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Published April 29 2012

New mountain bike trail in Moorhead park ready for summer (with video)

MOORHEAD – Hidden among the flat fields of north Moorhead, and even further inside the deceptively plain entrance to MB Johnson Park, is something that might seem a little bit out of place, geographically speaking.

There, area cyclists can find a 3.3-mile dirt mountain bike path that circles through the park.

Hugging the fairly steep river bank just inside the park, the trail curves around trees and stumps, snaking its way through the landscape that’s just now starting to grow the buds of spring underbrush. It’s the only such trail within roughly 50 miles.

It’s not a wide path – maybe just enough space for a bike or two – and the summer traffic hasn’t started yet, but the trail has been cleared of fall and winter’s brush and is ready to go for the season.

The genesis of the bike path came in 2009, says Tom Heilman, a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch in Fargo and an active member in the local cycling community.

At that time, local mountain bikers started discussing the idea of making their own trail in the area, he says, since the closest option for them was more than 60 miles away in Maplelag State Park.

“In conversation, we all thought it’d be nice to have something more local,” Heilman says.

Though some form of a dirt walking path has been in the park for several years now, Heilman says a lack of consistent group involvement coupled with the ever-flooding Red River posed some difficulties in achieving permanence for a biking course.

Until last year, that is, when Heilman and others members of the newly formed mountain bike group F-M Trailbuilders, along with a local cross-country ski group, pitched the idea of a system of trails to the Moorhead Parks and Recreation Department.

The city, Heilman says, was very supportive of the plan.

Larry Anderson, manager of the Park and Forestry Division of Parks and Rec, says he was excited about the idea of giving MB Johnson Park more use, especially the wooded areas near the river.

“With Johnson Park, it was underutilized,” he says, adding that before the city started putting more money into it in 2007, it was referred to as a “big dog park.”

For Anderson, one of the best parts about the trail proposals may have been that it required very little work on the part of the city – the cyclists and cross-country skiers were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work molding the trails to their requirements.

And even though the mountain bike trail is only a little more than three miles long, Heilman says, the amount of work that went into it was pretty time-consuming.

At first, he and others started with the existing path in the park, adjusting it to include features in the land like trees and tricky slopes in elevation that might make for a more challenging course.

“Then, the real work begins,” Heilman says, laughing.

With some help from Parks and Rec, volunteers like Heilman went through the trail and pushed debris out of the way, raking and shoveling to get the path to satisfactory condition.

“It’s all done by hand, and it’s a lot of work,” Heilman says.

The end result is a trail filled with a fair amount of geographical contours, which might be unexpected considering the flat terrain just beyond the riverbank.

“It’s surprisingly really challenging,” Heilman says of riding the course. “The climbs that are there are steep. They’re short, but they’re steep.”

Cyclist Asa Jacobs, who works at the Great Northern Bicycle Co. in Fargo, calls the trail fast and even somewhat easy, but he says the hills and geography are used as much as possible.

“It’s user-friendly for anyone that wants to ride,” Jacobs says, adding that he’s seen people even riding road bikes on the course at times.

“You can take it slow and enjoy the ride, or hammer it and go hard,” Heilman says.

When it was first completed, “the trail was kind of self-serving at first,” Heilman says, explaining he and other biking associates got the most use out of it.

Since then, and especially this spring, there’s been an increase of traffic on the trail.

“This year has been amazing,” Heilman says. “Every time I go out, there are two, three, four new faces.”

This is encouraging, he says, considering that any advertising of the trail is done just through word of mouth or through social media among the area biking community.

Organized rides on the trail are set every Tuesday – which Heilman describes as “a higher-paced, race-oriented ride” – and Thursday – “a more relaxed, skills-building, ride for fun” opportunity, both starting between 6-6:30 p.m.

The trail, which was recently ranked No. 16 in Minnesota by the mountain bike website singletracks.com, is always open to the public as well.

“Everyone who rides a mountain bike in Fargo ends up there,” Jacobs says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535