Mountain bikes have fair-weather, all-weather fans

by Joseph Corbett

For many University students, spring prompts a transition in recreational activities. Ice skates are replaced by in-line skates and snowboards are shelved for skateboards.
For a growing number of students, however, the instrument of recreation is the same year-round, come sun, rain, snow or hail.
In the spring, more mountain bikers start riding to class after the long, cold winter. Other riders — some might say the less sane ones — welcome the melting after a season of riding in sub-zero temperatures with freezing toes.
But not all bikers are like the characters in Mountain Dew ads.
Mountain biking is an increasingly popular sport. Members of cycling clubs at the University and in the Twin Cities area are welcoming new members — many of whom have never ridden a mountain bike before. Still others are adapting the activity and using biking as just a part of their cross-training program.
The Bicycle Polo Club plays weekly games in the fields behind the Washington Avenue Ramp. All one needs is a bike and a polo mallet.
Where does one buy polo mallets?
Polo club member Todd Stewart said the now-defunct company called Official Bike Polo used to sell mallets — known as sticks to the players — made out of genuine bamboo cane. However, not everyone owns the “official” mallet.
“Most of us have the home-spun variety,” said Stewart.
Sticks to most riders, however, are a secondary item in the sport. The largest cost is the price of their mountain bikes.
According to Stewart, most bikes that polo club members ride are worth more than $500. Stewart said a person can play on a junker bike, but it’s more enjoyable to be on a lightweight bike that includes several comfortable gears.
Polo club members have maintained a pretty good safety record. “The most we’ve had is scrapes and bruises,” Stewart said. He said that when people start getting rough, someone will usually call off play and ask everyone to take it easy.
The club has a fair number of female members. In general, the popularity of mountain biking for women has grown in the past few years.
Mike Burger, manager of Erik’s Bike Store in St. Louis Park, said that about 30 percent of riders are female. He said that the popularity of mountain biking has grown in all age groups in recent years because people at all levels of ability can ride.
“You don’t have to be a super athlete to ride a bike,” Burger said.
Beside ability, other concerns for riders include safety, cost and environments in which to ride.
“Most people who are true cyclists are out there riding with the proper gear,” said Brian Peotter, manager of Penn Cycle on Lake Street. Peotter said that there are always a few people who ride carelessly and without helmets.
“Common sense is the number-one thing,” Burger said.
Burger also said that riders have the same rights as cars on the road.
“(A rider) has to ride with some aggressiveness,” said Burger. He said that being prepared for anything to happen is “absolutely essential. You can’t control other people.”
The cost of owning a helmet is minimal compared to the cost of bikes. Peotter said that a beginning rider will pay about $350 for a decent bike, while a helmet typically costs about $50.
“It depends on what kind of performance you’re looking for,” said Burger. He said that the six stores within the company for which he works sold more than $1 million worth of bikes last year, and that most of their bikes are priced from $300 to $600.
Riders make their buying decisions based on cost, performance, recommendations and brand name.
Lightweight bikes made of stronger metals are more expensive, but are often packaged with higher quality components that offer smoother shifting and better overall performance.
The purchase also is influenced by what trails the rider usually visits. In the Twin Cities, the most popular places to ride are the city lakes, the River Road in Minneapolis and Battle Creek in the suburbs.
“The Bloomington River trail is real popular,” said Peotter, “although that probably won’t be (available) until around June because we’re already getting some flooding.”
Burger mentioned that the Luce Line is a popular trail that extends from Hopkins to Victoria.
“Every bike store should have their own club,” Peotter said. Local bike clubs offer riders a chance to experience new trails in a social setting. For example, many downhill ski resorts including Afton, Lutsen and Welch Village, maintain mountain bike trails during the summer.
Outside of the Twin Cities, the best trails are out west. “Everybody always talks about Moab,” said Peotter.
Moab, Utah, near Arches National Park, is home to what many call the mountain biking capital of the world.
One University club, Gopher Adventure Bicycling, has ventured out to Moab the past three years during spring break.
The main attraction in Moab is the Slickrock trail. The name suggests the terrain. Slickrock twists though dozens of miles of hilly land formerly covered by oceans.
The bicycle club members meet every Sunday at noon during the year for what they’ve dubbed “core” rides. Most rides follow the River Road.
Even at 1 degree below zero, five of the bike club’s 12 members covered everything except their eyes for a ride last quarter.
Such devotion to mountain biking may be uncommon, but the trends suggest that along with the in-line skates and road bikes, the University campus likely will see more mountain bikers this season.
For those thinking about riding for the first time, perhaps Burger’s advice will help: “There’s no reason not to.”