More people are bicycling this year than ever before, and nowhere is that more apparent than on the state’s recreational trails.

A counter on the Glacial Lakes State Trail south of the Nest Lake bridge near Spicer shows that usage during the period March 11 to June 16 is up by 94 percent from the same period last year, according to Jeremy Losinski, state program administration manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in New Ulm.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation reported earlier this season that since March, hiking and biking activity on designated trails has increased by 72 percent statewide as compared to last year, and by 83 percent in Greater Minnesota.

Losinski, who until recently served as the regional parks and trails director in the Spicer office, has a good idea why. “I think it’s getting outdoors, having that connection with nature,” he said of the big upswing in bicycling and hiking activity being seen this pandemic year.

He said many are enjoying bicycling this year for the opportunities it provides to see wildlife and the natural landscape, along with the chance to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. Bicycling is also a popular way to enjoy the outdoors for another reason. "It’s something the whole family can participate in,” he said.

No doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has much to do with the big upswing in bicycling’s popularity. While bicycle use has been steadily growing over the years, this year’s upswing “caught everybody by surprise, the entire industry,” said Rick Norsten, of Rick’s Cycling and Sports Center, Willmar.

The big upswing has made it difficult to keep up with the demand for bicycles, parts and service, he said. He too believes that the opportunity to be outdoors — whether on city streets or recreational trails — is a big part of the reason more people are taking up bicycling during the pandemic.

The growing interest is across the board, Norsten said. He’s seeing more people of all ages and both women and men taking it up this year. His customers include many who are dusting off the bicycles they had neglected for too long in the garage, as well as many who are taking up bicycling in a big way for the first time, and buying new.

Norsten and Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, said that while the pandemic is the likely explanation for the sudden surge in bicycling, there are other long-term factors at work too.

Norsten said today’s bicycles are so much better and so much more comfortable than those of years ago, and that has helped make bicycling more enjoyable to a broader range of people. The development of fat tire, mountain, gravel and other types of bicycles has also broadened the appeal of bicycling, he said.

Grilley also credits the efforts of health professionals in getting the message out about the importance of an active lifestyle. And, he said, “more and more people are choosing (bicycling) for environmental reasons.” People are using bicycles more often to get around for business as well as pleasure.

Grilley’s hope is that the surge in interest in bicycling will continue post pandemic. “Hopefully it is a change that we can make into a habit for more people,” he said.

Grilley is also hoping that the bicycling community can introduce more people of color to the activity. “We have to see if we can get the message out: "Bicycling isn’t just a middle-aged, white man thing to do,” he said.

Losinski is optimistic there will be continued growth in bicycling and other outdoor activities. He said this area has long been supportive of the state trail, and he looks forward to when the connection from the Glacial Lakes State Trail to Sibley State Park can be completed.

Meanwhile, Rick Norsten is looking forward to his limited chances to get on his bicycle and back on the trails and streets. The downside of the big surge in bicycling’s popularity is that it has kept Norsten and his staff so busy, they aren’t getting out as much as they would like.

“By the time I get done here and get home ... I try to get my five hours of sleep whether I need it or not,” said Norsten with a smile.