Let me preface this piece with the fact that I think mountain bike races should be tough, technical, fun, and not extraordinarily long. If you look at World Cup XC races the winning times are usually right around 90 minutes. Also, many of the racers are now riding full suspension bikes and using dropper posts because of the increasingly difficult technical terrain that is being included in the race. I am a firm believer that you should not be able to ride a cyclocross bike in a mountain bike race, not because of the rules, but because of the demands of the course. Don’t get me wrong I still love the giant two-track spectacles like Iceman. However, this is a list of really great races that will challenge your skills. Here are my picks for the best XC mountain bike races in the area (in no particular order).
- Ride the Highlander (End of August)
Ok, so I might be partial to this one because I am one of the event promoters but it really is a real mountain bike race. It is located at Boyne Highlands just north of Harbor Springs. The long race is 2 laps and totals about 20 miles with over 2400 feet of climbing. The course is primarily singletrack while still having plenty of opportunities to pass. There are significant sustained climbs as you summit Boyne Highlands and the lap ends with a mile long decent. These things are not very common in northern lower Michigan. Last year there was even a bacon station at the top of the big climb. With past winners like Chad Wells, Jordan Wakeley, and Mike Tramanti you know you’re gonna have to be on your “A” game.
- Marquette Trails Festival XC (End of June)
Marquette has some of the finest singletrack in the Midwest. Bike Magazine even chose to do their 2017 Bible of Bike Tests in Marquette because they have such vast and diverse mountain biking. The Marquette Trails Festival includes an XC, dual slalom, downhill, and enduro race as well as some running events over the course of the weekend. The long race is about 30 miles with around 1700 feet of climbing. The XC race varies from year to year, but it starts off north of town at the Forestville Trailhead and you ride much of the BLP trail system. One unique part of the race is the untimed segment where you ride across town to connect with the south trails. This segment is a little strange but it is pretty cool because you get to hangout with other riders. You then get to the south trails and get to ride a great deal of the best trails there. The race finishes right at Marquette Mountain.
- Chippewa Hills Mountain Bike Race (Weekend After Labor Day)
This is the best mountain bike race you’ve never heard of. The race is located south of Alpena on the Chippewa Hills Trails System. The longest version of the race is 3 laps totaling about 20 miles with 2500 feet of climbing. The course doesn’t have a lot of long sustained climbs, but is has a ton of short, extremely steep, and technical climbs. There is also a great deal of fun, fast descending. The race is truly grassroots fun put on by great people. It starts and ends in a field that a landowner allows the race promoter to use for the race. There is typically beer and lots of prizes after as well.
- Copper Harbor Fat Tire Festival XC (Labor Day Weekend)
You can’t talk about great Michigan mountain biking without talking about Copper Harbor. In one of the most remote locations in Michigan, you will find some of the best mountain biking anywhere is the world. Home of the first IMBA Ride Center in Michigan. IMBA has since changed their rules so it’s designation has changed but the trails are still amazing. The race varies from year to year but it always takes advantage of the amazing trails that Copper Harbor has to offer. With everything from beautifully machine built berms to old school gnarly hand-built trails, this race has it all. The race finishes right in town and there is a huge party after. There are also downhill and enduro races during the weekend. If you plan on going to this race, plan your accommodations early because things fill up fast.
- Traverse City Trails Festival (End of July)
In 2017 the Traverse City Trails Festival began. I missed out on this race last year, but have heard nothing but good things about it. When you think of TC you typically think of the sandy two-tracks of the Iceman or the super highway that is the Vasa Singletrack. The TC Trails Fest uses all kinds of well built singletrack that is unmarked and only well known to the locals. The course uses this unmarked singletrack and creates a very challenging and technical race. I am really excited to take part in it this year and see for myself.
The opinions above are just my two cents so take it for what it’s worth. Even though these races might be tougher and more challenging than you are used to, they are still a blast. You will grow as a mountain biker by getting outside of your comfort zone. Help support these smaller, really cool races; their organizers and volunteers put a ton of effort into creating a fun opportunity and growing our cycling community.