BRAINERD, Minn. -- It can be difficult to quantify just how important mountain biking is to the Brainerd lakes area — a region already known for its robust nature tourism offerings — and how cities in the area have benefited, even transformed, by its emergence.

As bike trails continue to crisscross the lakes area and expand, so has an industry of hospitality — much of which has little to do with biking on the surface — also emerged and expanded. In Crosby and Ironton, the cities have seen an economic resurrection after decades of blight that came when taconite mining sputtered and died in the 1980s. Crosby has seen the opening of 15 new businesses and counting — all of them, one way or another, tied to mountain biking.

“The city was founded on the mining industry and then, later on, the Scorpion snowmobile industry and it’s experienced the rise and fall of those two things,” said Brielle Bredsten, the executive director of the Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce. “Now we've come back as a tourist destination that is nationally acclaimed for its bike trails and the community as a whole has worked very hard to bring that about. Each business has its unique way of supporting that. Even now, people are still biking and when they come to our businesses, it’s been a huge asset for our community.”

Cyclers on a trail Saturday, Aug. 8, at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Cyclers on a trail Saturday, Aug. 8, at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

And they come by the thousands from all over the globe, Bredsten said, each of them spending roughly $421 per person when they visit and the industry rakes in roughly $2 million per year toward local economies. Once the 75-mile trail system is completed, surveys by the International Mountain Biking Association predict the industry could accrue as much as $21 million annually. That’s bike shops, but it’s also restaurants, resorts, hotels, breweries and bars, gift shops and novelty stores.

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This falls in line with national estimates by the IMBA, which released reports this year that indicate mountain bike trails across the country are seeing spikes of 100% to 500% in bike traffic compared to this time last year. NPD Sports, an industry analytics organization, recorded a 117% jump in bike sales in the same time period.

If COVID-19 is turning the American economy upside down, mountain biking isn’t just an exception, it’s thriving.

Jonah Moline, manager of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, said park agents have been tracking how many bikers pass through the trails. The data remains incomplete as the recreation area works to establish sensors on all of its trails and attendants work through technical issues. In addition, the program is in its infancy with little points of reference to go by.

As such, the picture is a little murky, but it will grow clearer with time and indications are that many of the major trails in the recreation area could attract as many 90-130 bikers on average per day, with major trails clocking as high as 31,000 hits down to 13,000 hits — or when a bike passes the automated sensor — since the beginning of this year.

Cykel, a newly minted bicycle shop based in Ironton, which opened in June.
Cykel, a newly minted bicycle shop based in Ironton, which opened in June. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

And if there’s anything that’s driving this industry, it’s the friendliness and enthusiasm of the mountain biking community all over the world, said Luke Lundquist, the owner of Cykel, a newly minted bicycle shop based in Ironton, which opened in June. While many longstanding businesses struggle to keep their footing amid COVID-19 and economic fallout related to that, Lundquist said Cykel has thrived and remained busy since its opening in the middle of a pandemic.

“Our mechanic who’s been doing this for 10-15 years, he warned us and said, ‘You’re going to be a lot busier than you’re planning.’ ... We’ve exceeded our expectations for the amount of business and people have been so nice. I mean, the mountain biking community up here is — gosh, it's the nicest group of people,” Lundquist said. “I don't know that we've had a crappy customer.”

“Our whole thing is that we want to have fun,” Lundquist added. “If you come into Cykel, everything here you can ride — it doesn't matter if it's brand new, or whatever comes in. Our big thing is to have fun for the employees and the people and be a place you want to hang out.”

Lundquist, a 1990 graduate of Crosby-Ironton High School with ties to New Prague and Maple Grove, said Cykel came from a moment of spontaneity — though the desire to own a bike shop and firmly plant themselves in the biking community is anything but a sudden development. The Lundquists are biking enthusiasts, with both daughters participating in competitive triathlons through high school and into college.

Greta Larsen and her dad Peter Larsen take their bikes around a practice trail in the skill building area at Miner's Mountain Rally Center Thursday, Aug. 6, at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Greta Larsen and her dad Peter Larsen take their bikes around a practice trail in the skill building area at Miner's Mountain Rally Center Thursday, Aug. 6, at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

The Lundquists may not have known what they were getting into when they asked their daughters — one a high school senior, the other in college — what their ideal summer job would be.

“They said, ‘Run a bike shop in Crosby,’” chuckled Lundquist, who ran a resort years ago and his other startups in the Twin Cities area. “We jokingly called our Realtor and then about three months later we were buying the building in this area and that's literally the story.”

The result is a 1,100-square-foot store, with 1,000 feet of service space to house 35 bikes in a slick environment that lends the establishment a sense of cutting-edge modernity and a sort of sparse, spartan ethos. Lundquist said he runs the business as a family operation, with two full-time employees and two part-time employees — two of which are his daughters.

“It just couldn’t have been a better experience,” Lundquist said of Cykel’s genesis. “Our customers are great. The community is great. I couldn't be more happy doing this and it's one of those places where it's just fun to hang out.”