When I was growing up in a one-car family in Mankato, we had one place to buy a bike — Mahowald’s, the local hardware store — and every kid I knew rode a Schwinn.
Fast forward five decades. With a population of 59,000 (if you count neighboring North Mankato), this robust river city set amid corn and soybean fields in southern Minnesota is about to welcome 1,800 cyclists to some of the prettiest trails in the state.
The 12th annual Mankato River Ramble — with three scenic loops that include the 26-mile pie run (my favorite) — is on Sunday, October 9; online registration is available through Tuesday, October 4, and day-of registration typically draws 50 to 300 riders, depending on the weather.
“It’s a great event not only for the locals but the exposure for people outside of Mankato,” says Paul Vogel, director of community development for the City of Mankato and a year-round biker. “To see what we have to offer is a big positive.”
How Mankato evolved into a cycling destination — and a national Bicycle-Friendly Community, as designated by the League of American Bicyclists — is a story of perseverance and patience, collaboration and some concessions. “It isn’t all roses here,” said Lee Ganske, vice president of Greater Mankato Bike & Walk Advocates (GMBWA), at a Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota webinar last June. “We struggle with getting enough engagement from volunteers. More funding would help certain projects.”
With two distinct bike shops, including one that reclaims and recycles bikes for the community; a grid of on-street bike lanes and trail infrastructure in the central part of town; a year-old e-bike rental service that a climate advocate operates out of his garage; and — most significantly — an annual ride that draws hundreds of bicyclists to the area’s shops, restaurants and hotels, Mankato is a model of best practices for towns and cities that want to improve their residents’ cycling experience and attract bikers from beyond.
#1: Find Champions for Your Vision
At 75, daily cyclist Tom Engstrom looks as fit as athletes half his age. When he retired at age 62 in 2009, he took up cycling after hip issues sidelined him from running and was invited to join a committee putting together a five-year transportation plan for the city. “Biking became one of the things I wanted to advocate for,” Engstrom says.
Most committee members thought of cycling infrastructure solely as recreational trails. Engstrom, who lives five miles west of town near Minneopa State Park, envisioned infrastructure akin to what he had seen in Amsterdam. With “no promise of implementation,” cyclists on the committee pushed for paved shoulders on the area’s county roads and on-street painted lanes in town.
Years later, their advocacy and arguments have paid off. The county road system — which all three routes of the upcoming River Ramble use — are paved and well maintained to service the agricultural economy, says Vogel, the city development director. It’s a bonus that they also work for bikes. “They’re beautiful roads for cycling,” he says, “and they carry traffic important for economic development. County engineers realized the benefit of this.”
The Mankato City Council adopted a sidewalk and trail plan in the 1990s that allowed for a network of trails and sidewalks (“cycling corridors for children”), Vogel explains. Two decades later, in 2015, the city adopted a Complete Streets Plan that includes extensive information on bike facilities, from shared-use paths and bus/bikeway lanes to bike boulevards and cycle tracks.
Any pushback other than the predictable complaint about loss of parking? “You always run into people who say cyclists should pay taxes for development of the trails,” Vogel says. “But as more people see and use the infrastructure, we’ve seen fewer naysayers.” Communication is key, he adds: “If you’re going to plan this infrastructure, you need to go through the engagement and you need to listen to the voices.”
#2: Launch an Organization — and a Ride!
Back in 2009, Engstrom and other cycling advocates joined with the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota to form GMBWA, the advocacy group that today prides itself on cycling education for grade schoolers and a fleet of bicycles for training the next generation of riders.
Ongoing efforts for the Kato Bike-Walk group include a push for protected lanes in town and a 10- to 12-mile trail connecting Mankato and St. Peter to the north along the Minnesota River; that project has been in discussion for a decade and won’t be complete for another three years. “It’s important to work with [local] government,” Engstrom says.
The Mankato River Ramble is the group’s “big event,” says GMBWA’s Ganske, a year-round bike commuter for 40 years, which he credits to location of his home and work as well as family and employer flexibility. The Ramble annually generates $14,000 to $18,000, which the group invests in initiatives such as the high school mountain bike team and a plethora of activities during May Bike-Walk Month.
Plus, the Ramble has enjoyed “great support” from the business community, Engstrom says, with 38 sponsors this year.
Proceeds from the ride have been a welcome outcome, but that isn’t why the River Ramble began. To qualify as a bike-friendly community, Mankato needed a signature event, the League of American Bicyclists told Engstrom. He sat on the Bike Alliance board at the time, and with the help of Executive Director Dorian Grilley and Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour organizer Rich Arey, Engstrom got the Bike Alliance to sponsor the first River Ramble in 2011.
“We would have been happy with 300 riders,” Engstrom recalls. They got four times that many. “It helped showcase Mankato as a good place to ride,” he says, including the hilly, leafy Red Jacket Trail, a former railroad route that features three converted railroad trestles.
#3: Promote Bike-Friendly Businesses
My first and only foray onto an e-bike was during a family visit to Mankato back in June. My sister Penny, an e-bike enthusiast, rented us Rad-brand e-bikes from Fun Bike Rides, a small outfit that Nathan Bartell runs from his one-car garage.
Like Engstrom, Bartell wants to see more people riding, not only for recreation and health but to counter climate change. He recently told the Mankato Free Press that he tries not to drive a car, even with two small children and a 70-employee childcare business that he owns with his wife, Candice Deal-Bartell, an early-education advocate who ran for Congress earlier this year.
Asked if he launched Fun Bike Rides for fitness, fun or environmentalism, Bartell laughs and says the business “checks many boxes.” But climate is the most important one. “I’m a lot of German. I love practicality in things,” he says. “I’m getting exercise. I’m getting from Point D to Point B. I am taking cars off the road and contributing to less pollution and congestion.”
Bartell, 40, grew up in the country outside Mankato. He said the area cycling scene “has exploded” in the past few years, with Nicollet Bike Shop having trouble keeping inventory in stock during the height of the pandemic. Fun Bike Rides is popular with out-of-town riders who want some throttle and pedal assist on the city’s steep hills and to explore the “amazing” network of bike lanes and trails. Five of Bartell’s 13-cycle fleet of e-bikes have been rented for the River Ramble.
Engstrom, who owns seven bikes, wants to see the “occasional rider” convert to cycling for everyday use: “to go to the store, to the library, to school and so on. That’s our next frontier,” he says.
Bartell believes that getting more people out of cars would promote social interaction, too: “When I’m on my bike, I wave to people on the sidewalk. Having a pane of glass between people just cuts off humanity. It adds to this disconnect that’s ever growing in society.”
Photos courtesy of Mankato River Ramble flickr collection and Nathan Bartell