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Neither bumps nor fiscal pits keep West Central Minnesota bicyclists from outdoors

Gregg Aamot of Willmar, left, and his son, Manny, 5, bike Wednesday afternoon along the trail next to County Road 41 in Willmar. While bicycles have always been popular for the health benefits and recreational opportunities they provide, they are increasingly being purchased for their utilitarian value as well. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

WILLMAR -- A harsh winter has taken its toll on the Glacial Lakes State Trail, making it a bumpy ride for the many bicyclists who ply the scenic route that follows an abandoned railbed from Willmar to Paynesville.

Tight budgets are making it difficult too for those who want to see more trails developed and existing routes improved.

None the matter: Interest in discovering and enjoying the outdoors via human propulsion only continues to grow.

"There's lots of energy for trails,'' said Gregg Soupir, natural resource supervisor with parks and trails for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Spicer. With a nod to budget issues, he quickly added: "That's it right now, energy.''

Bicycle enthusiasts have an opportunity to help turn that around some when the Minnesota Department of Transportation hosts its Minnesota GO meeting from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Ridgewater College in Willmar. It's one in a series of meetings behind held around the state asking people to offer their vision on the future of transportation.

Dorian Grilley, director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, is encouraging bicyclists to speak up for their favorite mode of transportation.

He also lauds the Minnesota Department of Transportation for incorporating a multi-modal approach to transportation planning.

Whether planned or not, bicycles are becoming an ever more popular way to get around.

"We're seeing a lot more interest,'' said Rick Norsten, owner of Rick's Cycle and Sport in downtown Willmar. "We see it every year as gas prices keep going up.''

Bicycles have always been popular for the health benefits and recreational opportunities they provide. They are increasingly being purchased for their utilitarian value as well, Norsten explained.

He sees more bicycles being purchased by people looking to use them to get to work, the grocery store and elsewhere.

"In town you can get around as fast if not faster than with a car,'' he said.

"The biggest thing is for people to try it,'' Norsten said of bicycle use.

Getting more people to make their way on bicycle is among the goals for Roxanne Lorenz and Bobbi-Jo Berg, educators with Kandiyohi County Public Health and the Minnesota Safe Routes Network and Statewide Health Improvement Program.

They are promoting a "bike-to-work'' day Thursday in Willmar.

They've already hosted a bike- to-school event for younger bicyclists. The May 16 ride featured adult chaperones who escorted 19 New London-Spicer elementary- and middle-school students along the Glacial Lakes Trail. One student had a 40-minute ride to class, and had the same reaction at trip's end as those making shorter pedals. "The kids loved it,'' said Berg.

People of all ages love getting from town-to-town on pedal power. Dawn Hegland, executive director of the Upper Minnesota River Valley Regional Development Commission, said that despite the tight budget situation, there are many in the region still working on trails to link communities.

Appleton, headquarters for the RDC, is hoping to see a route developed to the Marsh Lake dam. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is incorporating plans for a bicycle trail in its proposal for modifying the dam there.

There is continued interest in seeing the Minnesota River Trail developed as well. Ortonville has a trail to the Big Stone Wildlife Refuge, and there's hope someday the trail could run all the way to Marsh Lake and the Appleton link.

Soupir said there is lots of interest in developing the Glacial Lakes State Trail in the Richmond area, as well as a spur to Sibley State Park. He, too, hears lots of interest for developing the Minnesota River Trail and proposed Chief Sleepy Eye Trail.

Redwood Falls has developed trails within the community, and could become the linchpin someday to connect the Chief Sleepy Eye and Minnesota River Trails.

Soupir said a connection between the Glacial Lakes State Trail and downtown Willmar is also high on the priority list for bicyclists. It's not just a local matter, either. Norsten said many bicyclists from outside the area have a hard time getting to the trail, and would love to see a connection to the heart of the community.

As director of the Minnesota Bike Alliance, Grilley said he believes demand for safe bicycle routes within communities and trails to connect communities and recreational areas is only going to grow. He pointed to surveys by the Minnesota Department of Transportation as evidence.

They continue to show that about 1 percent of the population prefers to bicycle no matter the weather or challenges, while another 7 to 8 percent are regular bicyclists for both recreation and work.

Roughly 60 percent of the population would like to use bicycles more often, and said they would do so if they had access to safer routes, said Dilley.

He encourages communities to pay attention to the needs of bicyclists if they want to grow. Whenever real estate agents survey prospective home buyers on what they want in a community, safe bicycling and pedestrian travel always ranks among the top five preferences, he said.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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