Mountain bikers blaze new trails in West Michigan

It's fall in West Michigan, but local mountain bikers aren't putting their bikes away. Find out why a growing network of trails and an increasingly diverse set of riders makes the local mountain biking scene a year-round attraction.
Pull into the parking lot at one of a dozen of West Michigan's mountain biking trails on any given day of the week, and there's bound to be someone wearing padded Spandex shorts getting ready to tackle the dirt with their 29-er. And while the sport continues to be popular with thrill-seekers with a Y chromosome who traditionally dominate the trails, the mountain biking scene in West Michigan is growing and diversifying when it comes to both trails and riders.

It's something Nate Phelps, a longtime leader in the mountain biking community, has seen happen first-hand. Phelps, owner of Central District Cyclery and an avid biker, wears a lot of hats in addition to his bike helmet: He's a current board member and the past president of the West Michigan Mountain Biking Alliance (WMMBA), past president of the Michigan Mountain Biking Association (MMBA), a board member of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, and involved with Green Grand Rapids and the Parks and Recreation advisory board.

"When I moved to Grand Rapids [18 years ago], there were three trails you could choose from: Cannonsburg State Game area, Robinettes, and Yankee Springs," says Phelps. Since then, Phelps has worked with local race promoter Rick Plite and WMMBA board member Aaron Smith to "supercharge the advocacy efforts in West Michigan." Their efforts – along with thousands of volunteer hours – have resulted in over a dozen new local trails and a burgeoning network of riders and race teams. The end result has turned West Michigan into a super-regional mountain biking destination.

One of the most recent additions to the local trail choices is Plainfield Township's Merrell Trail, funded by Wolverine Worldwide and Wynalda Printing and called "a rollercoaster on dirt" by WMMBA board member Scott TenCate. The first phase, a six-mile loop that opened in fall 2012, has the distinction of being the first trail in West Michigan that was designed by a professional trail builder and built mechanically. TenCate says it took Spectrum Trail Builders' Alex Stewart and 2800 local volunteer hours to complete the first loop; the second phase will be finished this year.

All those hours of moving boulders resulted in a trail that's receiving accolades locally and attracted out-of-state riders as well.

Colin Derhammer, a Kalamazoo native, makes it a point to visit the trail when he returns to West Michigan from his Cincinnati home. The 33-year-old engineer, who got his first fire engine red 21-speed Giant Rincon mountain bike when he was 10 and has ridden trails all over the country, thinks Merrell Trail is unique.

"I love all the built-ins and the optional feature that really make you feel like a kid again," Derhammer says. "I think trail builders are being more thoughtful these days and understand what people enjoy, how to pack the most punch in a limited space and do so in an environmentally friendly way that limits erosion."

Phelps says most out-of-town riders are wowed by the variety and accessibility in West Michigan. "When people come into town and rent a mountain bike, they're amazed that I can point to a map and that they can leave right from their hotel, go up the White Pine trail, get to Merrell, and come back," he says.

"One of the cool things [about West Michigan] is that there's a really diverse choice of trails in the area and good accessibility," says Phelps. "And the other cool thing is it has changed. Eighteen years ago, if you were a mountain biker, you cross-country skied in the winter. Now . . . it's become much more year-round."

Phelps says "fat-biking," an offshoot of mountain biking using 4-inch-wide tires and special frames, allows Michiganders to bike through all four seasons, both on the trails and off. "We're blessed with so much coastline. An area you normally wouldn't consider fun to ride becomes a playground with a fat bike," he says, adding that the ability to ride on packed snow and on beaches is an opportunity many locals take for granted.

Not only does the WMMBA leadership continue to add new trails and more access, it's also reaching out more intentionally to women riders and families on the trails, two previously underserved demographics. Merleah Bevelacqua, a social worker at Network 180, stumbled onto the sport three years ago and found the community to be welcoming to newcomers.

"I discovered if you're female and you go to one mountain biking board meeting, you get appointed to something," she laughs. Bevelacqua, who had become bored with road biking to and from work via the same route each day, finds herself returning to mountain biking to stay healthy, to enjoy the outdoors, and as a form of stress relief.

She's also passionate about outreach and, with fellow WMMBA board member Julie Whalen, has begun organizing a regular women's ride via a Facebook group. "We've focused on people who weren't comfortable riding in a group, just getting a bunch of women out there riding together for fun," she says, adding that nearly 25 people showed up to their first event.

Bevelacqua praises the natural beauty of West Michigan's trails along with their ease of use for beginners. "Each trail has its own character. There are technical parts but you can ride around features, or the features are small enough that you aren't constantly getting off your bike, which is great for beginning riders," she says.

Holland rider and mother of four Joanne VanVliet says it's this kind of variety that makes the sport a good fit for her whole family, especially at her favorite spot, Rockford's Luton Park.

VanVliet, whose children are 10, eight and six, says, "We love Luton because it has an easy blue loop which the kids can do, but there are still bridges and log piles to ride over, so it's fun for them. As they get better, there are more challenging loops going off the blue circle, so they can pick and choose as they learn and figure it out."

After coming to the sport by riding with her husband Tim, VanVliet has become a regular rider herself, often making a group ride into a couples' date night or a girls' night out. She races occasionally and is training for the upcoming Iceman Cometh, a chilly West Michigan favorite, but says, "I just like to have fun and ride with people."

Another local mother of four, however, has discovered a competitive streak after returning to the sport. Andrea Hunderman hadn't been in the saddle for 11 years but got back into the sport last summer, buying a bike and entering a race at the Cannonsburg State Game area on a whim. To her surprise, she won.

"I had no idea that I could still ride," says Hunderman, who had been an avid road and mountain biker before having children. "It was so much fun to realize that I could be competitive that I backed into the culture of mountain biking." These days, she races for the Freewheeler Racing team and leads a women's ride for the shop once a month.

Hunderman loves that the race culture is family-friendly, too: "There are tons of races where kids are welcome, both to watch and to race themselves." And she values the fun, social aspect of mountain biking just as much as the opportunity to get her heart rate up.

"There are so many opportunities [in West Michigan] to be part of the gang with mountain biking. I just forgot how much I loved it," she says.

The WMMBA estimates that there are around 4000 mountain bikers in West Michigan, a number that will no doubt continue to grow, especially as a more diverse set of riders discovers -- or remembers -- their love of the increasingly year-round sport.

A Merrell Trail point-of-view by hip616:


Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird
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