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Mountain Bikers Riding Bikes Talking Trails #3

Mountain Bikers Riding Bikes Talking Trails #3

Ishpeming, Michigan

Posted: January 23, 2024
Author Brice Shirbach riding in Ishpeming, MI
Photo courtesy of: Brice Shirbach

You can’t really tell a story about Michigan without starting with water.

Michigan is the 10th most populous state in the country and 11th largest by size, with 96,716 square miles to its name. Of those, 38,606 square miles are composed of water or 41% of the state’s total square mileage. That is the second-highest total area covered by water in the country behind only Alaska and the highest percentage of all states, just ahead of Hawaii and Rhode Island. Michigan is flanked by 4 of the 5 Great Lakes of North America, with 3,288 mile-long freshwater coastline. The state is effectively split into two separate peninsulas by the Straits of Mackinac, a series of narrow straights, the primary of which is connected by a 3 ½ mile long bridge between the Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula.

"Aerial view of Ishpeming, Michigan "

With all due respect to the Lower Peninsula, the Upper Peninsula (referred to colloquially as the UP) is where things get a bit more interesting, at least as it pertains to mountain biking. While the UP makes up 30% of the state’s total area, it is home to only 3% of the state’s population. The UP is also where the landscape goes from the much flatter geography found throughout the Lower Peninsula to the rugged and hilly region known as the Superior Upland. In the heart of the UP is the small industrial community of Ishpeming, a town of 6,140 and home to the US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum, as well as the Annual Ski Jumping Tournament, a US Cup event that began 137 years ago at what is now called the UP Nordic Ski Complex. Oh yeah, Ishpeming is also home to nearly 80 miles of handbuilt singletrack known as the RAMBA trails.

"Aerial view of Ishpeming, Michigan"

"Brice Shirbach riding a mountain bike along a cliff edge overlooking Autumn colors."

RAMBA is a non-profit, volunteer-based trail association with a goal to help people see the personal benefits of mountain biking, while showcasing the very real community growth that comes from it as well. The trails actually lie between Ishpeming and its neighbor, Negaunee, a community of 4,627 people about 3 miles due east of Ishpeming.

Two communities 3 miles apart with nearly 80 miles of singletrack between them? Yes, you are reading that right. While the land between the two small towns isn’t especially mountainous, it is certainly hilly and rugged, and the good folks at RAMBA take a good deal of joy out of leaning into that ruggedness when it comes to their trails.

"Brice Shirbach coasting through a rocky section of trail."

"Brice Shirbach riding down a set of concrete stairs in the woods."

“I tell people whenever they come into the shop,” Spencer Prusi, owner of West End Ski & Trail, says during a mid-ride break. “When they ask about doing our Epic Trail and mention that it’s only 18 miles. I usually tell them, ‘Yeah but it’s a different kind of 18 miles.’ I always say to plan for about 4 ½ to 5 hours if you’re a good rider. It’s legit. It’s a hard 18.”

"One portrait of Spencer Prusi with his name and an arrow pointing toward him and a second photo of his shop front with text that says 'This is his shop.' with an arrow."

The Epic Trail is actually a combination of several well established trails throughout the network, traversing rocky bluff lines, scrambling up and over technical and punchy climbs while skipping down rough and jarring descents, the challenges posed by many of the trails throughout the network do indeed bring a smile to the faces of local riders.

“Yeah the miles come slow up here.” says Glen Lerlie, president of RAMBA and an all around swell guy. “If you’re averaging 6 mph, you’re doing well.”

"One portrait of Glen Lehrie with his name and an arrow pointing toward him and a second photo of Brice riding on the edge of an old foundation with text that says 'This is an old school foundation.' with an arrow.""

Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the pride RAMBA have in their handiwork than the annual sufferfest known as the Marji Gesick endurance mountain bike race. The 100+/- mile route connects all of the major trailheads in Marquette County, and has the distinction of being called the “hardest single day mountain bike race in the country” by two-time winner Jeremiah Bishop.

“They call it the Danny Hill challenge if you can finish the course in under 12 hours,” Kristy McBride says. Kristy is a local NICA coach and winner of the Marji Gesick. “You get a belt buckle if you can pull that off. Out of the thousand riders who line up at the start, only a dozen or so even buckle each year.”

"One portrait of Kristy McBride with her name and an arrow pointing toward him and a second photo of an aerial of Autumn trees. Additional text also says 'Aka course record holder of the Marji Gessick endurance mountain bike race. .""

That’s not to say that every inch of the RAMBA trails are out to get you. There are several trails that meander through beautiful patches of UP hardwood forest, utilizing gentle grades and fairly smooth trails. There is also a modest and mellow skills park at the RAMBA HQ parking lot at the HOB trailhead. In addition to the copious amount of dirt and rock available for riders, RAMBA also boasts world-class grooming on over 20 miles of fat bike trails throughout the winter. But for this small community in the middle of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it’s important that their trails are a reflection of their surroundings, and in this corner of the country, the landscape is nothing if not stunning and rugged. RAMBA trails might sting a little, but they sure are easy on the eyes. Fortunately, those tasked with making this place what it is are doing so with a self-aware sense of humor in mind.

As Glen Lerlie likes to remind you at any point during any given ride: “We’re part way done with some of the hard stuff.”

"Brice Shirbach lifting his front wheel while riding a trail filled with Autumn leaves."

About the author

Brice has been a professional mountain biker since 2012 and a contributing writer and photographer at as well as various other mountain bike print and online publications.

Brice is currently a brand ambassador for several mountain bike companies, including Pivot Cycles,…

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