Joel Kleimola moves through woods at WinMan Trails on yellow excavator. He navigates around the trees with ease as he moves large rocks and churns up dirt widening the bike trail.
Behind him two men work their way up the trail raking the dirt and clipping and removing roots upturned by excavator.
Widening and changing up this trail is one of the many projects on tap at WinMan Trails this summer.
It’s part of phase two of the vision for the trail system nestled between Manitowish Waters and Winchester off Highway W.
“Phase one was really establishing a trail system and seeing if the community wanted it, engaged with it, and it could sort of prove it’s worth. The community has shown pretty steadily that they like what we’re doing, and they want us to do more of it. We’re entering phase two to take it kind of that next level,” said Issac Cowart, interim Director of Operations at WinMan Trails.
He said phase two is more than just adding trails, improving the ones they have, and making the system more navigable.
There’s a plan to improve the whole user experience.
Cowart said WinMan want to improve the chalet, add more green spaces for kids to play, and in the future offer food and beverage, at least on the weekends.
“We really want the whole user experience to be great from the moment you enter to the time you get off the trail and really for everybody,” said Cowart. “The way we think about it is if grandma comes with the whole family and she’s not going to go on the trails, but what can she do with the grandkids or what can she do that really allows her to come to this space and have fun.”
That idea of creating a destination the whole family can enjoy is part of shift seen in the mountain biking community in recent years.
For the Whole Family
Brad Kuse is the property manager at WinMan. Like many outdoor activities, mountain biking trails saw increased use during the pandemic last year.
“The numbers were crazy with the number of people coming out and coming around and families, a lot of families getting out,” said Kuse.
Kuse says 10, 15 years ago the sport was dominated by men getting together for trail ride. While there’s still plenty of that, he says it is becoming much more of a family-oriented activity.
Bryon Black with LAMBO Riders in Minocqua has seen the same trend.
“A lot of new LAMBO members are families where you see people bringing their kids. Mom and dad with a truck full of bikes on the back and kids get out and afterward a little picnic or something,” said Black. “Our events have been increasingly more and more attending by families. Where it used to be just a guy thing, it’s not so much anymore. I think that’s really the growth.”
Like WinMan, LAMBO is hard at work this summer improving and making new trails at Zip Trails just south of downtown Minocqua.
Bringing People to the Northwoods
All the trail work fits into that the family trend; creating trails so that all levels of riders can find something they’ll enjoy.
It’s certainly one of the reasons Keith Terry, Kevin Mantz and his son Ethan from the Milwaukee area were visiting the WinMan Trails during their week-long stay in the Northwoods.
“The trails are just in great shape. There’s a whole bunch of different skill levels. A lot of variety,” said Mantz.
They all agreed the trails are in the Northwoods are better than the ones they’ve ridden near home.
The trail conditions aren’t just bringing tourists to the area, they’re also playing a role in convincing families to move here.
Cowart’s family is one of them. They moved to Manitowish Waters in the fall and he took the job with WinMan a couple weeks ago.
“I’ve been mountain biking for almost 20 years. I have a background in health and fitness. The joke is the two things that brought us to this community was an amazing elementary school at North Lakeland Elementary and WinMan Trails,” said Cowart. “We moved 2,000 miles because there’s stuff for our family to do and a really good school system that allows us to make this our community.”
With the increase in popularity, the question of ‘how much growth is too much?’ does come up.
Like many things with the pandemic, the mountain biking industry has seen shortages of bikes and parts as the demand for them has increased.
Then there’s the impact of having too many people on the trail or overwhelming small communities.
Black says the Northwoods is set up to handle that influx.
“The Lakeland Area, Rhinelander, Manitowish Waters have a strong history supporting a tourist economy. We already know how to do that. The other places like Copper Harbor are having a lot of trouble figuring how to deal with the influx of people. There’s hundreds of riders, but there’s only 85 people that live in the town. They’re having some growing pains like that, but I think here to be able handle that kind of stuff,” said Black.
Cowart agrees that the Northwoods has room to grow for the mountain biking community.
“No matter how busy the parking lot gets, you can get away from the people quickly and still have that user experience that a lot of people are looking for. They’re getting out of the cities. They’re coming out to nature for a reason. It’s not to ride with the hundred people next to them. It’s to get out and feel that and be on the trail whether it’s by yourself or with your family. Our trail system, the way it’s designed, certainly allows for that,” said Cowart.
Bicycling does have the ability to bring in tourism dollars. A Wisconsin Department of Tourism report estimated bicyclists spend an estimated $534 million annually on trips in the state.
Black and others in the mountain biking community certainly believe if you build it, they will come.
“Once you get these trails built up, the area becomes a destination. WinMan, Zip Trails, Winter Park, Musky Mountain, plus what Rhinelander has going on. It’s not too far to get over to Washburn Lake, that’s a really great trail system. Then it’s like why go any further when you’ve got all these great trail systems here,” said Black.
The clubs plan to keep expanding building to meet the demand and make the Northwoods the place to be for mountain biking.
“There’s just going to be more mileage over the next 5 to 10 years in Northern Wisconsin than we’ve ever seen before,” said Cowart.
LAMBO and WinMan encourage anyone curious about the sport to reach out. They love getting new riders on the trails. They host group rides and events.