Lutsen Mountains has long been known as a downhill skiing destination. But in recent years the North Shore resort and the surrounding area have drawn a growing number of mountain bikers - highlighted by the annual Lutsen 99er race.
More than 1,400 mountain bikers are expected to convene on the North Shore on Saturday for the fifth Lutsen 99er. The event consists of three races of varying distances: 99 miles, 39 miles and 19 miles. Additionally, there is entertainment and food for participants and their families - even a race for children.
"I like the vibe there," said Mike Naughton of Crystal Lake, Ill. "It's a great atmosphere."
Naughton, 46, has won the past two 99ers and said he had yet to decide on returning for this year's race.
The atmosphere may be responsible for the quick growth of the event. The 99er began in 2011 with only 80 racers. By 2014, the number of participants had grown to about 1,300. This year, organizers placed a cap of 1,500 racers and are hoping to fill most of those spots. Race director Peter Spencer credits the original 80 participants for being spokespeople and helping attract other mountain bike riders. Additionally, he said, the community support has brought riders back year after year.
"The North Shore people, the atmosphere - they're very welcoming," he said. "They really treat the participants really well."
After switching to a different finish set-up last year, the race will return to a more-challenging finish line for 2015, taking riders up a tough climb at the end of the race. Although it is challenging, Naughton said he particularly enjoys ending the race that way.
"You come up underneath the bridge and people are standing on the bridge, you come up around the ski lift - it makes for a really fun finish," Naughton said. "No matter when you're finishing, to come up that hill and see people up on that bridge and hear that crowd and music and stuff - it's pretty cool."
The thrill of the finish line is not just for participants, Spencer said. He expects spectators also will enjoy the atmosphere.
"You'll get that intimate feel of what these guys are going through," he said
Naughton said he thinks the challenging climb to the finish is enjoyed by most riders, even if it comes after 98 miles for those in the long-distance event. Even so, Spencer reserved the uphill finish line just for the 39er and 99er participants.
"I didn't want to put the 19ers through that," Spencer said with a laugh. "It's about a 320-foot climb ... so I'm glad I'm race directing this event and not participating."
Outside of the finish climb, spectators may find it difficult to watch the race as it is covers various trails and backroads in the rugged terrain of Cook County. But Spencer suggested two locations where spectators can catch riders mid-race: Devil Track Lake Campground off County Road 57 northwest of Grand Marais, and an aid station on the Sawbill Trail north of Tofte.
While many other mountain bike events follow trails that are mostly the same throughout the entire race, Spencer said the Lutsen 99er is different as it features gravel, double track, single track and snowmobile trails.
"It's kind of like if you get sick of something, it throws you on something else," he said.
Even with the course's terrain, Naughton said he believes the race is accessible and doable for even relatively new mountain bikers.
"It's a great race for really all abilities because it's not super-technical," he said.
If you go
The Lutsen 99er races (including the 19-mile and 39-mile events) begin at 7:30 a.m. Saturday at Lutsen Mountains on the North Shore.
In the first four years of the race, the first finishers have completed the 99-mile course in about six hours.
Kids races will be held at 9:30 a.m. Sunday.
For more information, go to lutsen99er.com.