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A guide to finding joy on Minnesota's bike trails

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A mountain bike trail
A mountain bike trail at the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area.
Photo courtesy of Hansi Johnson

A recent survey ranks Minnesota as the 2nd most bike-friendly state in the U.S. If you are looking to try a new trail or hop on for the first time you are in good company. 

"This sport is really starting to grow, because it's not as slow as hiking, and you can cover a lot of ground. It's safer than on road, because you don't have to deal with traffic and drivers who aren't paying attention," said Jeff Lynch, owner of Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte, Minn.

There's single track mountain biking, or lower impact gravel riding and riding backroad paths.

You don't need to invest in a brand new mountain bike to enjoy trails, but you still want to be prepared when you go out for a ride. Biking requires more equipment to get started, and equipment can fail. So consider some of these tips before you start pedaling.

Wear a helmet, no really

There's always a chance that you'll lose control or lose your balance while cycling, and there's nothing more important than preventing a concussion or worse. Take your time buying one that works for you, and don't reuse a helmet if it protected you in a crash, or it's too old.

Have a plan for a breakdown

"When you get in a situation and your bike is broken, you might have to walk a long ways to get out. Especially up here, where you might be a few miles in and have no cell connection," Lynch said.

If you or your riding companions don't know how to change a tire, consider a trail that has cell service or you are prepared to walk a bit. 

You can also learn some basic maintenance. Most local bike shops will be happy to give a quick crash course. Lynch also suggests having plenty of water, sunscreen or bug screen. The bugs may not be so bad while riding, but if you have to stop, the biters will catch up to you.

Use all your gears to maintain momentum

Aaron Hautula and John Schaubach mountain bike
Aaron Hautula and John Schaubach mountain bike in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area.
Dan Kraker | MPR News File

Cycling on trails means changing elevation, and the best way to keep up your speed is to shift to an appropriate gear before the slope.

"Momentum is actually your friend in a lot of situations," Lynch said. "So you want to be proficient in shifting. If you shift too late under load, you can damage your chain. Otherwise you're getting off your bike a lot."

If you're starting off, there's nothing wrong with dismounting your bike to walk up a particularly steep incline. But there's an incredible feeling of accomplishment when you top a hill using pedal power, so keep at it.

Let the bike handle the bumps

Whether you have or don't have suspensions built into the frame of your bike, the best way to handle changing terrain is to keep loose and shift your weight to adjust to bumps, roots and holes in the trail. Keep your knees and elbows bent and let the bike do the work.

"There are several clinics out there, you can get in there and learn how to get in to the right position," Lynch said. 

Take a lesson or join a group

This advice is especially helpful if you're interested in single-track cycling. Maybe you're not yet ready to use your bike to cruise over streams, roots and rocks. But you can pick up great pointers from more experienced riders.

The DNR's I Can Mountain Bike program covers the basics. 

Check out some new trails on your bike

Cuyuna Mountain Bike Trail System

Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Ironton, Minn. offers 30 miles of single-track trail with tight turns and views over Alstead Mine Lake and Huntington Mine Lake. 

Britton Peak Trail System

The Britton Peak Trail System near Tofte, Minn. lets you explore the Superior National Forest, and has trails for varying skill levels. This is one of the trails maintained and supported by Superior Cycling Association.

Spirit Mountain near Dultuh

Spirit Mountain does require paying for a pass. But it offers lessons, trails for varying levels of difficulty and a lift. That means more downhill riding than uphill pedaling. 

Lebanon Hills Regional Park

Maintained by the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists, Lebanon Hills offers more than 12 miles of one-way track to ride, it's a great spot that's close to the Twin Cities metro area. Check out the trail map here.

Luce Line State Trail

The Luce Line State Trail is a 63-mile long former railroad connecting Plymouth to Cosmos, 30 of those miles on the trail have limestone surface, providing a nice smooth ride. This trail is shared with hikers and horseback riders, so stay courteous while on the trail to those around you.