By Robb Murray
The Free Press
MANKATO — Minnesota’s already-solid standing as a national leader in bicycle tourism will serve itself well in what one industry expert says will be a continued surge in the sport’s popularity.
Tim Blumenthal, a nationally recognized expert in recreational bicycling, was the keynote speaker in the state-sponsored 2011 Minnesota Bicycle Tourism Summit Thursday at the Verizon Wireless Center.
Blumenthal, from a bicycling advocacy organization called Bikes Belong, said Minnesota already has established itself as a leader.
“I believe that in Minnesota, which is already the No. 4 ranked state in the category of bicycle-friendly states, you have huge potential here,” Blumenthal said. “I think you’re doing the right things and you have great people here. There’s a level of civility and politeness and openness that I don’t find many places.”
More people than ever are biking recreationally. And more government funding has been put into biking programs and trail-building projects in the past few years than has been spent in the previous half century.
Twenty years ago, the federal government spent about $20 million. But in the last few years, that number has grown dramatically. In 2009-2010, because of stimulus funding, $1.4 billion was spent on bicycling and trails projects. Last year, a non-stimulus year, the funding was at about $791 million and funded roughly 3,000 projects.
Blumenthal said he’s seen a number of trends that are starting to define the current and future of the sport, several of which fall in the area of government-sponsored aid of recreational biking.
A lot of cities have tried a bike-sharing system over the years, but only recently has it been pulled off successfully in large metropolitan areas. “It’s actually getting people who haven’t ridden bikes in years get back on bikes,” he said.
Other cities have experimented with so-called protected bikeways. This idea entails cities shutting down roads to automobile traffic for a specified time period during which the riding of bikes is encouraged. It usually coincides with some kind of event.
In some areas, a protected bikeway event ties in the use of a bike park. Blumenthal described one in Colorado where they took 40 acres and built a facility that has a multi-generational attraction to it. It contains areas for experienced mountain bikers and scaled-down trails easy enough for a kid who has just learned to ride.
“When I see kids on bikes, it not only hits you in the heart, but it hits you in the mind,” Blumenthal said.
John Edman, with Explore Minnesota Tourism, said Minnesota is on the cusp of a major marketing push, and it will use bicycling as one of the state’s featured products.
“We need to start getting a little more bold about how we promote Minnesota,” Edman said, “and biking is one of those areas where we stand out.”
And within Minnesota, southern Minnesota and Mankato stand out from the rest of the state, Edman said.
The extensive local trails, including the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail the runs out to Faribault, and the Red Jacket Trail, which heads south to Rapidan, have been popular.
But biking is harder to track from a city promotion standpoint. Anna Thill, president of the Greater Mankato Convention and Visitors Bureau, said they’ve tried to get a handle on what visitors do when they come here by surveying people who have requested visitor guides.
When someone from Iowa comes to Mankato for the bike trails, they rarely stop in to the chamber offices and let them know why they came. But from those surveys, they’ve been able to tell that, of the people who came for outdoors activities, a big chunk of them came to ride the trails.
Trails and biking always have been part of the array of activities the Mankato area offers, but Thill said it wasn’t until 2011 that things really started to pick up.
There was a bike race that took place here for several years, but the recreational side of the sport is what gets the attention of those responsible for promoting tourism. And the Mankato River Ramble brought more than 1,500 bikers to Mankato from around the region — bikers who were more likely to spend a few dollars while they’re here.
“It’s really starting to brew,” Thill said. “In 2011 is when we started to see a lot happen.”
In addition to the River Ramble, the annual Bike Across Minnesota event made a stop in Mankato. And now this Bike Summit has come to town, state officials say, at the request of Mankato area boosters.
Edman said that when the state announced it was doing another bike summit, they heard loudly from Mankato that it wanted to host the event.