Ask any Wausau local, and they’ll likely tell you that outdoor recreation abounds in their city. Take Rib Mountain State Park and Granite Peak. Here individuals and families can hike trails, explore observation towers, and take advantage of 75 ski and snowboard runs in the winter. A world class whitewater rafting course runs through the middle of the downtown. Numerous trail systems and parks provide ample opportunities to hike year round, while cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and ice skating are plentiful in the colder months.
But there is a newcomer to the city’s recreation scene, swiftly rising in popularity and recognition locally, regionally and even nationally. Cycling, including mountain, touring, fat bike, and commuter styles, is making a name for itself, and inspiring both locals and visitors to look at the city as a special destination.
The accolades have started. The nonprofit PeopleForBikes spent two years analyzing hundreds of cities in detail, and crowned Wausau as the #1 small city and as the 2nd best place overall to bike in the country just last year. The local high school composite mountain biking team has seen great success and growth, bringing home a state championship four of the last five years.
And interest in the sport, and the trails to support it, continues to grow. What is Wausau doing that makes biking so special?
According to Jahn Martin, an avid local bicyclist and president of the board of the Central Wisconsin Offroad Cycling Coalition (CWOCC), it has to do with the people, the area’s terrain, and passion.
“I’ve always had a passion and desire to ride,” shared Martin. “Early on in life, I spent a year in California and realized the concrete jungle wasn’t for me. I moved back to Wausau and bought my first mountain bike. I was hooked, but back then, there was no organized sport in this area. No network of mapped trails. You’d basically just go out in the woods and make your own trail or find one already established and ride. It was very different then compared to where we are today with biking opportunity in Wausau.”
Tom Builer has also seen a lot of change with the sport over the years. He owns Builer’s Cycle & Fitness, which was founded in Wausau in 1926. “The fact that Wausau has started to develop more of an active bike community is huge,” commented Builer. "We have a biking transportation system now making it easier to commute on a bike. We are experiencing tremendous growth in mountain biking with the development of our trail systems.”
A passionate group of people
“The people are what make this so special,” reflected Martin. “I really think our success in building such great trails and the biking culture we have is because of the timing and the right individuals getting involved. A small army of people, both volunteers, as well as local partners like city and county park departments, community foundations, and businesses, have really made this successful.”
According to Martin, a group called the Wausau Wheelers were organizing group bike rides for Wausau residents throughout the 1990s. “In those early days, a handful of people would show up to participate,” commented Martin. “With a little diligence, we started a grass roots effort to slowly start the development of a trail system. We’d basically go out and connect small segments of trail to build a course. It was very simple, but we felt like we were doing something to progress our riding opportunities, so it worked.”
Scott Anderson, coach of the local high school biking team Wausau United, wasn’t always super impressed with Wausau’s trail systems, particularly when he first moved to town eleven years ago. “Back then, our trails were somewhat average and commuting was not friendly.”
Fast forward a few years, and interest in the sport continued to grow. In February of 2012, CWOCC was formed. Since CWOCC’s formation, a number of expansions and trail enhancements have occurred. Nine Mile County Forest Recreation Area, considered one of the top five mountain biking rides in the state, boasts over 14 miles of trails, has new maps and signage that make it easy for visitors to find their way, and also offers a new re-routed and better connected trail system.
From there, the Sylvan Hill project, located on the city’s north side, presented itself to CWOCC members in 2014. With support from the Community Foundation of Northcentral Wisconsin as well as the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, the new mountain bike park debuted in 2017 to rave reviews from locals and visitors throughout the Midwest. The 70-acre park includes a pump track, a skills area, as well as a larger loop system that offers four downhill options designed for mountain bikers of differing skill levels.
In January 2017, the Underdown trail system, which is located north of Wausau in Lincoln County, was added to CWOCC’s network of trails. The group is currently in the process of modifying its trails and adding new maps and signage. Big Eau Pleine Park, located south of the city, offers summer biking, as well as a 10 mile groomed snow bike trail system in the winter.
“Our trail system is very diverse, which you can’t get everywhere,” commented Rebecca Tuley, CWOCC board member. “Here you have rake and ride single track, which is rougher and more technical, to flowy machine built, hilly and flat, and a downhill bike park. The variety we have within a 10 mile radius is exceptional and it is a unique aspect of our community.”
A local economy
To become a bike destination, you not only need a mix of terrains, trails and parks that cater to a variety of skill levels, but you also need the hotels, restaurants, shopping and city amenities that enhance a visitor’s experience.
Randy Lackman, owner of Rib Mountain Cycles and a lifelong biker, sees firsthand the impact the biking community has on Wausau’s local economy. “A destination is being built here,” commented Lackman. “Today, you see families making a weekend vacation because of the biking opportunities as well as amenities the city offers. People are driving from Milwaukee and Illinois to come and ride our trails. Wausau has a little bit of everything to appeal to visitors, and I just see that growing.”
And visitors have taken notice. “I know from going out to Nine Mile on weekends, the number of cars has dramatically increased these last few years,” shared Lackman. “Not only is our community embracing biking, but now you see a lot of out of state license plates utilizing our parks. People are coming to the area because of our great trails.”
Tuley agrees, “I meet people on the trail all the time from Green Bay, Madison, and Milwaukee. They come for the trails, but it’s not just about that. The amenities, and what there is to do in Wausau, is also a big part of it.”
Biking events are a big draw for the community and attract thousands of visitors to the area each year. Wausau 24, a 24-hour competitive mountain biking race at Nine Mile County Forest Recreation Area in Wausau, brought 600 riders from around the country to Wausau last July. The event is again planned in 2019.
Rebecca Tuley organized and hosted a first of its kind Women’s Mountain Bike Clinic in June 2017. The first day sold out so quickly that organizers added a second day. Tuley said the mix of participants was about 50% local and 50% women from outside of the area, including Appleton, Madison, and Milwaukee. “So many people just hop on a bike and go, and therefore lack basic foundations to ride on a trail,” mentioned Tuley. “A lot of people aren’t confident, and that can make the experience not as enjoyable. This clinic helps build fundamental skills, and ultimately, change a rider’s experience greatly.”
Scott Anderson, Wausau United coach, says he sees first hand the impact the sport has not only on students, but families. “Last year, our Wausau team hosted our own student mountain bike race,” shared Anderson. “We had about 600 kids from all over the state here on bikes. Their families also came to support the riders. They dined in our restaurants, used our bike stores, and stayed in our hotels. And they are coming back again in 2019 because the experience was so positive.”
Tuley commented that it is a great feeling to be able to suggest a list of local establishments for visitors to try when they are in the city. “CWOCC helped to host the Ragnar Trail Race this year. Participants and their families would ask us what there is to do and where they should go to eat. Our group easily listed a dozen places throughout the Wausau area that aren’t your typical chains, but rather unique, local establishments. That’s special about Wausau.”
Quality of life
The biking opportunities city leaders and passionate citizens and groups like CWOCC bring to the area can’t be understated when it comes to enhancing the quality of life for Wausau residents and visitors.
“In terms of attracting and retaining families and professionals to this area, these types of opportunities are critical,” commented Martin. “The biking infrastructure we’ve built adds great value. It’s one more reason someone may choose to move here, or stay here and not relocate somewhere else.”
Tom Builer agrees, “We’ve seen a lot of growth, especially recently. It seems that the population has changed. We have more professional people moving and living here, and in turn, they are used to living an active lifestyle, and consequently, riding bikes.”
Back to the student and youth interest, Anderson says, he is encouraged by the growth at the student level and credits that to parents getting their kids involved and also the students who realize what a gift biking offers. “I look at what the kids are getting out of the program,” commented Anderson. “They have a safe place to ride. Kids can grab their bikes, hit our trails, and not have to worry about traffic. It’s huge for parents who want their kids to be outdoors versus in front of a phone or computer game.”
The group is currently working on its next big project: The Ringle trail system. Once complete, Martin says it will be a 10 mile system in partnership with the Marathon County Solid Waste Department, and include a shared trailhead with the Mountain Bay trail. “This new trail is smooth, and really ideal for the beginner and intermediate rider. At the same time, we have some options for more advanced riders, including jumps throughout the trails.”
In addition, CWOCC has its sights set on having Wausau become an International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) Ride Center in 2019. The Ride Centers™ designation recognizes the pinnacle of mountain biking communities. These are large-scale facilities with something for every rider, from a variety of riding experiences to a variety of ways to have fun off the bike.
“The people involved in these projects are passionate about building a better bike community here in Wausau,” said Martin. “We are really doing something of value for the community. We are promoting quality of life and physical fitness. We are attracting and retaining families to live here. And we want to be a magnet for tourism in our area. It’s an exciting movement to be a part of.”
New to biking and don’t know where to start? CWOCC hosts seasonal Thursday night group bike rides. Experienced bikers are paired with people of all skill levels for a ride. For more information, visit CWOCC’s website.
Students interested in getting involved can reach out to Wausau United Ride on Facebook or Instagram.
City of Wausau biking trails
Marathon County parks and biking recreation