ISHPEMING - The mountain bikers at the starting line for the 18-mile short race of the inaugural Red Earth Classic were an unfamiliar sight, mounted up as they were in the middle of Ishpeming's Main Street.
Adorned in skin-tight synthetic fibers spanning the spectrum of color - some with sunglasses perched on their noses beneath multicolored helmets - they seemed eager to break in the course, despite the Saturday morning temperatures reaching only the mid 40s and heaps of clouds moving overhead.
Between the short and long all-ages courses and the two-and-a-half-mile kids race, more than 100 riders signed up to hit the trails Saturday . It was a smaller turnout than event organizers had hoped for, race co-director Matt Palomaki said.
Riders begin the 18-mile race at the inaugural Red Earth Classic mountain bike event in downtown Ishpeming Saturday. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
Palomaki, who has in the past volunteered for Marquette's Ore to Shore race, said that he was told by organizers of the Ore to Shore and other area races to temper his expectations - because it takes a lot of work and persistence to get a race turnout to the numbers that you want. He also said the "logistics" of organizing a race were something he and co-director Justin Koski were still learning and at which they were still improving.
While participation might not have been as high as he would have liked, Palomaki said that community support has been huge, and all indicators suggest the Red Earth Classic will grow to become a huge attraction to the area and a point of pride to the community.
"(We've had a) great response honestly," he said. "I think that the local business owners really stepped up to help us out this year and made it happen. The fact that we didn't have the turnout in racer numbers was offset by the fact that the community supported us, and they really made it happen."
Ishpeming Interim City Manager and Department of Public Works Superintendent Jon Kangas - who rode the 18-mile short course Saturday morning - said he'd "hate to miss the inaugural event in Ishpeming." He said he thinks the race is important to the city because it brings people to the area and exposes them to local trails and the local mining history.
"Ultimately, it should benefit the city and the cycling community, I hope," he said.
The idea for the Red Earth Classic came from a conversation about how to do just that: bring people to the area, expose them to the local community and help economically revitalize the city of Ishpeming all at the same time.
"We were sitting around brainstorming ideas on how to bring money into the area and into Ishpeming and use it as a revival tool for the city, and this was one of the top priorities," Palomaki said. "Mountain biking is one of the big ways to bring money in."
The trails in Ishpeming are also some of the best in the Upper Peninsula, Palomaki said, and offer a unique experience that can't necessarily be found on trails in Marquette or the Keewenaw.
"I think Ishpeming offers some of the best natural single track around," Palomaki said. He said that while Marquette and Copper Harbor trails are "top notch," they were built using "big machines (and) mini-excavators, whereas this is done by hand here." He praised the Range Mountain Bike Club, who he said has been building the Ishpeming area trail network for the past 25 years. "They deserve all the credit," he said.
Palomaki said a lack of publicity, advertising and signage are some of the reasons why the trails aren't as well known as they deserve to be.
"People hesitate to come here to ride because they feel like they might get lost if they're going through the woods and they don't know which way to go at intersections and stuff like that," he said. He said that some of the proceeds from the race will be used to install permanent signage on the course and sign future loops of the race as well. He and Koski also plan to provide maps showing all of Ishpeming's trails, and to include GPS files which people can use to navigate the trail network on the Red Earth Classic website.
He said organization of the event was particularly challenging in light of all the other area events going on this weekend.
"We have Ishpeming (High School)'s homecoming, Northern (Michigan University)'s homecoming, all of these events are going on at the same time, which is pulling everybody in different directions," he said. "It's a challenge, but so far so good." He turned and knocked on a wooden bench behind him and laughed.
Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org