October 23, 2020

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Mountain biking mecca being built by man

Local trails designer making Manitoba a riding destination

NEEPAWA — As I pull into the site, I see a massive hole in the ground with several bulldozers at work. I also see Alex Man standing at the far end of the dirt road. It’s the second time I’ve met up with Alex — the first time was on a bike ride near Dauphin, and now for a tour of his latest earth-moving project.

What I’ve learned between the two rides is Manitoba is seeing a significant boom in mountain bike trails being built, and Alex is the man spearheading much of that growth.

On this day, he has just returned from a meeting with Parks Canada about a project in Riding Mountain, and when I pull up he is giving a briefing to Neepawa mayor Blake McCutcheon and Economic Development Officer Marilyn Crewe on the in-progress mountain biking park in that community.

Alex Man at the Neepawa site where there will be six kilometres of trails.

STEVE LYONS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Alex Man at the Neepawa site where there will be six kilometres of trails.

The 40-acre site that will have six kilometres of trails is remediating a hole in the ground that was created when 100,000 cubic metres of clay were dug up as part of the town’s sewer lagoon project — made necessary by the town’s population spurt over the last five years, from 3,400 to 6,000 people. Most of the newcomers are from the Philippines, coming to work at the town’s HyLife pork processing plant.

A regional recreation study by the town discovered two of the things the newcomers wanted more than anything else was improved trails and free recreation. The town manager, Denis Saquet, came up with the idea of a bike park, and enter Alex Man.

Family adventure

While it’s been a busy time for Alex Man building trails in Manitoba, he did take a timeout last September to also build some memories — competing with his daughter in the The World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji.

While it’s been a busy time for Alex Man building trails in Manitoba, he did take a timeout last September to also build some memories — competing with his daughter in the The World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji.

Man’s True North team of himself, his daughter, Becca Aysan-Man, Bikes and Beyond owner Philip Roadley and his son, Logan, and assistant crew member Jayson Gillespie placed 40th in the event that saw 66 teams from 30 countries race non-stop for 11 days through 671 kilometres of jungle, ocean, swamp and mountain terrain.

Logan and Becca were the youngest male and female competitors in the event — both 18 at the time.

In 1999, the elder Roadley and Man were part of a team that competed in an Eco-Challenge race in Argentina — they were the only Canadian team to finish — and when producer Mark Burnett decided to resurrect the race in 2019, the two men decided they wanted to try it again, but this time with their kids.

“We totally went to experience this with our kids and have some fun. Do our best,” said Man. “The whole experience was fantastic. A trip of a lifetime to do it with them. We had a blast.”

The 10-part series in which the True North squad is one of the 12 featured teams is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

“It was a great experience and we kinda feel like we’ve handed over the torch to our kids,” added Roadley, 56. “We will always have that connection of having done this together.”

Man’s fingerprints are on numerous mountain bike parks in the province. Most notably, the 2017 Canada Summer Games venue at Fort Whyte (Bison Butte), Granite Groove near Pinawa, Blue Highway near Caddy Lake, Dauphin Northgate and Asessippi Adventure Park. Neepawa is under construction and is expected to be open in the fall, while Riding Mountain, Minnedosa and Rossburn are in the design stage.

Man is also helping design kids bike parks in West Broadway and Arthur E. Wright School.

A mountain bike racer in his younger days — leaving Winnipeg at 18 to compete in B.C. — Man, now 49, had more recently been coaching kids in the city and volunteering his time helping to design and build trails in the province while working as a geological engineer for Atomic Energy of Canada in Pinawa when serendipity struck.

Alex Man makes his way around a berm at Bison Butte in 2016, a course he helped design.

JOHN WOODS / FREE PRESS FILES

Alex Man makes his way around a berm at Bison Butte in 2016, a course he helped design.

"I was coaching a Kids in Mud mountain biking program and called Fort Whyte one day about a hill they had out back in their field," Man recalls as we sit chatting over a beverage at the Neepawa site. The hill was a pile of dirt that was dug up from the building of IKEA. (It’s now the high point at Bison Butte).

"I asked if they would mind if the kids rode on it and I’d build them some trails if they wanted. Have a little bit of a park for hiking, biking, running, whatever. There was a lack of topography for kids to ride in the city. Birds Hill was the closest."

Shortly after getting the go-ahead from Fort Whyte, the folks at the Manitoba Cycling Association got wind of what was happening, and when Winnipeg was awarded the 2017 Canada Summer Games the host committee enlisted Man to design them an appropriate venue at Fort Whyte.

"He really had a vision for that land and what it could be," recalls Twilia Cruickshank, executive director of the Manitoba Cycling Association.

Clayton Swantontackles one of the wooden berms at Northgate.

STEVE LYONS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Clayton Swantontackles one of the wooden berms at Northgate.

While exact numbers are hard to come by, Cruikshank says anecdotally the folks at the MCA know mountain biking participation has shown a steady growth over the last few years. The Kids in Mud program is packed with 500 registrants.

"We know that most kids, their first bike is a mountain bike," said Cruikshank. "What we actually need now is more coaches.

"The increase in trails for people to mountain bike is a big part of the growth. Alex has done so much for our community. He has a long history of loving the sport, and we are so lucky to have him."

It was during the Games project that Man partnered up with the landscape architecture firm of Scatliff+Miller+Murray, which was also doing work for Fort Whyte.

"A good way through the project my current boss calls me up and says ‘I like what you’ve been doing with trails. Would you consider doing that professionally?’ It was kind of a dream come true," says Man.

You might say it was a match made in mountain biking heaven.

A black diamond trail at Asessippi, one of 15 trails at the park.

STEVE LYONS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A black diamond trail at Asessippi, one of 15 trails at the park.

Now professionally employed as a trail designer, Man started beating the bushes to see who might want to make some trails. An introduction to some folks with the Dauphin Derailleurs Cycle Club at a recreation director conference was the seed that has sprouted a mountain biking mecca in Manitoba’s Parklands region — the two most notable destinations at the moment being the Northgate trails system just south of Dauphin and the mountain biking park at Asessippi Ski Resort.

Planned and designed by Man and built by Sustainable Trails and a crew of volunteers, Northgate is a 26-km system of stacked loop, multi-use trails featuring sections for mountain bikers, hiking and trail running. The main trailhead is on the border of the national park, seven minutes south of Dauphin. Trails are of varying and increasing difficulty. The trails are set on a mix of private and city land, including the Selo Ukraina Heritage Site that hosts Dauphin’s Countryfest and Canada’s National Ukrainian Festival.

The trail system also winds its way through the Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve, providing diverse scenery with endless flora and fauna, winding streams and shale rock formations. It was partly funded by plans to host the 2020 Manitoba Games that were cancelled owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and will now take place in Dauphin from July 11-17, 2021.

Man on one of the trails at Northgate which is a 26-km system of stacked loop, multi-use trails featuring sections for mountain bikers, hiking and trail running.

STEVE LYONS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Man on one of the trails at Northgate which is a 26-km system of stacked loop, multi-use trails featuring sections for mountain bikers, hiking and trail running.

"We just had a thought that we could do something special with the land," Derailleurs board member Clayton Swanton told me following a recent ride at Northgate. "But, not something that was just for the Games. We wanted to create a destination for generations to come and an economic driver for the community of Dauphin.

"Meeting Alex was key. He was an integral piece of the puzzle at an integral time. He had a vision for the whole area. We would not be anywhere near where we are if he hadn’t joined us and helped us."

Asessippi is a unique destination to the province and central Canada — the only chairlift access mountain biking track between Calgary and Collingwood, Ont. It has a variety of downhill flow tracks ranging from beginner to expert, a skills section and cross-country climbs.

Mountain bikers crave trails with good flow. Flow is described as one turn leading into the next and every descent leading into the next rise, creating a pleasant rhythm that riders of all ages and abilities seek. Asessippi has some great flow, folks.

Man did some early design and flagging for Asessippi in 2018, but since then another Alex — Misanchuk — has taken the baton and run with it.

You can find some great spots on the trails at Riding Mountain.</p>

STEVE LYONS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

You can find some great spots on the trails at Riding Mountain.

"We want to be an adventure resort and we want to grow the sport. That’s been the cool part for me," says Misanchuk, shortly after taking me down a couple of his most-loved trails — Fanta-sy and Monster Slide.

Owned by the same people who own the Russell Inn and Conference Centre (who brought skiing to the area 17 years ago), the Asessippi bike park opened with three trails in July of 2019 and now has 15. Approximately 60,000 people visit the ski resort each winter and they’re hoping they can draw a similar number of people in the summer. Despite a string of storms in the area and the COVID-19 pandemic, Asessippi has been pleased with business this year — 1,000 new folks signing waivers to ride the trails.

For the rest of the 2020 season — the park is open Friday-Sunday — the folks at Asessippi are having Loony Lift Days, where you can enjoy a day on their trails for a buck. You can bring your own bike, or you can rent one of their full-suspension bikes for $109.

"It’s something people might consider, but going way out west to try it, is way more of a commitment," Misanchuk says. "You’re not going to want to go buy a bike just to try it. You can come here, rent a bike and try the sport to see if it’s something you might wanna invest time and money in."

Asessippi, Dauphin and now Neepawa are all part of a bigger vision Man et al have for the Parklands/Westman region — to make the area an International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) ride centre.

Swanton (left), Dauphin tourism co-ordinator Melissa Stefinew and Man at Northgate flow trail.</p>

STEVE LYONS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Swanton (left), Dauphin tourism co-ordinator Melissa Stefinew and Man at Northgate flow trail.

"IMBA has led the way in trail building — techniques and sustainability — and then they advocate centres that are built around using their principals," Man explains.

"When mountain bikers look for good trails, they look to see what IMBA says is good. Where do I stay? Where’s the bike shop? Where’s the good coffee? Where’s the good lunch? And, where’s the beer after ride and a nice dinner? It’s not just the trails, it’s the whole experience. That can be a terrific economic boost to these communities.

"I see the focal point being the national park and I see all these towns that are actually ahead of them in trail building as beneficiaries of what’s going to happen. The park is key because it is gorgeous, stunning. But all these little towns clearly get it and they understand the tourism draw."

The closest IMBA centre to Manitoba is Cuyuna in Ironton, Minn. — about six hours southeast of Winnipeg, close to Brainerd. Millions of dollars have been poured into a project that saw old iron mines and disturbed grounds converted into hundreds of kilometres of mountain bike trails. It has become a huge tourist draw and turned dead towns into destinations.

"We hope to market our area to a worldwide audience," says Swanton. "Have riders come to Winnipeg, see the museum and then use the park or Dauphin or Asessippi as a hub for all the great tracks in the area. We’re very excited about the possibilities in the future."

Man was hired last fall by Parks Canada to come up with a trail concept plan for the north end of the park. He has presented them with a 50-km stacked system that would link up with Northgate.

"I presented it to senior management and they are all over it. Really receptive," Man said. "I think the momentum is there and it’s just a matter of time."

The $1.5- to $2-million project could be done in one season if the financing was there, but Man sees it more likely to be parcelled out in chunks and chipped away at it.

The design really supports social distancing, in that you would have one-way traffic rather than the out and back two-way Crawford trail that is currently quite popular. The design would have riders climb one way and then filter down in various web-like trails.

"Imagine the Crawford trail as the stem of a leaf," says Man. "I would have people going up it, like an escalator to the top of the hill and different veins of the leaf to come back down. If you’re a novice, you climb a little and then come back down. If you’re more advanced, you go to the top. It would cater to various levels of ability and fitness.

"I think mountain biking in general is growing. Back in the day when I raced it was more of an extreme sport and just a small demographic did it. Now, it’s just exploded. Young kids are doing it and lots of women. Getting women into it was a huge moment — now, it’s families coming up to the area to spend the day riding as a family."

steve.lyons@freepress.mb.ca

Steve Lyons

Steve Lyons
Sports Editor

As a young boy in the 1960s, Steve would plead with his mother to let him watch Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights. And CFL football. And baseball. And PGA golf. And… well, you get the picture.

   Read full biography

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