1,800-person River Ramble puts Mankato on ‘bike-friendly’ map

When I grew up in a one-car family in Mankato, we had a place to buy a bike—Mahowald’s, the local hardware store—and every kid I knew rode a Schwinn.

Fast forward five decades. With a population of 59,000 (if you count nearby Mankato north), this rugged river town amidst corn and soybean fields in southern Minnesota is poised to welcome 1,800 cyclists on some of the most beautiful trails in the state.

The 12e annual Hike the Mankato River – with three scenic loops that include the 26-mile pie run (my favorite) – is Sunday, October 9; Online registration is available until Tuesday, October 4, and registration day typically attracts 50-300 runners, depending on the weather.

“It’s a great event not only for locals, but also for people outside of Mankato,” said Paul Vogel, director of community development for the City of Mankato and a year-round biker. “Seeing what we have to offer is a big positive.”

The River Ramble rest stop outside of Rapidan, Minnesota offers homemade pie and a bluegrass band — and a long, steep climb to get back on course.

How Mankato became a cycling destination – and a National community friendly to cyclistsas designated by the American Cyclists League — is a story of perseverance and patience, collaboration and a few concessions. “All is not rosy here,” said Lee Ganske, vice president of Greater Mankato Cycling and Walking Advocates (GMBWA), to a Minnesota Bicycle Alliance online seminar last June. “We struggle to get enough commitment from volunteers. More funding would help some projects.

With two separate bike shopsincluding one who collects and recycles bicycles for the community; a network of cycle paths and path infrastructure in the central part of the city; a year electric bike rental service that a climate advocate works from his garage; and – most importantly – an annual ride that draws hundreds of cyclists to area shops, restaurants and hotels, Mankato is a best practice model for towns and cities looking to improve the cycling experience for their residents. and attract bikers from elsewhere.

#1: Find champions for your vision

At 75, daily cyclist Tom Engstrom looks as fit as athletes half his age. When he retired at 62 in 2009, he started cycling after hip problems kept him from running and was asked to join a committee to develop a transportation plan five-year term for the city. “The bike became one of the things I wanted to champion,” says Engstrom.

Most of the committee members considered cycling infrastructure only as recreational paths. Engstrom, who lives five miles west of town near Minneopa State Park, envisioned an infrastructure similar to what he had seen in Amsterdam. Without “any promise of implementation,” committee cyclists pushed for paved shoulders on county roads in the area and painted lanes on the street in town.

Tom Engstrom (left), founder of the Mankato River Ramble, and Dan Urlick, who hosts a radio show and podcast called Dan’s Bike Rides.

Years later, their advocacy and arguments have paid off. The county road network, which the three routes of the next River Ramble use – are paved and well-maintained to serve the agricultural economy, says Vogel, the city’s director of development. It’s a bonus that they also work for bikes. “These are great roads for cycling,” he says, “and they carry important traffic for economic development. County engineers realized the benefit of this.

The Mankato City Council adopted a sidewalk and pathway plan in the 1990s that provided for a network of pathways and sidewalks (“kids’ bike lanes”), Vogel says. Two decades later, in 2015, the city adopted a Full street map which includes detailed information on cycling facilities, from shared-use trails and dedicated bus/bike lanes to bike boulevards and bike lanes.

A pushback other than the foreseeable complaint about the loss of parking? “You always run into people who say cyclists should pay taxes for trail development,” Vogel says. “But as more people see and use the infrastructure, we’ve seen fewer detractors.” Communication is key, he adds: “If you’re going to plan this infrastructure, you have to go through engagement and you have to listen to the voices.”

#2: Start an organization – and a ride!

In 2009, Engstrom and other cycling advocates joined the Minnesota Cycling Alliance to form GMBWA, the advocacy group that today prides itself on cycling education for primary school students and a fleet of bikes to train the next generation of cyclists.

Ongoing efforts for the Kato Bike-Walk group include a push for city protected lanes and a 10 to 12 mile trail connecting Mankato and Saint-Pierre north along the Minnesota River; this project has been in discussion for a decade and will not be completed for three years. “It’s important to work with [local] government,” says Engstrom.

The Mankato River Ramble is the group’s “big event”, says GMBWA’s Ganske, a year-round bicycle commuter for 40 years, which he attributes to the location of his home and work as well as the family and employer flexibility. The Ramble generates $14,000 to $18,000 annually, which the group invests in initiatives such as the high school mountain bike team and a plethora of activities during Cycling month in May.

Plus, the Ramble has had “great support” from the business community, Engstrom says, with 38 sponsors this year.

The proceeds from the ride were a welcome result, but that’s not why the River Ramble started. To qualify as a bike-friendly community, Mankato needed a signature event, the League of American Cyclists told Engstrom. He served on the Bike Alliance board at the time and, with the help of Executive Director Dorian Grilley and St. Paul Classic Bike Tour organizer Rich Arey, Engstrom asked the Bike Alliance to sponsor the first River Ramble in 2011.

“We would have been happy with 300 runners,” Engstrom recalled. They had four times as many. “It helped introduce Mankato as a good place to ride,” he says, including the hilly, verdant Red Jacket Trailan old railway track that features three converted railway trestles.

The Mankato River Ramble attracts families, serious cyclists and a growing number of e-bikers.

#3: Promote bike-friendly businesses

My first and only foray into an e-bike was during a family visit to Mankato in June. My sister Penny, an e-bike enthusiast, rented us Rad brand e-bikes from Fun bike ridesa small business that Nathan Bartell runs from his one-car garage.

Like Engstrom, Bartell wants to see more people ride, not just for recreation and health, but also to fight climate change. He recently told the Mankato Free Press that he tries not to drive a car, even with two young children and a Childcare company with 70 employees which he owns with his wife, Candice Deal Bartellan early education advocate who ran for Congress earlier this year.

When asked if he started Fun Bike Rides for fitness, fun, or the environment, Bartell laughs and says the company “checks a lot of boxes.” But the climate is the most important. “I am a lot of German. I like the practicality of things,” he says. ” I am exercising. I go from point D to point B. I get cars off the road and help reduce pollution and traffic jams.

Nathan Bartell and his son, Lawson, make up stories as they ride through Mankato on an electric bike. “We have all this dialogue and connection through the bike,” says Nathan.

Bartell, 40, grew up in the country outside of Mankato. He said the region’s cycling scene “has exploded” in recent years, with Nicollet bike shop struggling to keep inventory in stock at the height of the pandemic. Fun Bike Rides is popular with out-of-town cyclists who want to speed up and pedal up the city’s steep hills and explore the “incredible” network of bike paths and trails. Five of the 13 e-bikes in Bartell’s fleet have been rented for the River Ramble.

Engstrom, who owns seven bikes, wants to see the “casual rider” convert to cycling for everyday use: “to go to the store, the library, school, etc. This is our next frontier,” he says.

Bartell thinks getting more people out of cars would also promote social interaction: “When I’m on my bike, I wave at people on the sidewalk. Having glass between people just cuts off humanity. This adds to this ever-growing disconnect in society.

Photos courtesy of Mankato River Ramble flickr collection and Nathan Bartell

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