Even with the global pandemic impacting its schedule and bottom line, a local organization has built miles of premium mountain bike trails in a recreation area outside Dubuque.
Tri-State Mountain Bike Riders, or TMBR, is making its mark on the 137-acre Proving Grounds Recreation Area on West John Deere Road just outside of the city of Dubuque.
In 2018, John Deere Dubuque Works donated the land to the Dubuque County Conservation Board to be developed into an outdoor recreation destination. Soon after, hiking trails were mowed into the fallow prairie, offering great views.
But it wasn’t until this spring when some of the most unique features were revealed. As soon as the ground dried out from its thaw, the county gave 2 miles of single-track trails designed for mountain biking a soft open for users.
This system was designed and largely funded by TMBR.
Since the soft opening, more than two additional miles have been constructed.
“The contractors installed some unique, challenging sections,” said TMBR President Brett Errthum. “For one, we have double black diamond section that’s a mile long, which is really unusual in the Midwest.”
He said that rating means steep switchback turns, exposure riding and challenging climbs.
Other sections of the trails include multiple jump lines, giving riders the opportunity to get airborne, and also some “blue level” trails for less challenging wilderness riding.
“That variety is important to attracting families and riders at different levels of expertise,” Errthum said.
The trails already are drawing visitors.
“At Proving Grounds, we’ve created enough mileage that we’re starting to see people from farther out — Minnesota, upper Wisconsin, Omaha,” Errthum said. “And they’re asking about camping and other things to do in the area.”
Olivia Towart, a sales clerk at Bicycle World in Dubuque and avid mountain biker, said the new trails are helping bike shops as well.
“There are a lot more people looking for mountain bikes, in particular,” she said. “A lot of times it is families coming in or people who have ridden normal, regular Joe bikes, just hearing about the new trails. Sometimes when I’m on the trails, I’ll run into someone who I’ve sold a mountain bike to and talk to them about how they’re liking it. It happens almost every time I go out.”
Two more miles of trails are set to be added this year.
Those were scheduled to be completed this spring as well, but the project hit some rough patches, due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Errthum said the original contractor on the project had to pull out due to other financial impacts. Then, when the group found a new contractor in Pathfinder Inc., the pandemic caused more problems.
“Due to the COVID pandemic and ability to mobilize their crew, they got a late start,” he said.
And the new contractors already had work lined up in Minnesota for the summer.
“We don’t compete for the money Minnesota state pays those guys,” Errthum said. “So, we’re looking at them coming back once they’re in their off-season, in October and November.”
The new contractor and difficult topography of the area also increased the cost of the work.
Originally estimated at $220,000, TMBR was going to be able to cover its cost. A fundraising drive early in their partnership with the county netted $115,000. A state Parks to People grant garnered $78,000. The nonprofit was going to front the remaining $27,000 from its reserves.
At this point, the county — other than offering its new land — had spent money only on a parking lot and other basic park infrastructure at the area’s entrance.
But Pathfinder’s bid was higher than the original. Then, once they had begun work, they ran into steep grades and tougher rock formations than expected.
The new price tag was $270,000.
This month, Errthum and Dubuque County Conservation Board Executive Director Brian Preston approached the county Board of Supervisors to request that the county cover 10% of the new asking price, which was $27,000. The organization then would find the remaining $23,000.
Supervisors voiced general support for the project once again but were not necessarily looking to spend on a project during the pandemic. They recommended TMBR go to the Dubuque County Conservation Board.
Conservation board members found the money in a fund already set aside for infrastructure work at Proving Grounds, as well as through fund balances from a project funded by the state Resources Enhancement and Protection program.
Outside of the biking trails, there also are 1.6 miles of mowed grassy trails through prairies at the site for more general use. And, according to Preston, a frisbee golf course is in the works.