is the manager of Macomb Bike in Warren, a third-generation family business that has operated for 47 years.
“It’s been over the last 10 years that mountain bike popularity continued to rise, even before COIVD, but COVID really kicked it into high gear. And the new Stony Creek system really helped,” he said. “The technology is growing leaps and bounds from the way it was years ago,” Radke added. “When COVID hit, people couldn’t go to gyms, they were stuck at home. So they started getting outside and getting active and looking at a healthier lifestyle.”
Radke said his shop prides itself in not being intimidating to the new rider. He said the pandemic has brought in a more diverse group of customers, not your typical cyclist. He said more people of varying degrees of health and athletic ability are coming into the shop looking for something new and a way to get into better health.
Although the weather has turned colder, that doesn’t stop a growing segment of the mountain biking community from feeding their riding addiction. The 2021-22 winter is the first for Stony Creek’s complete new mountain biking trails, but winter riding has been around as long as mountain bikes, according to Barla. An admitted fair-weather rider, Barla doesn’t do much riding when the snow hits the ground, but he can see why others do.
“I think people just want to be on their bikes. They rode all summer, and now they just want to keep going,” he said. “Plus, the scenery is different. It’s different when you get a lot of snow. Those are people who need to be on their bikes. But it’s definitely an investment. It’s new clothing and a new rig, and that’s not cheap either.”
Winter riding has been made easier by the introduction of “fat bikes” to the mountain biking industry. Fat bikes, which have been around since the early 1900s have grown in popularity and have taken a sizable niche in the hobby since the early 2000s. Today, fat bikes are defined as a bike with oversized tires, typically 3.8 inches wide or wider, with no suspension and designed for low ground pressure to ride in soft terrain, such as snow, sand and mud. In the winter, riders will usually leave their hardtail or full-suspension bikes in the garage and hop on their fat bikes, often after replacing their normal tires with steel-studded tires.
“When it gets really cold in January and February, and the trail gets packed down and slick and icy, that’s when riders go to the studded tires. They are definitely safer,” Barla said. “But it’s completely weather dependent. So switching over to studded tires for a couple of rides isn’t good, because it’s definitely a process. But it’s definitely safer for most people. For many, as soon as it snows, that’s where they want to be. If it snows, they’re going to be out there.”
“During the pandemic, fat bikes weren’t available. But those who have fat bikes are now using our trails. It’s noticeable when large groups show up. And it’s definitely noticeable with the increased number of fat tire bikes,” Hopp added.
The best way to prepare for riding in the snow, Barla said, is to have a solid base layer, such as soft and breathable Merino wool clothes. “If you have a solid base, and your feet are warm, you can be happy on your bike in the winter,” Barla said. “A good pair of gloves is important, too. Once your hands get cold, it’s not fun anymore.”
After a fresh snowfall in mid-January, David Hengehold, a 57-year-old rider from Oakland Township, was out blazing a new trail.
“It’s good to be out in the elements, the fresh air, it’s fun. If you’ve got the right bike, it’s perfectly safe, and these are great trails to do it on,” Hengehold said. “It’s completely different riding in the winter because it’s slick. You have to make sure that you’re safe all time, make sure you wear the right gear. If you ride later in the evening, make sure you ride with somebody. But the experience is fantastic. It’s Michigan, so you’ve got to enjoy the weather.”
Hengehold said it’s a more relaxing and peaceful experience winter biking in the winter, as opposed to the summer and fall when there are many more riders.
“When I was in the back, I kind of stopped and looked around, took some pictures,” he said. “It’s a little bit different than in the summer, because in the winter, you just want to be relaxed and calm. So you get to spend some time chillin’ out and hangin’ in the woods.”
Stony Creek’s new trails opened for the winter season in early January, after the weather moved past the freeze/thaw phase. At the same time, two-track trails will be groomed for cross-country skiing. The Beach, Bee Line and Trolley trails will be open mountain bikers to ride for the rest of the winter, weather permitting.
“We close the trails in the late fall/early winter and late winter/early spring if there is damage being done in the thaw season. For winter riding, we wait until winter sets in and the ground is sufficiently frozen,” Hopp said. “Nothing is really set in stone as far as when that is finalized. DTE does the same thing.”
The Huron Clinton Metroparks have a trade-up program that allows park users to collect used daily passes and trade them in for a yearly pass. From now until Labor Day, park users can trade four daily passes (which cost $10 each) into the park for a yearly pass (which costs $40 for users living in Macomb, Oakland, Livingston, Washtenaw or Wayne counties). The cost for a non-resident yearly pass is $45, which would require five daily passes.
Pictured above: David Hengehold of Oakland Township navigates the Grom mountain biking trail, as well as a technical feature, at Stony Creek Metropark.
Don Gardner is a communications specialist for Macomb County Planning and Economic Development