Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle

I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride my bike
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride it where I like

OK, that wasn’t one of Queen’s better songs, but the lyrics say it all.

When I got the chance to ride in the Michigander Bicycle Tour for a couple of days, it was a no-brainer. Two days in northern Michigan in July (the weather was perfect), two days riding a bike along the Pere Marquette State Trail (the scenery was rustic), two days without any blither about LeBron James (he’s going back to Cleveland — we get it). What’s not to like?

If you’re not familiar with it, the Michigander is an annual bike tour. This year was No. 23, with routes along a set of trails through countryside and some cool little towns. You can ride two days or do a six- or seven-day tour. The Michigander raises funds for the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. The money goes to develop rail-trails in Michigan for cyclists, rollerblades, runners and walkers.

I’ve done tours before, but never the Michigander, so it would be a new experience. I opted for the two-day ride. I’m in decent shape, and I’ve been riding quite a bit, so the two-dayer was very doable: traveling the 35 miles from Farwell to Reed City on Saturday, July 12, and then back to Farwell on Sunday, July 13. The trail is smooth blacktop and the terrain is flat, flat, flat. Pay no attention to the person I heard complaining about the “big hill we had to climb.” There’s no such thing on this route. The trail is on the old Pere Marquette rail line, and if you think about it, trains don’t go up steep hills.

It pays to be prepared

To do any distance ride, you need three things to be in decent shape: your body (especially your butt),  your bike and your gear.

I do a decent amount of cycling — about 100 miles or so a week— so I’m in fair condition. You don’t need to be in super shape for the Michigander two-day ride. It’s not a race and the two-day route is easy. But let’s be real — 35 miles is 35 miles. So it does help to be ready physically — especially for that second day.

Next, let’s talk about the bike. I have a road bike, one with the skinny tires and a saddle about the size of a slice of pizza.

I made sure my bike was ready to go. Brakes working? Check. Tires and tubes in good shape? Check. Chain lubed? Check. You don’t want any mechanical problems when you’re miles away from a town or a rest stop where you can get repairs. Personally, I don’t want even a small squeak on my bike. Over 10, 20, 30 miles, a constant “eeek, eeek, eeek” with every pedal stroke gets really annoying, like fingernails on a chalkboard.

And last but not least, I made sure I packed all my gear: cycling shoes, shorts, water bottles, sun block, rain jacket (just in case of bad weather) and of course, the all-important helmet. Yes, I can hear it now, “We never wore helmets when we were kids and we turned out just fine, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Well that was then; this is now. Safety always comes first at the Michigander or any other ride. And why wouldn’t you protect your head?

With everything ready, it was off to Farwell on Friday night to be ready to ride Saturday morning. One thing about the Michigander: Many of the riders camp overnight along the route. To be honest, while I admire the camping spirit and fortitude, it’s not for me. I booked myself a room at a hotel. (Call me a baby.)

Care-free and car-free

The morning was perfect. Blue sky, sun, warm temps with just a little bit of wind. It couldn’t have been better. After watching some campers crawling out of their tents, I was glad I went with a hotel.

Fuel for your body is important for any distance ride, and the Michigander provides riders with breakfast and dinner. You’re on your own for lunch.

After a quick meeting to review the rules of the road and such, it was time to get pedaling. Part of the fun of tours is seeing the people and different bikes. There were all types of bikes out there: mountain bikes, fitness bikes, cruisers and recumbents — they’re like a beach chair on wheels. Very  cool. And riders like to trick them out with flags and other doo-dads.  I don’t put stuff on my bike. (Call me a snob.)

So after bidding my wife adieu (she doesn’t ride — call her a baby), I rode off to the trail, interested to see what it’d be like. As I said, I’ve done plenty of tours, but they’ve all been on the road, with all the hazards that come with it — potholes, traffic, drivers who don’t like cyclists and, yes, cyclists who are just as bad or worse.

But there’s none of that on the Michigander route. The trail from Farwell to Reed City is car-free. So you can ride without cars whizzing past or dodging craters. Can you say smooth? The trail was practically perfect. I don’t recall a single bump, crack or garbage.  As you’re gliding along, you don’t have to be on constant alert like when you’re in the road. You can ride your pace and enjoy the scenery. Sometimes you’re looking out on farm fields, other times you’re in a corridor of trees and carpets of wildflowers.

Riding the rail-trail

There’s a bit of Michigan history, too. About seven or eight miles from Farwell in the little town of Lake is an old coaling tower that was used by the Pere Marquette Railroad. It’s one of only four left along the former rail line. There are only 11 in the entire state. Built in 1929, it held 250 tons of coal, and the Pere Marquette Historical Society is working to acquire and preserve it. A short walk from the trail is Big Al’s Place, a restaurant and bar. I didn’t stop, but it gets good reviews on Yelp, if that means anything.

Only 14 miles farther was another rest stop in Evart — a good place to stop, fill up water bottles and grab a healthy snack of fruit from the farmer’s market the town has every Saturday in the summer.

From there it was a pleasant roll to Reed City, where a hot shower awaited, followed by a stroll through the town for lunch.  Also, I took some time to nose around the surrounding areas and came across a little town called Paris with a replica of the Eiffel Tower. OK, so it’s no giant ball of string, but it was a bit of unexpected fun.

And that’s what the Michigander is all about: fun, fitness and finding new places to go, and new things to see.

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Photo credit: Ewan Traveler 

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