As the ninth annual Mankato River Ramble came to a close Sunday afternoon, it was evident the Greater Mankato Area is on the radar for cyclists not just from Mankato, but also the Twin Cities, greater Minnesota and even neighboring states.

Mankato is one of nearly 30 cities in Minnesota classified as “bike friendly” by the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, and this marked the first time one of the River Ramble routes made its way through the city center.

“A lot of the riders that are not familiar with Mankato – what they know is Highway 169 – so if we can get them to see what the city is like, it’s good for Mankato,” said Tom Engstrom, co-director of the event. 

The three routes began at Land of Memories Park early Sunday morning, and ranged from the 12-mile Minneopa Falls Loop to the 44-mile Lake Crystal Loop. A moderate 26-mile route led riders out to Rapidan Dam and back.

Volunteer Coordinator Lee Ganske, who spent the day along the routes guiding cyclists in the right direction said the sunny, albeit windy weather kept both the volunteers and the riders in good spirits.

“We had big numbers, over 1800 riders,” Ganske said. “As far as we know there were no serious crashes or injuries. When I was out on the course, I saw mostly happy people.”

At Rapidan Dam, cyclists relaxed on the grass at the county park, enjoying pie and live music. Jenny Barnes, whose family owns the Rapidan Dam Store, said she makes at least 160 pies every year to feed cyclists at the River Ramble.

“It’s a process,” Barnes said. “After Labor Day you start thinking how many you’re going to do. For this event, I did five different fruit pies.”

Nela Kurtic and Patrick Niszner of St. Paul said the pie was well worth it. This was their first time cycling in the area. When they rode the St. Paul Classic Bike Tour in early September, organizers there encouraged riders to make the 77 mile trek to Mankato in October for the River Ramble.

Nieszner said the hilly terrain reminded him of a previous ride he had taken through western Wisconsin on the way to Chicago. Kurtic agreed that the Mankato area was a lot hillier than they had expected.

“It’s beautiful out today,” Kurtic said. “We got one of the last rides of the last nice days for the fall.”

St. Paul resident Leon Webster heard about the River Ramble through the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota. It was also his first time cycling in the region. He said he frequents similar events in Minnesota and neighboring states.

“I try to do a few thousand miles a year,” Webster said. “I’ve been really pleased with this route; I didn’t realize there were so many bike trails here.”

John and Patricia Gunderson of Shoreview took the route to Rapidan Dam a couple years ago. They said they appreciated the many bike trails, scenery and low-traffic county roads that make up the route.

“Mankato is a beautiful area,” John Gunderson said. “With the rolling hills and the beauty of the river — it really is a gorgeous ride.”

Will Wlizlo, registration manager for the Mankato River Ramble, said about 40% of the riders come from the Greater Mankato Area, 30% come from the Twin Cities, and the remaining 30% are split between riders from greater Minnesota or neighboring states. He said about half of the riders opt for the 26-mile “pie route.”

“There’s a group of 15-20 folks who come from Sioux Falls, South Dakota every year,” Wlizlo said. “We often get bike clubs that gather and come out together for a ride.”

At Minnemishinona Falls on Judson Bottom Road, riders arrived on the final stretch of their 44-mile Lake Crystal loop, with 10 miles to go. Rest-stop coordinator Michelle Melby and her 14 volunteers greeted cyclists with cookies, bars, coffee, fruit and water.

“We get a lot of repeat riders,” Melby said. “A lot of them are from the Metro. We had over 500 people here today; everybody pitches in and does a good job.”

About 100 volunteers were stationed through- out the three routes, at the rest stops and at Land of Memories Park, where the day began and ended.

Ganske said while new people rotate in and out every year, there are about 20-30 volunteers who have been active with the River Ramble since it began nine years ago.

Bonnie Sellner is one of the volunteers who has been helping out since 2011. She wanted to show her appreciation by giving back. Sellner said when she asks riders how the day went for them, they usually respond with similar answers.

“They go, ‘the bike trails here are awesome. I’ll be back.’”

Engstrom said this will likely be his last year as co-director of the Mankato River Ramble, a position he’s held since its inception. He expects next year to be a period of transition as they look for a new co-director. He said the goal of the Mankato River Ramble has been to see more people cycling in town and the surrounding areas. Since 2011 he’s seen more people doing just that.

“Our goal was to show people what a beautiful area we have in Mankato for biking,” Engstrom said. “We want people in Mankato as well as from outside of Mankato to see this as a very bike-friendly community, and to come here and ride both on the River Ramble as well as with your family next Saturday or next Sunday, too.”

Dan Greenwood is a

Free Press staff writer.

Contact him at dgreenwood@mankatofreepress.com.

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