Every November, thousands of cyclists converge on Traverse City to compete in the 29-mile Iceman Cometh Challenge, the largest one-day point-to-point mountain bike race in the country. Mountain biking is a big draw in the hills and valleys around Traverse City in almost every season of the year, as cyclist Cody Sovis demonstrates.
Of the million-and-one reasons to visit the Grand Traverse Area, mountain biking is quickly becoming a more popular excuse to head up north and get a little dirty. The region attracts cyclists from all over the country — including those who prefer paved trails or the scenic roads of the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas – but it’s also home to some of the best trails in the state, and some of the biggest events around.
We’ve never taken our forests for granted around here. Traverse City is a special place where all the charms of a thriving downtown are just minutes from pristine woods, beaches, and miles and miles of trails to weave it all together. For me, it’s a real treat to have the ability to ride the Traverse Area Recreational Trail from downtown and be at the trailhead in just a few minutes.
One of the most popular trails in the area is the Vasa Pathway. In winter it’s home to the world-class North American Vasa ski race and gets the professional grooming treatment for ski and fat bike use as long as the snow sticks around. During the rest of the year, it’s usually peppered with riders out hitting famous landmarks like Anita’s Hill, the Wall and the Power Section. The terrain is open and rolling, with pockets of sand adding to the challenge of steep hills, fast descents and fast sections that test the legs and lungs. The Vasa Pathway also serves as the final kilometers of the Iceman Cometh Challenge, the largest single-day mountain bike race in North America.
Around here, the Iceman is king. People plan for it for months, registering in the spring and riding most of the summer with one eye on the first weekend in November. One of the biggest local rides is the Speed of Light, which takes in the last few miles of the Iceman. Over 5,000 people are registered for the race, including some of the best professional riders from around the world. We always welcome the big names, but we are rooting for the local guys to take the win.
I’ve always raced in the pro class, though it’s not about trying to win. It’s the chance to race the best riders in the world, and I won’t let the chance go by. It’s like getting to play a pickup game against Michael Jordan. You know you’re getting beat, but you get to tell everyone the story.
Intersecting the Pathways is another trail: the Vasa Singletrack. Though it has its own separate trailhead off Supply Road, this twisty, tight course winds and crosses with the Pathway, or the “25 K”, as it is popularly known. The Singletrack is a testing little loop, a bit over 12 miles long, offering up some great technical practice and a break from the wide-open speed of the Pathways. The Singletrack is tough. If you’re looking for a great ride that combines both, hop off the Singletrack at Marker 7, do the 25 K, then hop back onto the Singletrack when you cross at Marker 13. It’s the perfect blend of speed and technical riding.
If the Vasa is the most popular and oldest trail system, the Glacial Hills Pathways is certainly the newest and the hippest. Located in Bellaire, this brand-new system of professionally maintained trails has gotten rave reviews from beginners and experts alike. It’s a terrific blend of hills, flat and fast sections and beautiful views – and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s located just a mile or two from one of Michigan’s finest breweries, Short’s Brewery.
But you don’t even have to leave town to enjoy a great mountain biking loop. Traverse City’s former mental hospital, now The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, is home to a great network of trails. Riders have been climbing to the top of the hill for years, but the recent rise in mountain biking enthusiasm means there’s seldom a time you’ll go on the trails and not see a few other cyclists. It’s a short loop punctuated by steep, testing ascents with rewarding views of West Bay and screaming-fast descents back to the Village, where a host of coffee shops, bakeries, and other shops serve as a great place to refuel after the ride. The Commons is also home to the Conquer the Village Mountain Bike race, a new event that draws hundreds of racers each spring.
The arrival of a race like Conquer the Village was well overdue. So many riders were able to just roll through Traverse City to race on trails that they’ve ridden for years. I remember riding back there when I was five or six years old, my dad diligently riding behind me as I slowly made my way up to the top of the ridge and yelling all the way down the other side.
There are miles and miles of trail in the area, and nearly everyone has their own favorite loop. It’s a great place be a cyclist.
Have you been mountain biking in Traverse City? Tell us about your experience!
Cycling connoisseur Cody Sovis works at Einstein Cycles in Traverse City and maintains a cycling blog year round.