VIRGINIA — Blaine Fleetwood was 4 years old and had only just learned to ride a bicycle without training wheels when he participated in his first Great River Energy Mesabi Trail Tour.
The little guy rode 16 miles that year — pedaling one whole leg of the tour with his parents and grandparents as his little sister sat in a cart behind one of the bikes.
Since then, the annual tour held in August along the Mesabi Trail has become a three-generation family event most years, said Blaine’s grandma, Linda Pogorelec of Virginia.
And this year will be one of them.
Linda, along with husband Ken, daughter Mary Fleetwood, of Cherry, Blaine, now 13, and granddaughter Leah Fleetwood, 11, will take on 26 miles of the Mesabi Trail during the tour Aug. 5.
“They love it. They look forward to it every year. They look forward to doing it with us,” said Pogorelec, who during the initial years of the event rode with her husband.
But the more, the merrier. And the group has tackled more of the trail since that first time together. In fact, Leah was just 6 when she first rode 26 miles of the tour.
Each year, organizers change up the start and end points to show off different sections of trail.
This year, the tour will conclude in Virginia’s Olcott Park. The full 67-mile “metric century” ride will begin at the Itasca County Fairgrounds in Grand Rapids. Riders can also choose to go 50 miles, starting at the school in Marble, 26 miles launching from the Greyhound Bus Museum in Hibbing, or 14 miles pedaling off from Stubler Beach in Buhl.
And there will be plenty of rest stops for riders take a break.
“The great thing about it is you can start and stop along the way,” Pogorelec said. “It’s not a race. You can stop (at the rest areas) for some snacks and listen to music (performed by local musicians) until you are ready to go again.”
Along the way, “you see everyone on the ride — serious bikers going fast, older people, people on incumbent bikes and bicycles built for two, families pulling little babies in carts. It makes it fun,” Pogorelec added.
Cyclists 18 and younger ride for free and registration is $45 for individuals and $90 for couples and families. Rates increase to $60 and $120 after July 26. Entry fees include a T-shirt, three-day Mesabi Trail Wheel Pass worth $15, transportation for riders and bicycles, food, refreshments and entertainment at rest stops, and a live concert and picnic dinner at the finish line. Register at: mesabitrail.com.
The tour raises money for the trail and Club Mesabi, which hosts the ride.
It also draws attention to the “world class bike trail” Iron Rangers have in their own backyard, said Tour Director Ardy Nurmi-Wilberg.
Cycling is “part of a healthy lifestyle,” said the director. It’s an activity that people of many abilities can accomplish.
And because the Mesabi Trail tour is — quiet literally — a recreational “tour,” riders have the chance to take in the scenery and learn about the nearly 30 communities through which it passes.
About 120 of the planned 155 miles of paved trail are completed, and when finished, the trail will run from Grand Rapids to Ely. The longest continuous section stretches from Grand Rapids to Virginia
The tour draws 700 to 800 riders, Nurmi-Wilberg said. About half of them are from outside the area, and about half are new to the ride. “It’s a wonderful way to promote the region,” she said.
The event is a form of “geotourism,” she added. It gives visitors a sense of what the area is like — the culture, the people, the heritage. For instance, the trail passes by old mining headframes and mine pits now full of water.
It provides “a sense of place — what it’s like to live here,” Nurmi-Wilberg said.
Cyclists also often spend more time in an area, contributing to the economy. They open their wallets “leaving dollars behind,” she said.
Organizers of the tour purchase food and supplies from local businesses spread out along the trail, also contributing to the “local impact,” she noted.
And the event “is a great way to bring a diverse group of people together,” said the director.
“You see little kids in Burelys riding behind mom and dad. You see people in their 80s. You see avid cyclists in their lycra. You see people with physical disabilities. It’s a great example of all ages and abilities,” Nurmi-Wilberg said.
“It doesn’t matter what your politics are or economic status or age, sex or race. The common bond is a bike and a trail. What a beautiful thing that is,” she said.
And everyone ends up at the finish line “so pumped up and happy.”
A few more segments of the Mesabi Trail, including near Soudan, are scheduled to be built this year, Nurmi-Wilberg said.
And the trail was reworked during the construction of the Highway 53 bridge. Next year’s tour will traverse that new section — to show off the bridge and its spectacular views, she said.
That will be an exciting ride, she said.
The tour is “always well-organized,” said the grandma. “It makes you want to come back and do it every year.”