When Matt Andrews pulled up stakes from Eau Claire, Wis., in October 2013 to take a job with Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists (MORC), he fulfilled a dream that had been fermenting since 2009.

He was working in a sedentary office environment at the time and “gaining too much weight,” Andrews said, and decided he needed to make changes. In doing so, he altered not only his life but the trajectory of his professional career, too.

“I got into cycling because of health reasons,” said Andrews, 32. “I started riding my bike to work once a week, which turned into five days a week. It was either that or go up another pants size. I became that bike guy at work.”

Soon, he started heading off-road and volunteered for a local mountain bike group in Eau Claire. That spurred him to look for work that meshed with his passions. Today, Andrews is the executive director of MORC, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis. MORC is one of 11 Minnesota chapters in the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), which represents the interests of thousands of riders in one of the country’s fastest-growing recreational activities. In fact, mountain biking (and road and BMX) was the second-favorite activity among young adults based on how often they participate, according to a 2015 study by The Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks U.S. recreation.

With the increasing popularity of winter fat biking, MORC’s mission in the metro area has grown.

“I’m a very lucky man and blessed to be able to put my passion forward to do something that’s bigger than myself for the greater good of the cycling community,” Andrews said.

Advocacy roots

IMBA was founded in 1988 by a group of California mountain bike clubs concerned about trail closures to cyclists. The group’s chapter program was started several years later as an advocacy initiative to create a unified voice for off-road cyclists and to work with local land management agencies (mostly local parks and trails groups) to bring the sport into the mainstream and address issues of public trail access, overcrowding and more.

MORC was founded in 1994 as the North Central Mountain Bike Group and changed its name in 1998. The volunteer organization’s stated mission is to safeguard “the future of mountain biking in Minnesota.” How? Promote responsible riding, establish and maintain trails, and protect natural resources. “Out motto is gaining and maintaining trails,” Andrews said.

On the trail

Last Sunday morning, 15-degree temperatures and blue sky greeted mountain bikers at Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in northeast Scott County. “What a great morning for a ride,” said a Minneapolis man who had just finished traversing a portion of the park’s 9.1 miles of hilly, forested, single-track dirt trails, now buried in snow and considered some of the most challenging in the Twin Cities.

Asked if he was aware of MORC, the rider, wiping the sweat from his face, didn’t miss a beat. “Yes. And these trails at Murphy wouldn’t be here without the group,” he said.

Indeed, MORC maintains roughly 85 miles of trails at 13 locations in the metro area. That includes two off-road bike parks in Eagan and Cottage Grove.

MORC has developed strong partnerships with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the Three Rivers Parks District and other local parks agencies. Andrews said the majority of money for trail projects comes from the group (members pay $35 annually). MORC also relies on grants, corporate sponsors and donations.

“We also provide the bulk of the labor and have about 90 trail volunteers who meet regularly and keep up with trail maintenance,” he said. “They’re a dedicated group. Our volunteers are indispensable.”

Three Rivers Parks’ associate superintendent might concur. Tom McDowell said MORC has been a key ally. With the group’s help, the district will open a new off-road trail next summer at Lake Rebecca Park Reserve in Rockford.

“We’ve relied heavily on MORC’s leadership and membership for the technical assistance, development and construction of single-track bike trails,” he said. “They have a lot of expertise and really know what they’re doing.”

Beyond the pavement

The allure for the average off-road cyclist is developing a connection with nature via the seat of a mountain bike, Andrews said. “It’s about being in the woods, away from the concrete and the cars,” he said. “I can be in downtown Minneapolis and in 15 minutes be at the trailhead at Theodore Wirth Park. Having a trail in the city allows you to leave it all behind, get some exercise and enjoy nature. That’s pretty rare for a major metropolitan area.”

Kristin Clark, 30, of Minneapolis agreed. A Pennsylvania native, Clark is a MORC member and local meteorologist who writes a weekly weather blog for MORC’s website. Her volunteer reports help members determine trail conditions.

“For me, off-roading is about being outside, experiencing the elements and solitude of nature, and exploring new terrain that might be too difficult or time-consuming to experience on foot,” she said. “Every time I’m coasting and pedaling on a bike trail, I see something new and experience something new. I love being outdoors and I love riding bikes. It’s my therapy.”

While there can be barriers to off-road cycling (bike cost and access to beginner-friendly trails top the list), Andrews said there are “many quality bikes on the market that don’t cost an arm and a leg.”

“With the growth of the sport, one can readily find a gently used bike in our marketplace,” he said. “MORC trails also offer something for a wide variety of rider abilities and skills; children as young as 4 years old can be seen riding our trails.”

Andrews said he regularly talks with local parks officials about the possibility of expanding MORC’s off-road cycling trail system at their facilities.

“We’re always looking to expand,” he said. “The more we do, the better it is for off-road cyclists and our members. ”

 

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Reach him at torimccormick33@gmail.com.