The Secret is Out: Business Life
By Brian Auman
Few people have done more to promote bicycling in our region than Mike Kuhn. Mike discovered the area during training rides as a member of Bucknell University’s cycling team. Now, as a professional race organizer, Mike brings thousands of riders to Central PA through his various events, including the Trans-Sylvania Epic, Iron Cross and unPAved Susquehanna River Valley.
A lifetime biking advocate, Mike also brought scholastic mountain biking to Pennsylvania, when he formed PA Interscholastic Cycling League (PICL) back in 2016. PICL is a member of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), which oversees a network of leagues in 31 states.
A youth movement
Scholastic mountain biking is playing an important role in introducing young people to the sport, as PICL has grown rapidly in its first four seasons. Mike Kuhn predicts that the fall 2020 season will feature 60 teams and nearly 1,000 student-athletes from across the state of Pennsylvania. Among the teams from Central Pennsylvania competing in the league are: Buffalo Valley Composite (Union County); Centre County Crows; Danville Hammers; and Lycoming County Composite.
Interscholastic mountain biking has some similarities to cross country running in that it has both individual and team components. If the student-athlete seeks a competitive environment they will have a chance, nearly every weekend of the fall season, to race with riders from across the state. The league is open to boys and girls from 6th through 12th grades. PICL Races are an all-weekend and family-friendly affair.
PICL events also feature adventure rides that encourage bike-based exploration. The Granite Hill race venue, for example, includes a tour of the adjacent Gettysburg Battlefield. Most race venues include a place for camping so that the entire weekend is an immersion in biking and fun activities with family and teammates. While Sundays are focused on races, a sizeable number of team members choose not to race and instead cheer on teammates or participate in non-competitive adventure riding.
There are a lot of positives with youth mountain biking, with the emphasis on skill-building in this lifetime sport. NICA’s mission of “building strong minds, bodies, character, and communities through cycling” has a ripple effect beyond the student-athlete to the family and the communities where they live. PICL’s vision of a world with ‘more kids on bikes’ is one that benefits us all.
Growing the community
For many adults, some of our fondest childhood memories revolve around a bicycle. For me it was a ticket to exploration, testing boundaries and a shared experience with friends. My bike represented freedom. Mountain biking as an adult brings back many of those memories as I continue to explore new places, hone my skills, fall and get back up, and meet interesting people on the trail.
Many of the trails in Bald Eagle State Forest, Hopewell Park (Montour County), and the evolving trail system at Weiser State Forest near the village of Natalie, are quite technical, requiring a higher level of skill to ride and enjoy. It’s all too easy for beginner riders to get in too deep, on trails too difficult for their ability. Groups like Bald Eagle Mountain Bike Association (BEMBA) sponsor rides for all levels, to introduce riders to the popular trails in the state forest.
“There is definitely a need for beginner-level trails,” says Rylan Bennett, a BEMBA Board Member, “but once a rider masters the basics, there is no limit to the trails out there to explore.”
Mountain bikers have an established history of volunteerism maintaining trails. “The influx of young riders, through scholastic mountain biking, is benefiting the sport,” said Dave Decoteau, coach of the Danville Hammers. “I emphasize the importance of our team giving back by building and maintaining trails they use and share with the public.”
In a typical year, BEMBA donates 600 to 700 volunteer hours, and last season the Danville Hammers team donated 400 hours to the maintenance of trails in Bald Eagle State Forest and at Hopewell Park. Statewide, PICL student-athletes logged 4,500 volunteer hours building and maintain trails through the league’s Teen Trail Crew.
The economics of asset-based development
It’s not anyone thing that makes Central Pa. a unique biking destination. Our mountains are not as majestic as the Rockies, and we don’t have red rock canyons or scenic coastlines at our doorstep. Our greatest asset is the small things too many of us take for granted but, when considered in the aggregate, create a place like no other: historic small towns; broad agricultural valleys; rivers and streams; and forested ridges with miles and miles of trails.
Communities around the country, and around the world, have embraced mountain biking to stimulate the local economy. From old timber towns such as Oakridge, Oregon, to former mining towns in the Iron Range of Minnesota, communities are working with their existing assets to create destination venues for mountain biking.
Because of trails, and the buzz surrounding them, I have visited many places I otherwise never would have gone. The best experiences combine great trails with small-town hospitality, and you don’t need much. Copper Harbor, one of my favorite stops, has a population of just over 100 people, but the town has a good place to eat, a memorable bakery/fish market, a woodstove-heated bookstore and a brewpub that is the epicenter of evening activity. You can’t fake authenticity, and small towns, such as Copper Harbor, and East Burke, Vermont, immerse the visitor in the life of the town. After visiting mountain biking venues from California to Vermont, it is clear that Central Pa. has all the ingredients to become a destination for biking.
Where do we go from here?
Central Pa. may be a diamond in the rough for mountain biking, but there is a passion and a synergy today that didn’t exist before. Diverse groups are working together, including elected officials, regional visitors bureaus, clubs like BEMBA, as well as organizations like Walk It Bike It Lewisburg that advocates for more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities.
“Walk It Bike It” director Sam Pearson describes biking in our region as an ‘insider experience,’ stating that “you almost need to know someone who can let you in on the best routes, the best trails and features, and how to get there.” And while there is a lot of novelty in that kind of experience, it is not something you can market to a general audience.
If we are to evolve into a mountain biking destination, public and private investment in infrastructure are required. According to a Singletracks.com survey of more than 1,400 cyclists across the country, 62 percent of mountain bikers travel to ride, make an average of two trips a year and spend about of $382 each trip. So, at a relatively cheap $50,000 per mile of a professionally-built mountain bike trail, the return on investment can be worthwhile.
Communities such as Danville are moving in that direction, seeking to greatly expand the trail system at the Geisinger Stewardship Forest and construct a world-class pump track at Hopewell Park. “These are major investments that will put us on the map as a bike destination, while also providing quality recreation for our local residents,” says Bob Stoudt, director of Montour Area Recreation Commission (MARC).
Additionally, a major player in all of this is the State of Pennsylvania, specifically the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the state’s primary advocate for greenways and trails, as well as the land manager for the region’s extensive state park and forest system. DCNR is a critical partner as we transform existing trails to a more user-friendly and sustainable trail network. This work includes creation of the Ridge Trail, a long-distance biking trail network across Tiadaghton, Bald Eagle and Rothrock state forests.
Come on board
Our region is approaching a critical mass, a tipping point, with enough mountain biking trails to qualify as a legitimate hub of mountain biking. MARC is currently pursuing International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) ‘Ride Center’ designation for the region. The designation, which carries a lot of influence with mountain bikers, recognizes places with exceptional trails, as well as ways to have fun off the bike.
It is an exciting time to be part of the biking community in Central Pennsylvania, and there’s plenty of room for you to become involved. Hope to see you on the trail, on the team, at the next trail maintenance volunteer day or at the next public meeting advocating for better biking.
Visit SusquehannaLife.com/WebExtras for information on upcoming bicycle rides.
Brian Auman is a landscape architect and community planner that has worked for over 25 years advocating for pedestrian and bicycle-friendly communities, environmental restoration and access to nature for all citizens. Brian is a board member of the Bald Eagle Mountain Bike Association, and coach for the Buffalo Valley Composite mountain bike team. He can be reached at email@example.com