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Upcoming bike festival says a lot about Minnesota

At the intersection of green tourism, Baby Boomer health consciousness, “complete streets” and national kudos, sits the Nature Valley Bicycle Festival.

Alejandro Borrajo and teammate Lucas Sebastian Haedo celebrate their win at the Cannon Falls Road Race during the 2009 Nature Valley event.
Photo by Steve Pottenger
Alejandro Borrajo and teammate Lucas Sebastian Haedo celebrate their win at the Cannon Falls Road Race during the 2009 Nature Valley event.

At the intersection of green tourism, Baby Boomer health consciousness, “complete streets” and national kudos, sits the Nature Valley Bicycle Festival.

A secret to many, it is arguably becoming one of the most meaningful events on Minnesota’s annual sports calendar. For the cycling cognoscenti, it is unquestionably the nation’s top stage race for women riders.

In its 12th year, the multi-venue bike fest has grown into a two-week-long pedaling bacchanal and has become the capstone of a growing Minnesota asset. Biking possesses a collection of emanating civic and economic spokes: fitness, energy efficiency, smart transit, needed tourism and “lifestyle” marketing heft.

For now, only about $330 million of tourism spending can be attributed to “destination biking” in Minnesota out of a total tourism spending universe of more than $11 billion. But, said Colleen Tollefson, senior manager of industry relations at Explore Minnesota, the Nature Valley event — which attracts about 275 top-flight male and female cyclists — “legitimizes” the state as a biking place.

It exposes communities to the power of luring visitors. When it begins on June 11, it will spread a certain two-wheeled gospel. It says something about us.

What it is, where it fits in
The concept of economic impact and sports has long rattled around these parts amid talk of stadium and arena construction and team preservation. The “experts” argue over the meaning and power of such edifices and assets. But a bike festival carries a bunch of socially responsible and locally targeted economic activity gems in its saddlebag.

The Nature Valley event spans competitive locations from Blaine to Cannon Falls, from Uptown in Minneapolis to Menomonie, Wis., from Rice Park in St. Paul to Stillwater, from June 11 through June 20. Different sorts of races — from track to roads — are staged in different settings at various distances.

For Cannon Falls, 35 miles south of St. Paul, the Nature Valley stage is a show piece for its lovely Cannon Valley Trail, which generates about 100,000 recreational visits annually on its paved trek from Cannon Falls to Red Wing. Patty Anderson of the Cannon Falls Chamber of Commerce said it’s not that the race attracts thousands of spectators and fills the town’s handful of restaurants or motels for its one-day invasion.

No, rather it showcases the trail itself for biking enthusiasts so they will return another day, and it supports the mission of the trail to preserve the Cannon River front.

Besides, cyclists are a tidy group.

“The people that use the Cannon Valley Trail are very environmentally conscious,” Anderson said. “We don’t need an ‘adopt-the-trail’ program to keep it clean.”

Bike races smell better than auto races. Bike races are quieter. Bike races suggest a new mode. Bike races and festivals target a powerful, prosperous demographic.

Who they are, what it means
Not too long ago on Twitter, there was a political/fitness/Baby Boomer convergence uploaded by a savvy public servant.

“Biking to work in America’s best bike city. (Pulled over so I didn’t tweet while riding),” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, 54, wrote.

Mayor R.T. Rybak
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Mayor R.T. Rybak

His Honor pedals the five miles from his East Harriet home to City Hall the same way the rest of us do — a bit less often than he’d like, depending on “whether I can pack work clothes in my backpack that will be unwrinkled enough when I pull them out to make me look respectable as mayor.”

Rybak’s Tweet and ride came in the wake of Minneapolis being named the nation’s No. 1 friendly biking city by Bicycling magazine.

It came as the Twin Cities were named the third most fit metro area in the nation by American College of Sports Medicine.

It came as Minneapolis is set to launch next week the nation’s largest bike sharing system, with 1,000 bikes available to subscribers to ride around town.

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Rybak’s Tweet also came amid another remarkable trend. With the opening of the Twins new ballpark, more than 300 baseball fans per game are regularly cycling to Target Field, taking advantage of the extension of the Cedar Lake Trail, a project that continues with support from the city of Minneapolis. Target Field has 334 bike parking spots within 200 yards of a ballpark entrance.


The bike racks outside of Target Field where more than 300 fans are parking for most Twins games.
Courtesy of Minnesota Ballpark Authority
The bike racks outside of Target Field where more than 300 fans are parking for most Twins games.

Meanwhile, during the 2010 legislative session, the Minnesota Complete Streets Law passed. It allows for the planning and reworking of streets so they are more accessible to various pedestrian and transit modes, including cycling.

The biking needs are even extending into the car-focused suburbs.

And then there’s tourism, a key component of the state’s economy, especially in Greater Minnesota. In April, Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism agency, along with the Department of Natural Resources, the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota and others sponsored a “Bicycle Tourism Summit.” [PDF]

About 160 people showed up to discuss how to lure more cyclists from out-of-state to Minnesota, and about how to increase and improve trails, among other issues. Various communities are examining strategies. Among the most exciting new venues is a mountain-bike trail near Crosby — in the Brainerd Lakes area — called the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail, which is under construction.

What’s going on? Among those who go outdoors to exercise, cycling is second only to hiking and walking in the state, with about a third of Minnesotans saying they bicycle, according to research developed by the University of Minnesota’s Tourism Center. More than activities such as hunting and fishing, cycling is more gender-balanced, with just as many women biking as men in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, a recent study [PDF] by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison  quantified the health values of bicycling versus, for instance, the use of automobiles for commuting to work.

“Biking is increasing in interest, both functionally and recreationally,” said Ingrid Schneider, the director of the Tourism Center, and a professor of forest resources at the University of Minnesota. With the expectation long-range of soaring gas prices and the advent of newer user-friendly bikes for an aging population, the activity is meeting economic and demographic demands. To wit: There’s a growing trend toward senior citizens riding tricycles for stability and safety.

Festival director David LaPorte is shown starting the 2009 kids' fun race.
Photo by Steve Pottenger
Festival director David LaPorte is shown starting the 2009 kids’ fun race.

The festival
Which brings us back to the Nature Valley Bicycle Festival, which is growing in Minnesota, while other, larger more spendy events — such as Tour de Georgia and Tour of Missouri — have died.

Why? First of all, those other events had budgets in the $3.5 million range. Nature Valley’s cash budget is less than $500,000. How? Efficiency, Midwestern budgetary values and solid management by biochemist-cum-bike-promoter David LaPorte, whose interests run from velodromes to Protein Phosphorylation Cascades.

LaPorte, 56, has managed to find a competitive niche — highlighting the nation’s top women riders — while bringing in Greater Minnesota (and now nearby Wisconsin) settings — and taking races to the urban cores of Minneapolis and St. Paul. He’s also raised a ton of dough for Children’s Hospitals and Clinics.

Meanwhile, he’s gotten the folks at General Mills to fall in love with the event, as the scientist in LaPorte has wowed the Golden Valley-based food giant with powerful cycling data and demographics, such as: according to the National Sports Goods Association, there are more recreational cyclists in the United States than golfers, tennis players and Alpine skiers combined.

David LaPorte
David LaPorte

“Active lifestyle” is a buzz word in the consumer brands space, especially when it comes to granola bars, Wheaties and, for that tricycle set, Fiber One. Cycling is a marketing bullseye, so the General Mills folks took over name sponsorship of the entire festival this year.

“It is so endemic it becomes invisible,” LaPorte said of biking in the Twin Cities. “If it’s everywhere, no one sees it anymore.”

So, LaPorte seeks to have his bike festival raise the sport’s profile. It reflects, it reinforces. “We are both a manifestation of Minnesota’s biking interest and, I think, a cause of it,” he said.

The Nature Valley Bicycle Festival is a symbol of our community’s commitment to two wheels and a chain. It’s a sports, civic, regional, marketing, tourism and fresh-air platform. It says something about us.

Jay Weiner reports on sports and public policy, outdoors and the environment.