The quiet rise of mountain biking in the Wausau area


When the Central Wisconsin Off-Road Cycling Coalition, or CWOCC for short, first formed in 2012, mountain biking wasn’t nearly what it is today in Marathon County and central Wisconsin. The most prominent trail was a tangled mess of trails that meant even someone who’d been there a few times was likely to get lost. While having Nine Mile was great for the area’s mountain bikers, that’s really all there was, other than a few cross country routes and some really challenging trails north of Marathon County, at the Underdown Recreation Area in Lincoln County. 

Today that’s totally different. Besides massive upgrades at Nine Mile, which include a flow track system that allows riders to follow easy to understand loops versus a series of rabbit trails that often dead end and sometimes spit you back out into the trail system in a feedback loop, there are now two new trails in the Wausau area. Sylvan Hill was built in 2017 (check) providing downhill riding including some jaw-dropping jumps (including a 20-foot gap jump it’s hard to believe anyone can fly over and not get killed) gnarly turns. And Ringle in 2018, a somewhat more beginner-friendly course that’s still plenty challenging even for a lower intermediate rider. 

And, there are future plans for not only upgrading the current trails even further but for new trails in the eventual works. 

All that comes as the sport of mountain biking is growing. Many have been calling mountain biking the new golf — younger generations are gravitating toward more fitness and active endeavors. 

Keep it Wausome 42: Jahn Martin and Rebecca Tuley talk mountain biking

But there is more at play than simply providing some nice amenities for people in the area; mountain biking is economic development. The ultimate plan of all this is to turn Wausau/central Wisconsin into an International Mountain Biking Association Ride Center. Why does that matter? Wausau would be only the second IMBA ride center in the state, joining the CAMBA (Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association) trail system in the Hayward area. 

Why’s that a big deal? Ride Centers are a huge tourism draw, advocates say. Mountain bikers seek out ride centers because they’re essentially a guarantee of great mountain bike riding, including lots of trails. 

Wausau is already seeing a lot of people access the trails. COVID-19 grew that even further. “We saw tons and tons of new riders out on the trails this year,” says mountain biker and CWOCC member Rebecca Tuley. That includes many riders from out of town, including the Fox Valley area and other parts of the state. In other words, the word is getting around. 

Becoming an IMBA Ride Center would only grow the numbers of out of town visitors. That not only leads to more tourism dollars, but it starts adding to the attractiveness of the area. That, in turn, can help the area become more attractive to potential talent, as municipalities vie to recruit from a limited pool of workers. Outdoor recreation was a prime component of the Greater Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Strategic Plan. It’s all part of placemaking, the idea that making a place attractive is more than simply providing jobs and a couple of parks. It’s all the things that make a community great, including arts and entertainment, outdoor recreation, and the intangible cool factor. 

The good news: CWOCC officials say they easily have the right factors for a bronze IMBA Ride Center, and possibly could contend for silver. That application is likely this year.

A local race, now locally owned


B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

nine mile mountain bike biking cwocc

Tuley isn’t just a CWOCC member. She also leads youth rides and women’s mountain bike training clinics. And now, she owns a race. 

Tuley recently purchased the Wausau24 race, a 24-hour long race that has been run at Nine Mile Forest Recreation Area for decades. Tuley has some experience directing races such as the winter triathlon and looks forward to making sure the race stays in Wausau. “It was very important to me as a Wausau born-and-bred native to keep that race local,” Tuley says. 

The race draws riders from all across the Midwest and some racers nationwide, Tuley says. The announcement about her taking over the race was supposed to have been announced at the end of the race in 2020 (it usually runs at the end of July), but COVID put the kibosh on the race last year. So 2021 will be Tuley’s run at organizing the weekend-long event, which includes a party-like atmosphere and a trail run prior to the mountain biking. 

Upgrading the system 

Last year CWOCC worked with Nick Wierzba, who owns Epic Trail Designs, to retool the east and west loops at Nine Mile Forest. This year, they will start work on some of the back areas of Nine Mile, which also tend to be some of the hardest. The south loop, a black diamond or advanced area, which includes trails such as Ho Chi Minh with rocky tech gardens, will get an upgrade. 

They don’t plan to change the personality of the black loops, says CWOCC past president and avid mountain biker Jahn Martin. “It will still be really rugged, rake and ride type riding,” Martin says. “You will need to bring your A-game. It’s not for a new rider.” 

At Ringle, volunteers helped complete the trail that loops around the Marathon County Solid Waste Department, creating a long loop that can take roughly an hour or so to ride (maybe less for a faster rider). 

At Sylvan Hill, more is planned. The current return trail is going to become a new downhill trail, and a much gentler return trail (ie less steep climbing to get back to the start) will be added. They will also be adding another new downhill, called Rock Tech (so you can imagine what that one will be like). “It’s nothing crazy like Fish Hook, going off 20-foot gaps,” Martin explains. But there will be more small gaps to jump and will make for a more technical ride. It also includes a much-expanded skills area that includes practice jumps. The plans, which are expected to cost roughly $65,000 total, also include maintenance and will be rolled out over three years. 

The plans also include some upgraded sign maintenance at Underdown, to make it more comprehensive. A lot of work, mostly under the supervision of trail boss Chris Schotz, has already been done to clean up the Underdown and make it more rider-friendly, Martin says. “Make no mistake, Underdown is still a ride for your intermediate and advanced riders,” he says. “If you want to lose a friendship, bring a new rider to the Underdown.” 

New trails on the horizon

In terms of what is exciting and new, Rib Mountain is potentially at the epicenter of what can really solidify Wausau’s place on the mountain biking map. The state’s Natural Resources Board in 2019 decided to go back to the drawing board with Rib Mountain’s master park plan. 

It all started with Granite Peak owner Charles Skinner wanting to expand the number of ski runs on the site, as well as build some ski-in and out resort-style accommodations. The plan provide unpopular with some residents who didn’t want to see the area’s hiking trails and other natural areas bulldozed over, and numerous meetings and plan revisions happened. But ultimately the NRB decided that instead of amending the master plan, it would go back to the drawing board so to speak: It would create a new master plan that would take input and incorporate all potential uses for the area. 

COVID-19 of course put planning on hold for a while, but now work is being done on the master plan once again, sources tell City Pages.

And mountain biking could be a big part of that, says CWOCC member and past president Matt Block. Block designed a potential trail system for roughly 20 miles of trail, which includes one that traverses the perimeter of the state park, as well as several “gravity trails” that head down the mountain. 

“Overall as the conversation has gone on, mountain biking is mentioned higher and higher up the list of things for the mountain,” Block told City Pages. Block says when he first spoke about mountain biking with Skinner back in 2014, when Skinner first unveiled ski expansion plans, Skinner didn’t seem too interested. Now, he’s much more open to working with mountain bikers, especially since there is the possibility to share lifts for the downhill mountain biking crowd and other uses like Alpine sledding or gondola style rides. “The attitude seems totally different,” Block says. 

There are other possibilities for new trails in the future. One of the most obvious spots is in Brokaw (or, what was Brokaw and is now the town of Maine). The county owns 80 acres out there and could make for a dream mountain bike park. And something that Block points out that other IMBA Ride Centers have done are inner-city mountain biking. Block points out Bentonville, Ark., which boasts more than 100 miles of single-track trail (the narrow twisty windy kind that mountain bikers love) either within the city limits or connected to the city limits. Block says even Rothschild is considering mountain biking in its outdoor rec plans. 

Does it actually work? 

So, is it pie-in-the-sky dreaming that all this mountain biking really has the economic impact they say it does? Folks in Crosby, Minnesota sure think so. The old mining town had fallen apart after the mines shut down; that is until it was discovered by mountain bikers and trails were built. The DNR built 25 miles of single track on the red dirt landscape and bikers started showing up. Now an IMBA Ride Center, the local bike club’s survey estimates 25,000 mountain bikers from all over come annually to ride the trails, plugging $2 million into the local economy. Expanding to 75 miles of single track would likely mean an increase to $21 million annually, the survey shows. The trails have led to microbreweries, yoga studios and lodging aimed at mountain bikers. 

Plenty of other places such as Copper Harbor, Mich. are getting in on mountain biking. Even the south side of Chicago recently saw a former slag dump for heavy metals turned into an ecological restoration project and mountain bike park, according to a story in Outdoor magazine. 

That isn’t lost on Park Director Jamie Polley, who says mountain biking is a big part of the area’s recreation plans for the future and is a big part of area recreation now. “These facilities already currently draw bikers from all over and any enhancements will only make this area stronger as a mountain biking destination,” Polley says. “The Wausau area also has a variety of terrain that provides us the great opportunity to build these facilities.”

One of the successes out of the mountain biking story is that CWOCC has funded most of its projects on its own, with some match. CWOCC has great business sponsors and is often able to raise funds for its project, which makes them an easier sell to budget-conscious public officials. Many are following suit, Polley says. The area’s pickleball club raised roughly $100,000 to pay for new pickleball courts in Marathon Park as their sport grows; the nordic ski club and disc golf clubs have done similar things, Polley says. 

And Marathon County Health has been on board with mountain biking since early on, says Aaron Ruff, current president of CWOCC and public health educator for the county. “Our big thing is we support making our community into a more healthy, vibrant, active place,” Ruff told City Pages. “From the get-go, when CWOCC was formed, we were totally supported.” Great foundation support has been a big part of making the CWOCC projects a success, he says, as well as business sponsors. 

This year is likely the year that CWOCC plans to apply for IMBA Ride Center status. And that could be a real gamechanger for the Wausau area.