Editor's note: This article was published in the Record-Eagle's Momentum '19 special publication. For more stories from northern Michigan's economic engine click here to read Momentum in its entirety online.
TRAVERSE CITY — Outdoor recreation is envisioned by many as enjoying nature away from all the technology and digital trappings of the modern world.
While “getting away from it all” might be the goal of the outdoor enthusiast, the businesses that serve the outdoor recreation industry are utilizing innovation and technology in more ways than ever.
At first glance, McLain Cycle & Fitness shop on Garfield Road in Traverse City looks like a standard bike shop displaying rows of bicycles, fitness equipment and recreation gear. But closer look unveils a computerized fitting room using digital technology to properly size equipment, the latest generation of electric-powered bikes, cycles with radio-controlled shifting derailleurs and other eye-popping technology.
“There’s so much going on with the technology of bikes,” co-owner Kris McLain said. “We’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve and trying to innovate.”
The sport of cycling has evolved significantly since the original McLain shop opened in 1978 in a house and garage that was converted to a retail shop and warehouse. In the early days, BMX biking was growing in popularity. So founder Bob McLain built a BMX track that hosted weekly races during the summer. He later relocated the track to a site along LaFranier Road.
The McLains purchased a second shop in Cadillac in 1983 — Bob used to ride from Traverse City to work at the Cadillac shop — and in the 1980s and ‘90s the business helped build the mountain bike craze by teaming up with other local bicycle enthusiasts to create the Sleeping Bear Mountain Bike Classic. It was the first World Cup race in the country and eventually would draw more than 2,500 participants to several area venues including The Homestead resort, Sugar Loaf Mountain and Shanty Creek Resort.
The popularity of the area’s outdoor recreation opportunities continues to grow as more regional and national events are added to the local events calendar. The McLains organized the original “Tour de TART” event almost 20 years ago. The event now is a fundraiser for the TART Trails system. The McLains later helped found the Cherry Roubaix, which introduced circuit racing to downtown Traverse City.
The debut of the national “Ironman” event to the Grand Traverse area this summer will generate even more publicity for the region as an outdoor recreation destination, Kris McLain said.
McLain Cycle & Fitness also has grown over the years. In 1997 it purchased the former Ralston Cycle shop on Eighth Street, which gives it access to the adjacent TART Trail system and the nearly-completed Boardman Lake recreational trail. The business, which employs a 25-person staff during peak summer months, also offers a mobile bicycle service shop that serves clients from Big Rapids north to the Mackinac Bridge.
The shop also promotes area cycling by participating in numerous community-based programs, Kris McLain said. It works with local non-profits to introduce children to cycling through the Norte Youth Cycle Estrella program. It also provides equipment for youth bike “libraries” that kids can check out through Norte, Bike Leelanau and Northport Strong.
McLain’s efforts to both grow the outdoor recreation sector and stay on top of the latest technology trends are noted by the cycling industry. It has received the “America’s Best Bike Shop” award for six years running from the National Bicycle Dealer Association, awarded to just 200 dealers from almost 3,700 nationwide.
Still, McLain said it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. Escalating trade disputes between the U.S. and China are driving up the costs of bicycles and parts from the Far East from federal tariffs. Growing competition from major “Amazon-type” online operations is another concern, she said.
She’s confident, though, that the region’s outdoor recreation industry will continue to thrive with northwest Lower Michigan’s growing reputation across the country and beyond as an outdoor mecca, thanks to better equipment, an expanding events calendar, and continued development of the region’s outdoor recreation infrastructure.
“To see the number of people coming here from places like Texas and California to vacation here and enjoy our area — that’s pretty cool,” she said. “People will still spend money to rent a good bike.”