Midwest MTB Report

by Jay Richards
July 21, 2022

Warm and humid weather added to the challenge of racing this weekend, but it's summer and that what's it's all about! This week's report includes a first-hand recap from the Rock Splitter Mountain Bike Challenge at the new Split Rock Wilds trail, trail reviews from northern MN, the usual links that caught interest, and the look ahead to the last weekend of July!

Rock Splitter Challenge at Split Rock Wilds

Last year in June my son Jake and I had an early opportunity to check out the new Split Rock Wild trail near Beaver Bay, MN, along the shores of Lake Superior. Although the trail wasn't "officially" open (additional trail was being built and finishing touches were being put on the existing trail), riders had been on the completed trail since back in the Fall of 2020.

Checking out the Split Rock Wilds trail, September 2021

Immediately I was super excited about this machine-built, rock-featured trail that was one of the most, if not the most, challenging cross-country trails built in the Midwest in our recent explosion of new trails. It not only challenged your fitness, but also your mountain bike handling skillset to the max. I would end up riding the trail four more times over the remainder of the summer and fall, which gives you an idea of how much I enjoyed this fresh build. This spring we were back on the trail a week or so after it opened, checking out the new trail that was completed that we hadn't been on yet. With soft conditions encountered, some already overgrown areas and wet spots, it was probably the most challenging ride out of all the times I had been there.

When it was announced there would be a race in July, I cleared the date and hoped it would work out to attend. The race weekend came and I was all set to head east, meeting Jake again to partake in the "Rock Splitter Challenge", hosted and put on by Advanced Trail Designs.

At the start of the Rock Splitter Challenge

With a super easy rollout to the start line, we didn't worry about warming up too much. However, after the start, I wondered if that might not have been a good idea with the 3 miles of climbing laced with upper body taxing rock features. This course probably challenged riders more as a complete body exertion with the constant pumping, lifting, and body maneuvering to keep the wheels moving and upright, and the fresh cut trail that was slow riding with rocks embedded to connect segments to make a mostly one loop course.

Raw fresh cut trail, part of the many challenges

Off the start I found myself riding solo early on, not wanting to try and hang with the front group as it quickly was apparent that the humid conditions with absolutely no wind were going to be a factor as well and I hoped I had enough fluids along.

Near the top I bridged up to a group of riders that had to slow up due to a rider "dabbing". I was able to ride with this group that included Jake, Adam Swank, and Clayton Lang, and then passed Lang and rode behind Jake and Swank for awhile until the halfway point when Swank made a move that would eventually see him move all the way to the front and take the win (Scott Kylander-Johnson was in front most of the day but took a jump line and got off course before getting back on after some extra riding). I continued to follow Jake for a few more miles, then moved around him. Lang had bridged up to me, and shortly after he got around me and I would not see him again until the finish line.

A gnarly drop near the end of the course

The rest of the race I rode by myself, and the heat/humid and super challenging course started to take its toll. I was getting close to running out of water and energy drink, and did completely run out 3 miles before the finish. I was just hoping to keep my place and expected riders behind me catch up, especially when I stopped to navigate the 12-foot drop near the end of the course (which I rode around). I was able to maintain my fourth position and roll across the line safely and completely gassed. Everyone post-race was commenting on the hard effort. Thanks to the folks at Advanced Trail Designs for hosting the event, marking the course, and making the event happen. The post-race swim in Lake Superior sure felt good!

Shout out to the handful of riders that raced at the Spirit Mountain MNMBS race the next day!

Rock Splitter Challenge Results

New Trail Reviews

Hidden Valley Mountain Bike Trails - Ely, MN

We extended our trip before heading back, taking a little time to check out some new trails in Northeast MN.
The first stop was Hidden Valley just outside Ely, MN. The trails were completed last fall, featuring 9 miles of machine-built flow trail. I recently just discovered these trails were put in, built by Dirt Candy Designs. There hasn't been much press and at the moment seems to be more locals hitting the trails and the random rider passing through like myself.

Fast fun and flowy new trails at Hidden Valley

I had just enough time to ride the entire system and found the trail to be one of the more fun flow trails that I had been on. What made it unique was the tightness of the trail, since as many trees as possible were left near the trail, and the feeling of not much climbing, a sign of a well built flow trail. The black trails were laced with a few more rock features, using the vast trail resources, and provided some nice vistas on the higher points. The only negative part was that the trail was dry and the gravel surface in many areas required attentive bike handling. The trails are groomed for fat biking in the winter.

Lookout Mountain Mountain Bike Trails - Virginia, MN

Lookout Mountain was the next trail to check out on the day, a short drive south of Ely. The total distance of the loops here were similar to Hidden Valley at around 10 miles. Although the total trail distance was close to the same, the type of trail was way more challenging, getting a "slow tech" classification. I rode all of the loops and enjoyed the handbuilt goodness that included a consistent deck of rocks and roots with some larger rock features and also off-camber bedrock.

Bedrock bends at Lookout Mountain

It reminded me of the "Back 40" trail at Pincushion for reference. The first loop/segment is mostly climbing to the top of the rest of the trail system where you stay on top until the descent back down which is pretty much a long fall line descent—really fun!

"Cliffing Out" at Lookout Mountain on the "Mountain Climber" trail

The last trail I rode was called the "Mountain Climber" which was probably one of the steeper fall-line climbs I've ridden in the Midwest. The effort to get to the top was rewarding with a panoramic view of the surrounding area. My suggestion on this trail is to come in fresh!

Tilson Creek Ski Trail - International Falls, MN

The Tilson Creek trails are more known for their winter offerings, maintained by the hearty club, "Polar Polers". I did find out, after multiple conversations with the locals, that near the parking lot is a 2-mile network of singletrack trail that presented some of the more challenging slow tech trail I have ever ridden.

Navigating the sweet slow tech at Tilson Creek

Although the trail is short compared to most trail systems, it provides a great opportunity for local riders to get their singletrack fix, and an off-road option for folks like myself passing through visiting family. The full Tilson segment reminds me very much of the Merritt Creek loop at Piedmont in Duluth. It was also super cool to check out the new Tilson Creek Bog Walk, a spectacular bog walk that is around 1km in length one way, making it easier for grooming equipment and providing a phenomenal experience for walkers, riders, and adaptive users over the bog.

The incredible bog walk over the Tilson Creek bog

I really hope to come back here in the spring to ski! The diversity of the topography and landscape is really something special, from bedrock, to bog, to coniferous forests and the legendary Rainy Lake.

A small trail system, but big on scenery

Life Changing Mountain Biking in Ecuador

Singletracks.com posted a fascinating article recently featuring guided riding in Ecuador:

Dreamy riding in Ecuador (Credit: Matt Miller/Singletracks.com)

"The renowned mountain bike destinations at the forefront of mountain biking are usually tied to developed cities and countries with wealthy populations like Whistler, Finale Ligure, and Madeira. Ride your ass off, finish the day deep in a bowl of pasta and a pitcher of beer before laying in a climate-controlled room, falling asleep while scrolling Instagram. That was night one in Guayaquil, but with a parsed down riding scene."

Matt Miller continues and gives details in the full article.

Looking Ahead

Both the Minnesota and Wisconsin mountain bike series will be hosting races this week. The Minnesota series heads south to Mankato for the fast and hilly trails of Mt. Kato ...

The "Quick Release" trail at Mt. Kato

... and Wisconsin riders will be hitting the hill repeats at Mt. Morris.

Keep the wheels moving!

About the author...

Jay Richards maintains a very active lifestyle. He somehow finds time between managing a full-time resort (Maplelag) and bringing up a family of four boys with his wife Jonell, to compete in both mountain bike and a few cross-country ski races. Jay rides for Maplelag Resort, manages the Maplelag mountain bike team and enters his 32nd year of racing and promoting mountain bike races.

Have an event or mountain bike related information to share from the Midwest? Feel free to contact Jay at