Uber, the nation's largest ride-hailing service, is growing its Minnesota presence by launching operations in Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato, Minn.

Starting at noon Thursday, riders in the three cities can use their smartphone to arrange a ride and, at least for the weekend, they won't have to pay.

To celebrate the launch, the San Francisco-based company will offer two free rides up to $15 each way through 11:59 p.m. Sunday. New and existing customers can use the promotion code RIDEROCHESTER, RIDESTCLOUD or RIDEMANKATO in the respective cities.

Uber's arrival comes a week after its rival competitor, Lyft, rolled out service in 54 small- and medium-sized cities across the country, including Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato.

Uber on Thursday said it was also beginning service in Bismarck and Grand Forks in North Dakota, and Eau Claire, La Crosse and Wausau in Wisconsin.

"We know Rochester has been calling out for ride-sharing and we are honored to be able to answer that call," said Carrol Chang, General Manager of Uber Minnesota. "We're looking forward to seeing how Uber can extend transportation options for both residents and visitors in Rochester."

Both Lyft and Uber use freelance drivers who can work whenever they want for as long as they want. Drivers using their own cars respond to the requests submitted by riders.

Uber's entry into the Rochester market came as welcome news to Jamie Sundsbak, Community Manager at Collider Coworking, which describes itself as a hub for local and visiting entrepreneurs, freelancers and remote workers to work, learn and connect.

"One of the biggest issues that I have heard from visiting entrepreneurs is the lack of ride sharing in the Rochester area," he said. "Uber provides a welcome solution to a large gap in our ecosystem and we are happy to welcome them to Rochester."

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768