Words by: Erica Zazo
Wind on your cheeks. Pavement below your peddles. Feelin’ free.
There’s really nothing like biking – specifically in Grand Rapids – that gives you a sense of empowerment and peace. To uncover the best gems of the GR biking scene, we picked the brains of some of our best, local biking pals.
Check this Q&A, which covers how three GR-based riders enjoy cruising the city, their GR biking pro-tips (for riders new and seasoned), and insight on the best trails to try.
Meet our Local GR Biking Crew:
The ‘GR Biking Activist’
The ‘Cool Community Commuter’
The ‘Biker of all Trades”
How are you involved in the GR bike community?
I started commuting to work when I moved to Grand Rapids in 2005 and began going on urban group rides with friends. That naturally progressed into riding a fixed gear around, playing bike polo, and just general good times on bikes! I began doing some alley cat races and driving a pedi-cab around downtown, rode my bike around Lake Michigan, and then after I graduated from GVSU I got a job at a local bike shop. I went on to ride around Lake Superior and Lake Ontario with friends and then discovered mountain bike riding. I also joined the West Michigan Mountain Biking Alliance, which is a group dedicated to maintaining and building more trails in our area – where I’m now on the Board of Directors. I am also co-founder of Skirts in the Dirt, a women/trans/femme only mountain bike race geared towards getting more beginners into the sport. Last year, my race partner Julie Whalen and I, were inducted into the Michigan Mountain Bike Alliance’s Hall of Fame for our work in getting more women into the sport.
I have been biking in GR since I learned how to bike. I mostly ride alone, but I am a fierce supporter of the bike community here. From early morning commuting to fat-tire winter mountain biking, there really isn’t a type of biking I don’t do in GR.
I wasn’t a cyclist when I started working for Velocity Wheels back in 2005, but I immediately became one! I did a lot of commuting early on and was part of the early group of riders doing Wednesday Evening events. I had my first kid a year and a half ago and much of the time I used to spend riding is now spent with him…and we’re looking forward to towing him up the White Pine Trail this spring! I helped to start Grand Rapids Bike Polo and worked with the City Parks Department to secure the space we have at Belknap Park. I don’t live far from where I work and really enjoy riding instead of driving. It’s a great way to get the day started and wind down after a day of work. The ability to commute in Grand Rapids has improved dramatically over the last 10 years with the addition of bike lanes, but perhaps more importantly through the work that’s been done educating riders and drivers on how to properly coexist on the roads.
Photo Cred: Matt Ruiter seen here playing Bike Polo
How would you describe the GR biking scene?
We have a little bit of everything here. We have fixed gears, roadies, miles of gravel, beautiful singletrack, a strong cyclocross group, bike polo nerds, commuters, people that do it all. I always made fun of mountain bikers in Grand Rapids because we don’t have mountains, so I didn’t understand what the bikes could do – and boy, was I wrong about them! We have miles and miles of singletrack around Grand Rapids and there are super fun features at all of them. We also have some incredible folks that organize events here in Grand Rapids – the Barry-Roubaix is one of the largest gravel races in the world and has brought so much money into downtown Hastings, MI, all year round now that the course is permanently signed. The GR Bike Polo group puts on tournaments, there’s a cyclocross series, a fat bike series, mountain bike races, urban cruises – we are really lucky here to have such a wide variety of people who ride and even luckier that there is so much cross over between the different types of riding! We’re not as big as some of the other biking cities that are our there but we’re getting there, and there’s still so much room to grow and to keep improving.
GR’s bike scene continues to impress me. I love how local bike shops participate in local biking events and collaborate with other businesses, such as Perrin Brewing and Wolverine World Wide. Additionally, I love the online community (shoutout to West Michigan Trail Conditions) and how supportive they can be.
It’s vibrant, and super inclusive. Working in the bicycle industry allows me to interact with lots of different cycling communities around the country, and though there are certainly many with more members than ours, we have as much enthusiasm for riding as any, our ability to prop up new riders and help them to find their comfort zone surpasses most, and the diversity of riding styles we participate in is immense.
What should folks keep in mind when biking in GR?
Don’t take riding bikes so seriously – remember to have fun! Bikes are versatile toys that we can ride places are we are so lucky to have them. I also feel like I should put a disclaimer out there, because I oftentimes hear, “Aren’t you afraid of cars?” when someone finds out I like to ride my bike around Grand Rapids. Automobile drivers are getting more and more distracted out there, and it’s important to ride with a helmet, reflective gear, brighter colors, lights, and to ride predictably. I know I’m sometimes at fault, but I still try to signal when I’m turning, or I try to follow the rules of the road. I ride in bike lanes or on bike paths – and quite frankly I started mountain biking more or riding on gravel more because I was skeptical that drivers would see me 100% of the time. We’re really lucky to have the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition here in GR trying to advocate more for the urban riders, but it’s really up to us to ride more so that cars become more used to us, that we do our best to be seen when people aren’t looking, and that we show up and participate in events like Active Commute Week, put on by the GGRBC, or roll into our workplaces with a bike helmet on.
Favorite biking (mountain, commuter, etc.) trails in GR?
Wahlfield Park is near and dear to my heart, primarily because it’s the location that we host Skirts in the Dirt at. The trail is relatively short, approximately 5 miles, but we’ve got plans to put some more trail out there. The trail doesn’t have a lot of climbing to it so you can focus on reigning in your technical skills. There are little off-shoots of roots or bench cut that you can ride if you feel like it but you don’t have to. There is also a flow trail so if you’re a skilled rider you can naturally progress and hit some rad jumps! I also really like rolling into Riverside park and taking the White Pine Trail north. It’s flat and straight, so if you’re just looking for a casual ride and you want to chat with your friends – it’s a great opportunity to ride on a wide path without cars – to a brewery or a mountain bike trail or whatever.
If you’re into dirt, there are some fantastic and well-maintained trails in the area. Pathway biking is also plentiful, especially with Millennium Park, the White Pine Trail, Kent Trails, and beyond. If you’re going to bike around downtown, please bike in the road and follow road rules! Merrell Trail in Rockford. Right off the highway, great variety of technical and flow, and open after dark.
I really like the White Pine Trail…there’s a lot of history as an old railroad gateway to northern Michigan, and it’s super cool to ride on a path from city to city.
Anything else folks should keep in mind?
Get involved! Find a steady group of folks to ride with, or join a group like the WMMBA, GGRBC, GR Bike Polo, or volunteer or go on a group ride. It might be intimidating to go to something where you don’t know anyone, and it might make you step outside of your comfort zone, but the cycling community here can be really tight-knit and feel like family. For example, I lead a WTF mountain bike group ride every Wednesday night through the summer and into the fall that helps to encourage more people into trying it. Having people that you feel comfortable asking questions to or going to events can really make you more confident in riding!
Bike lanes are not turn lanes. Spread the word.
BONUS: Best advice or thoughts on winter riding?
I race my fat bike during the winter in the snow and am hoping this winter to host a winter fat biking event to encourage more people to bike-pack in the winter and to help me prepare and fundraise to go race the 1000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational!
My best advice for riding in the winter is to dress for the part…if you’re warm before you start riding you’ll be sweaty in no time, and once you stop you’ll get cold very fast. We have lots of really knowledgeable riders at our local shops that can help pick out proper gear for the conditions. I like to stay off the roads when it’s slippery out. Indian Trails Golf Course has a Fatbike trail set up all winter long and has rental bikes available. That’s a great way to get used to winter riding in a safe and fun environment.
Photo credit: Matt Ruiter all bundled up and ready to go.