Since 1990, Maplelag Resort has hosted Laddies Loppet during Labor Day weekend, a unique set of mountain bike races for the whole family with races and age categories for every type of rider.
This year’s 25th annual event was a return to the grassroots beginnings of one of Minnesota’s oldest bike races, first founded by organizer Jay Richards in 1990.
“I decided to put on a race after I discovered the sport myself in the spring of my second year of college,” he said. “Totally got into it and jumped in to the race scene that summer. After doing a few races, I thought it would be fun to host a race on the Maplelag ski trails that fall.”
The name Laddie comes from an early resort dog that would always be on the trails during construction and maintenance and when thinking of a name to call the race, it only seemed appropriate, said Richards. The Norwegian word Loppet plays off the Norwegian theme at Maplelag, Loppet meaning trail or long endurance race or athletic event which occurs across varied terrain.
The inaugural race was held mostly on ski trails and just a short section of singletrack that was hand-built the summer of 1990. Cutting new trails by hand in the deep forest took a bunch of time and there was less than one mile the first year.
The first race had 40 participants.
With so many memories to draw back upon, one sign of success is that the 25th version this year was the most memorable for Richards.
“We took a break from being part of the Minnesota State Championship series to throwback to the format in earlier years, running just two races on Saturday for the intermediate to advanced riders, then did a citizen race on Sunday, along with kids comp, and a free kids race for beginners, concluding with a short track race (circuit race on a 2 minute lap that is great for spectating and super tight racing) for all classes and ability levels Sunday afternoon. We had our core group of long-time supporters spend the majority of the three nights along with some new folks.”
Part of the draw to the trails at Maplelag is the famous singletrack, including a new section created for 2015, but long before the 25th race, the grassroots movement to get racers to Maplelag was much more personal than today’s social media blitz that can help spread the word.
“I continued racing, met a great network of riders and was able to spread the word of Laddies Loppet at the races,” said Richards. “Over the years, I would meet new people, tell them about our event and being able to connect with the racers was key to get people to drive 3-4 hours, as the majority of the mountain bike population was located in the Twin Cities area. Obviously, there wasn’t any Internet or social media like today to spread word fast so it was either mailing or face-to-face. That is what has been most memorable, meeting some incredible people and maintaining those friendships over the years. Lot of these folks are still racing today and now have kids and seeing them get their kids into the old school riding is most rewarding.”
The restructuring also allowed Richards a different perspective in running the popular event.
“With the format we had this year, I had a bit more time to interact with the riders and observe and take in the activities going on outside racing. It was so awesome seeing kids playing in the rain after the downpour, climbing on rocks, jumping off the lake dock, testing skills in the dirt jump track and making obstacles with logs we cut up for the wood stoves and just being kids in this age of technology and hand held devices.”
Racers are treated to canopies of green in the woods and lake vistas with treacherous sloping and twisting portions of the trail in the lakeside drop segment that presents one of the more challenging portions of trail at Maplelag. The thing about these trails, they are all challenging. More so, should one venture out too long.
“Friday night, a guy from Canada went out to pre-ride the course and was having such a good time he continued on to do the whole loop,” Richards said. “He got caught in the dark and with no lighting or cell phone, was lost in the woods. He didn’t have any way to communicate but his girlfriend notified us he had been out for three hours. So I went out backwards on the course and after some yelling and hollering back and forth through the woods on a night thick like pea soup, I was able to find him after 30 minutes. Threw an extra head lamp on him and we made our way back. He was in good spirits and it was fun being out in the deep woods’ silence after a busy night of registration and after that happened I knew it was going to be a special weekend.”
Laddies Loppet attracts a crowd of wide variety from racing novices to professionals from a range of racing competitions, even outside of bicycling, like Snocross champion Tucker Hibbert competing in a cross-sport format.
Maplelag also provides some sanity for professional athletes like Hibbert creating a place where he can just be one of the guys.
“No one treated him like an celebrity other than maybe getting chirped at the awards ceremony when his wife was taking home hardware and he wasn’t,” Richards mused. “He has no ego and just likes to mix it up with fellow racers on the singletrack. It was a break from the events he does where he is bombarded by fans asking for autographs and at Maplelag he is just like everyone else.”
Events do not make it a quarter century without that level of comfort, professionalism and a lot of hard work. The Richards’ family received a lot of praise from participants again this year.
“The best event of the summer, hands down,” racer Josh Bauer posted on Twitter, one of many online accolades.
Social media was a popular way to share photos from the races and keep racers informed on course updates and race details via Twitter @LaddiesLoppet, a far cry from the original race setup.
“It’s crazy how fast time flies by and after doing 15 or 20 you don’t think of how many you’ve done,” said Richards. “Then last year it was like, wow, next year is number 25 and really made me appreciate the fact we have been able to do it for so long and all the incredible people I’ve met over those years. We have been the longest running mountain bike race in the state of Minnesota and like the first year, we still provide a t-shirt with registration.”
Winners of the main event do not go home empty-handed either, with a prize of $1,000 for the winners of the male and female races.
Racers are also the benefactors of fine tuning when it comes to the trail, the bikes and their stay at Maplelag as the races are surrounded by numerous vendors and activities for all to enjoy like vintage racing jersey competitions and Yoga Stand Up Paddleboard sessions on the lake. A bike jump into the lake is available for the adrenaline-infused guest.
Live music and nightly bonfires, along with meals from the Maplelag kitchen make for an easy stay with all-day fun for competitors and spectators alike.
“The bikers that are racing are from all backgrounds, career paths, ages and ability,” said Richards. “Some are very competitive amongst each other, but as in other endurance sports, are very supportive of one another as well, if they have battled back and forth all race, they are proud of the others accomplishments. For example in this year’s race there was a rider who crashed and was a bit loopy and another rider stopped and helped him get out walking and losing his position in his race. There are riders whom are doing just that, riding. Some are serious racers and others brought their bike along and get the racing bug and sign up. It is all for fun. Lots of smiles and feelings of accomplishments. We will often have racers that say, this is the only race they do all year. Racing is tough physically, mentally and mechanical problems can happen anywhere out on the trail. There is a great sense of fellowship during and around the race events the entire weekend long. A unique circumstance at Maplelag, is how we have the meals together, so there is lots of conversations and memories being made.”
The natural setting at Maplelag also allows non-racers plenty of outdoor activities such as hiking, canoeing, fishing, or bird watching.
Jeff Hall and Sara Kylander-Johnson both stood atop the podium Saturday after winning the 22-mile race finishing in hot and humid conditions. Winners also receive custom awards made by local artist Mary Laabs, just another unique aspect of a truly original race, a special event in this area that would not happen without a lot of help from volunteers and sponsors.
“We have a great group of volunteers and staff that help make the race happen and wouldn’t happen without them, including my wife Jonell who does an amazing job planning and organizing the details on the side,” said Richards “Race expenses, at least to run at the level we do, have gone up, so sponsorship has increased over the years and without them, we couldn’t do it, especially with the cash payout. I’ve had a cycling friend take on the majority of the sponsorship role and his help has been priceless. We have neighbors help out with the marshaling and we are grateful for all of the volunteers.”
For more information on next season’s 26th annual Laddies Loppett and Maplelag Resort visit Maplelag.com.