2017-2: George Washington rides through Traverse City on 26th annual Michigander Bike Tour, leaves cherry trees standing

2017-2: George Washington rides through Traverse City on 26th annual Michigander Bike Tour, leaves cherry trees standing
Left to Right: Nolan Washington, Lanying Brown, Sam Kennedy (with flags) and George Washington pose at the finish line of the 2-Day edition of the 26th annual Michigander Bike Tour.

Continue reading “2017-2: George Washington rides through Traverse City on 26th annual Michigander Bike Tour, leaves cherry trees standing”

2017-1: Registration for Sleeping Bear Dunes-bound Michigander Bicycle Tour ends Monday

2017-1: Registration for Sleeping Bear Dunes-bound Michigander Bicycle Tour ends Monday
The 2017 Michigander Bicycle Tour route

By Ron Campbell
Detroit Free Press Special Writer
June 30, 2017

LANSING — Bicycling Magazine has called it one of the “Top 10 multi-day rides in America.”

ABC’s Good Morning America has called the highlight of its route this summer “The most beautiful place in America.”

In its inaugural year of 1992, Neal Shine, the legendary editor and publisher of the Free Press, simply called it “the Michigander.”

Ride Director Mary McGuire-Slevin has extended the registration deadline for the highly-anticipated 26th annual Michigander Bicycle Tour until midnight Monday, July 3. Nearly 1,000 riders from across the Great Lakes State and the U.S. have already signed up, she said, the majority of them from Southeast Michigan.

The event will feature two-day camping layovers in the classic Up North resort towns of Traverse City, Frankfort and Leland and roll on paved and crushed limestone trails and backroads by some of Michigan’s most spectacular scenery in Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Benzie counties, including the object of GMA’s affection, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The family-and-casual-rider-friendly 2-Day option of the tour — which will average up to 25 miles each day and begin and end in Traverse City on the state-of-the-art TART (Traverse Area Recreational Trail) and Leelanau rail trails — will take place July 15-16. Riders who register for the 6-Day and 8-Day options will cross the always-festive finish line at Frankfort High School on July 22. For complete ride details and to sign up, please log on to http://www.michigander.bike.

“To me, it’s the best cycling vacation ever, and planning a tour in ‘Michigan, my Michigan’ is a thrill,” said McGuire-Slevin, a former executive director of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau and an award-winning musician now in her second year as the ride’s leader. “We have a great crew and we all love to show off what our state has to offer to fellow residents and those from around the country. Planning it is a ton of work, but worth every minute, as I am always amazed at the people who ride the Michigander. They are resilient, athletic and a joy to be around.”

Clawson resident Rob Litwin, like many tour veterans, considers Michigander week the best week of the year and is eager for July 15 to finally arrive.

“I’ve done plenty of other week-long rides, but the Michigander is my favorite,” said the 60-year-old field engineer for Kodak. “There is a different feel to it that other rides lack. A lot of it has to do with the people and camaraderie. There are always many repeat riders and I’ve made many good friends from it over the years. I’m really looking forward to this year’s route, since it is in such a scenic part of the state and we are staying in prime vacation destinations.”

Co-founded with the Michigan Chapter of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), the tour became known as the Detroit Free Press Michigander under the Freep’s sponsorship from 1992-2001. It is now run by the Lansing-based Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance (MTGA), an affiliate of the Michigan Fitness Foundation. McGuire-Slevin serves as the MTGA’s assistant director.

The Great Lakes State leads the nation with nearly 3,000 miles of trails, according to the Michigan DNR, primarily stretches of converted old railroad corridors known as rail trails or linear trails.

Roger Storm, who in ‘92 was a Michigan RTC official and the leader of that first Michigander, recalled that Shine, a former Free Press copy boy, reporter, managing editor and, finally, publisher, dubbed the ride “the Michigander” because that name “gave a different spin to a bike ride. Sounded solid, a ride for the whole family, and there was no doubt where it was taking place. I think it was also a personal thing with Neal.”

The beloved newspaperman of four decades passed away in 2007.

Other suggestions for the ride’s moniker were “The Free Press Express” and the unwieldy “ROAMBRAT”, an acronym for Ride Over and Across Michigan’s Back Roads and Rail Trails.

When asked if he would still sign up for the Michigander year after year if it had been named ROAMBRAT, Litwin became positively Shakespearean.

“Sure I would,” he said. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

The virgin pines and wildflowers along the extraordinary route this summer should smell pretty good, too.

For more information about multi-use recreational trails in Michigan and about the Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance itself, please log on to http://www.michigantrails.org.

—Berkley-based freelance writer and Michigander veteran Ron Campbell can be reached at roncamp22g@gmail.com.

 

Come celebrate Michigander 25!

Come celebrate Michigander 25!

You are formally invited to join us on the special 25th anniversary edition of the historic, scenic, rail trail-based Michigander Bike Tour, which will rock and roll through beautiful West Michigan July 16-23, 2016. Save the dates! Registration for the ride is now open and will continue through June 30, 2016. For more information or to register, log on to: http://www.michigantrails.org/michigander-bike-tour.

PHOTO ABOVE: The Biker Babes (and Dudes), resplendent in their finest cycling apparel, celebrate their completion of the 2010 Michigander in Indian River with Mr. Finish Line himself, Sam “Pit Bull” Kennedy. The irrepressible BBaD’s tradition of rolling under the yellow banner in a variety of outrageous costumes every year is one of the ‘Gander’s most highly-anticipated closing spectacles. PHOTO BY RON CAMPBELL

UPDATE, JULY 2017: My mother, Gwyneth Rose Campbell, passed away two days before the 2016 Michigander began, so I had to miss riding and writing about the ride last year. But she would be pleased to know that I am back in the saddle and back at the keyboard for the 2017 Michigander. She always got a kick out of my stories about the tour and its colorful riders, so my articles about the 26th annual Michigander are dedicated to her memory.

The Michigander Bike Tour: So many miles, so many smiles — and so many stories

The Michigander Bike Tour: So many miles, so many smiles — and so many stories

LIFE IS GOOD, INDEED.  And on the Michigander – a sun-kissed, rain-soaked, sweat-streaked, aerobic laughter-filled, triumphant tear-stained, thigh-burning, soul-enriching, gloriously scenic two-wheeled journey all the way back to those carefree summer days when the only thing that mattered was that school was out until September and riding your bike to the ice cream store with your friends was just about the best feeling in the whole wide world – life is even better. Enjoy the ride? We LIVE for the ride.”

–An excerpt from “Resilient Michigander riders cross jubilent finish line in Harbor Springs” (article DFP 2013-3), which was published on the Detroit Free Press website, http://www.Freep.com, in July, 2013. Scroll down for newly-edited and expanded versions of all the Michigander articles I’ve written for Freep.com.

Those who signed up for the 2011 ‘Gander — our last West Michigan route — will never forget the ride, or the weather. I cranked out seven Michigander stories for the Grand Rapids Press that week (nine overall), the hardest I’ve ever worked as a writer. My task of gathering info, quotes and pictures, pounding them all into a coherent story and getting the finished product to an editor by my 6:30 p.m. deadline (yeah, right) every day for seven straight days — on top of repeatedly breaking down and setting up camp and actually riding when I could (it soon became painfully obvious I would not have time to ride the entire route each day) — was made all the more challenging by the fact that with average daily highs well over 90 degrees, the 2011 edition turned out to be the hottest in ‘Gander history.

But as a communications and journalism major (Go Green! Go Grizzlies!) who happens to love biking and camping, it was also thrilling to follow in the footseps — and tire marks — of  legendary Detroit Free Press Michigander writers of yore such as Neely Tucker, a highly-acclaimed novelist currently with the Washington Post, New York Times op ed columnist Frank Bruni and retired Free Press outdoors columnist Eric Sharp. And in the midst of that searing July heat, I met some pretty cool people and heard some pretty fascinating stories.

Below are links to the published versions of those GRP articles, which are accompanied by dozens of photos but unfortunately include several errors inserted by misguided editors. You will also find links to the online versions of the three 2015 Free Press stories. As this blog is a work in progress, please check back for older articles that have appeared elsewhere, and stay tuned for a nostalgic ‘Gander 25 preview story for Freep.com.

If you are a Michigander veteran like me, you just might find yourself in here somewhere!

MICHIGANDER ARTICLES AND PHOTOS ONLINE:

GRP 2011-1: Bike Tour comes to West Michigan; 20th annual ride will hit trails surrounding Grand Rapids

http://www.mlive.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2011/07/bike_tour_comes_to_west_michig.html

GRP 2011-2: Get on your bike and ride: If you’ve ever wanted to do a long bike tour, here’s what you need to know

http://www.mlive.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2011/07/get_on_your_bike_and_ride_if_y.html

GRP 2011-3: 7-Day Michigander Bicycle Tour begins as old friends, rookies start journey

http://www.mlive.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2011/07/7-day_michigander_bicycle_tour.html

GRP 2011-4: Taking it easy on Day 1; Michigander Bike Tour participants brave heat, humidity

http://www.mlive.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2011/07/taking_it_easy_on_day_1_michig.html

GRP 2011-5: Exotic themes, heat mark third day of Michigander Bicycle Tour

http://www.mlive.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2011/07/exotic_themes_heat_mark_third.html

GRP 2011-6: How volunteers make Michigander Bike Tour possible

http://www.mlive.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2011/07/how_volunteers_make_michigande.html

GRP 2011-7: Michigander Bicycle Tour, Day 5: When it comes to heat, it’s all relative

http://www.mlive.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2011/07/michigander_bicycle_tour_day_5.html

GRP 2011-8: End in sight for heat-and-road-weary Michigander Bike Tour riders 

http://www.mlive.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2011/07/end_in_sight_for_heat-and-road.html

GRP 2011-9: Resilient riders complete 7-day, 340-mile Michigander Bike Tour

http://www.mlive.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2011/07/resilient_riders_complete_7-da.html

DFP 2015-1: Michigander Bike Tour: Registration deadline today

http://www.freep.com/story/sports/outdoors/2015/07/02/michigander-bike-tour/29605451/

DFP 2015-2: Cyclist takes new heart out for spin on Michigander

http://www.freep.com/story/sports/outdoors/2015/07/16/michigander-bike-tour/30242811/

DFP 2015-3: A little Hemingway, lot of love on Michigander Bike Tour

http://www.freep.com/story/sports/2015/07/21/michigander-bike-tour/30490209/

–For more information about the Michigander, log on to: 
http://www.michigantrails.org/michigander-bike-tour

–Detroit-based freelance writer and Michigander veteran Ron Campbell can be reached at: roncamp22g@gmail.com.

DFP 2013-1: Scenic “Up North” Michigander registration still open; spare cycling shorts advised

DFP 2013-1: Scenic “Up North” Michigander registration still open; spare cycling shorts advised

SCENIC “UP NORTH” MICHIGANDER REGISTRATION STILL OPEN; SPARE CYCLING SHORTS ADVISED

PHOTO ABOVE: Clawson residents Jackie and Rob Litwin celebrate at the  Michigander 2012 Finish Line in Mackinaw City. PHOTO BY RON CAMPBELL

By RON CAMPBELL
Detroit Free Press Special Writer
June 27, 2013

CHARLEVOIX – For bicycling and outdoors enthusiasts who enjoy making adventurous new friends, Christmas – or at least its warmer two-wheeled equivalent – is coming early again this year, right through scenic Northern Michigan.

The 22nd annual Michigander Bicycle Tour will get underway at Charlevoix Middle School on July 13 and take its riders from 56 to 280 miles on rail trails – abandoned railroad corridors that have been converted into multi-use recreational trails – and back roads. It will conclude in Harbor Springs on July 19.

“We keep coming back ‘Up North’ because it is one of the most popular Michigander routes,” said Nancy Krupiarz, the executive director of the Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance (MTGA), the nonprofit organization that runs the event. “In addition to our many veteran riders who return year after year, we are also attracting a lot of new out-of-state riders who want to experience Michigan’s beautiful north country.”

Michigander Director Barry Culham has extended the online registration deadline to 5 p.m. July 5. For more information or to register, log on to http://www.michigantrails.org/michigander-bicycle-tour.

Cyclists on the 56-mile 2-Day option, a good choice for families and beginners, will ride along Lake Michigan on the paved Little Traverse Wheelway (known to locals as simply “the Bike Path”) through Petoskey to Harbor Springs on Saturday, July 13, camp overnight at Harbor Springs Middle School and return to Charlevoix via the trail the next day.

Riders on the overlapping 252-mile 6-Day and 280-mile 7-Day routes will pedal on the Bike Path, country roads and the highly-acclaimed North Central State Trail, a 62-mile long ribbon of crushed limestone between Gaylord and Mackinaw City that runs through quaint tourist towns such as Topinabee and Cheboygan along the northernmost segment of the old Michigan Central Railroad, including an especially picturesque 15-mile stretch by Mullett Lake. The NCST officially opened in 2008.

The spirited cyclists will camp overnight in Harbor Springs, Bellaire, Gaylord, Indian River and Mackinaw City and, accompanied by heart-pumping music and rousing cheers from their fellow riders, roll triumphantly under the yellow “Michigander 2013 Finish Line” banner back in Harbor Springs on July 19.

The Free Press co-founded the Michigander with the Michigan Chapter of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in 1992 and introduced it in a cover story in the old Free Press Sunday Magazine. The 200 or so cyclists who signed up that first year rode cross-state – with much of the mileage on rough, undeveloped trails – from South Haven to Rochester, finishing on the Paint Creek Trail.

With its ever-increasing and improving network of such greenways, the Great Lake State leads the U.S. with 2623 total miles of rail trails, and the Michigander is now the nation’s largest – with about 50 volunteers and 650 riders registered for its three routes as of June 25 – and longest rail trail-based bike tour, according to Krupiarz.

Former Free Press outdoors writer Eric Sharp, who rode and wrote about the tour from 1994-2001, had fond memories of the event.

“What was most notable was the incredible enthusiasm of the people who had ridden it before,” he said. “This was the highlight of the year for many, better than Christmas, and their enthusiasm was infectious.”

One year, Sharp noticed a group of riders who were perhaps a little too enthusiastic when it came to trailside swimming holes.

They “decided to go skinny dipping in a small lake we passed, only to find that riders who came along later had grabbed their clothes and strewn them along a quarter-mile of woods,” Sharp recalled. “When I passed, two of the guys were still riding naked, looking for their cycling pants.”

Bicycling Magazine featured the Michigander as one of its favorite events in its Multiday Ride Guide last year. You’ll get no argument from Rob Litwin, a 56-year-old Kodak field service engineer from Clawson, about the tour’s appeal.

“I enjoy seeing all the repeat riders every year,” said Litwin, who is returning for his 17th Michigander. “It feels like a family reunion. I also enjoy the trails because it gets you closer to nature. When you spend most of your time cooped up in buildings and cars you lose sight of the natural world, and when I get out and bike a trail I feel a connection that I find revitalizing. It never fails – I always feel better after a bike ride. And the Michigander always helps me find my smile.”

“I love the Michigander because I love my husband,” added his grateful wife Jackie Litwin, a 14-time Michigander participant who says she is not a ‘complete biker nut” like Rob and, due to scheduling conflicts, will have to miss the tour this year. “He rides into this brave new world each year, and always finds his way back to himself, and back to me. He comes home a better husband, a better dad, a better man.”

Here’s hoping the better man doesn’t go swimming au naturel in any of the numerous lakes along this year’s route. Otherwise he may need help finding his cycling shorts as well.

For more information about the Michigander, log on to: http://www.michigantrails.org/michigander-bicycle-tour

–Detroit-based freelance writer and Michigander veteran Ron Campbell can be reached at: roncamp22g@gmail.com.

 

DFP 2013-2: Michigander riders beat Northern Michigan heat, near finish line

DFP 2013-2: Michigander riders beat Northern Michigan heat, near finish line

MICHIGANDER RIDERS BEAT NORTHERN MICHIGAN HEAT, NEAR FINISH LINE

PHOTO ABOVE (L to R): Les Rosan of Alma and Barb Jackson of Mt. Pleasant ride along Mullett Lake in Topinabee on the North Central State Trail during the 2013 ‘Gander. PHOTO BY RON CAMPBELL

By RON CAMPBELL
Detroit Free Press Special Writer
July 18, 2013

MACKINAW CITY – Why would a seemingly normal person want to spend a week-long vacation riding a bicycle 280 miles on country roads and rail trails – abandoned railroad corridors that have been converted into multi-use recreational trails – in the summer heat?

For Julian Jeun, 39, a percussionist in the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, it’s the chance to check off a challenging adventure that’s been high on his bucket list.

For 62-year-old Les Rosan, a newspaper columnist and private investigator from Alma, it’s all about maintaining a healthy lifestyle while renewing old friendships and forging new ones in a unique “adult summer camp.”

And for Sarah Williams, a 41-year-old mother of two from Troy, it’s another opportunity to prove wrong the doctors who told her she would likely never walk again after suffering a severe back injury in 2000.

These three cycling enthusiasts pedaled 36 miles on the acclaimed North Central State Trail (NCST) from Indian River to Mackinaw City yesterday on the fifth day of the 22nd annual Michigander Bicycle Tour, accompanied by 384 other riders from Michigan and 23 other states and Canadian provinces.

“It’s physically more challenging than I thought it would be, but I’m enjoying the challenge,” said Jeun, who saw a preview story about the Michigander on the Free Press website and decided to gear up for his first bike tour on his beloved white Electra Townie cruiser. “The people on the ride are great. This whole thing for me is about going slower, getting into a groove and enjoying the ride and the scenery of northern Michigan.”

In addition to the region’s natural beauty and highly-regarded trails, one of the reasons tour officials chose this “Up North” route – with rides to and overnight stays in Charlevoix, Harbor Springs, Bellaire, Gaylord, Indian River and Mackinaw City – is the promise of cooler northern Michigan weather.

But with unusually high humidity and temperatures topping out at 82, 94, 91, 95 and 93 degrees on the first five days, that hasn’t exactly been the case.

“It’s hotter here than it is back home in Arizona!” said 60-year-old Phoenix resident Laura Thomas, who is driving a support vehicle for her husband Bob Thomas, 71, and their friends Lee Lambie, 62, and Ron La Moureaux, 78, also of Phoenix. All four are participating in the Michigander for the first time.

“But everyone is so friendly and kind,” Laura Thomas added. “Northern Michigan is really pretty, lush and green. We’re all glad we came.”

“You’ve got to be flexible to ride the Michigander,” said tour director Barry Culham. “Everybody’s hanging in there and having fun.”

Many riders have beaten the heat – at least temporarily – by taking refreshing dips in big swimming holes such as Little Traverse Bay and Mullett Lake, going tubing on the Sturgeon River and rehydrating and relaxing under shady canopies at the numerous rest stops along the route. Medical personnel are also on duty throughout the tour, but according to Culham, no one has dropped out due to the oppressive conditions Up North.

The Michigander’s 2-Day option concluded in Charlevoix on July 14 after a 56-mile ride to Harbor Springs and back on the Little Traverse Wheelway, a paved trail on which the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, and later the Chicago and West Michigan Railway, operated.

The riders have an optional off-day today in the multi-colored tent city they have set up at the Mackinaw City Recreation Complex. Some planned short rides around Mackinaw City; others, including the Arizona contingent, a visit to Mackinac Island.

After racking up almost 200 miles on the first five days of the tour, however, the Westerners have no intention of riding their bikes around the island’s famously car-free, 8-mile-long M-185.

“We’re going to give our bottoms a rest,” said Bob Thomas, a retired Nissan engineer.

The Free Press co-founded the Michigander with the Michigan Chapter of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in 1992. The roughly 200 cyclists who signed up that first year rode cross-state – with much of the mileage on rough, undeveloped trails – from South Haven to Rochester, finishing on the Paint Creek Trail.

With its ever-increasing network of such greenways, Michigan leads the U.S. with 2623 total miles of rail trails, and the Michigander is now the nation’s largest and longest rail trail-based bike tour, according to Nancy Krupiarz, the executive director of the Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance (MTGA), the nonprofit organization that runs the event.

Rosan has written about the Michigander several times in his columns for the Morning Sun, a Mt. Pleasant daily. He recalled reading former Free Press outdoors writer Eric Sharp’s stories about the ride in 1994 and thinking, “That sounds like something I would like to do.”

After overcoming a rough start due to inexperience and a lack of training, he liked riding Michigander III so much that he has ridden every edition since, 20 in all.

“It was like an adult summer camp,” said Rosan, who talked two friends – audiologist Barb Jackson, of Mt. Pleasant, and Linda Luneack, a retired Spanish teacher from Alma – into joining him on this year’s tour. “The Michigander has never been about the ride, per se; it’s about the people you meet and the friendships you form.”

Rosan’s wife Carol is philosophical about the physical toll a 280-mile bike trip in July could take on her husband, a retired police officer.

“She says, ‘If he drops over dead on a bicycle, he’ll be happy.’ ”

Les Rosan is determined not to drop over anytime soon.

He has successfully battled lung cancer and a progressive genetic heart condition in recent years, and credits the Michigander and bicycling in general with inspiring him to maintain a healthy lifestyle. He rides about 2500 miles every year on his red Cannondale road bike and his black Cannondale hybrid. The latter came in handy on the 62-mile, crushed-limestone North Central State Trail between Gaylord and Mackinaw City, on which the cyclists pedaled July 16 and 17.

Riders on the overlapping 6-Day and 7-Day routes will complete their long journey and roll triumphantly under the yellow “2013 Michigander Finish Line” banner tomorrow at Harbor Springs Middle School.

Williams’ triumph over a spinal cord injury in 2000 that left her wheelchair-bound for four years is particularly remarkable.

“I never accepted it when doctors told me I probably wouldn’t walk again,” said the 41-year-old Troy resident and mother of two. “I was motivated to stay physically active.”

After a major breakthrough in her diagnosis and years of intensive physical therapy, Williams ditched her wheelchair in 2004 and rode her first Michigander in 2007. This year marks her seventh consecutive ride.

She’s accompanied on the tour by her husband Bill Williams, a 40-year-old software project manager, their 5-year-old son Brayden and 3-year-old daughter Aurora, and another family they’ve been reuniting with on the Michigander since 2007: Novi residents Maria Tilmos, her husband Wayne Tilmos and their 5-year-old son Mason, who alternates pedaling behind his mom and dad in a recumbent tagalong and is the youngest rider on the tour. Brayden also rides a tagalong; Aurora is pulled in a bike trailer. The Tilmos’ youngest child, 2-year-old Vayla, is back home with her grandmother.

“It feels good being able to do normal things that normal people do,” Sarah Williams said, then broke into a big smile as she made a sweeping gesture around the ice arena at the Mackinaw City Recreation Complex, where her fellow riders – many clad in unforgiving spandex shorts and jerseys, sunburned, helmet-haired, exhausted and walking gingerly, but enjoying each other’s company and still in good spirits – were having dinner after adding 37 hot miles to their cyclometers, with the end of their singular seven-day, nearly 300-mile bike ride now in sight.

“But ‘normal’ people don’t do this, do they?”

–For more information about the Michigander, log on to: http://www.michigantrails.org/michigander-bicycle-tour

–Detroit-based freelance writer and Michigander veteran Ron Campbell can be reached at: roncamp22g@gmail.com.

 

 

DFP 2013-3: Resilient Michigander riders cross jubilant finish line in Harbor Springs

DFP 2013-3: Resilient Michigander riders cross jubilant finish line in Harbor Springs

RESILIENT MICHIGANDER RIDERS CROSS JUBILANT FINISH LINE IN HARBOR SPRINGS (PUBLISHED ON FREEP.COM AS “STORIES FROM THE 2013 MICHIGANDER BICYCLE TOUR”)

PHOTO ABOVE: Two Michigander legends: Sam Kennedy, 60, of Belleville waves the checkered flags for 82-year-old Canton resident Joe Chicky at the Michigander 2013 Finish Line in Harbor Springs on July 18, 2013. PHOTO BY RON CAMPBELL

By RON CAMPBELL
Detroit Free Press Special Writer
July 29, 2013

HARBOR SPRINGS – “COME ON HOME!” a shirtless, chiseled Sam Kennedy yells as he waves two checkered flags while, one by one, two by two and four by four, bicyclists approach and then roll past him under the yellow “Michigander 2013 Finish Line” banner at Harbor Springs Middle School, fists punching the air in triumph. “LOOK AT THAT SMILE!” “YOU MADE IT!”

Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” blasts from his wife Rita’s boom box, accompanying Sam’s cries over his bullhorn. You couldn’t dream up a more appropriate song. Rita blows a whistle from her spot about 50 yards before the finish line when incoming riders turn left onto State Road, cuing her husband to get ready to do his thing – over and over again. He will log six hours of flag-waving and cheerleading today. Early finishers and volunteers lining the path to the end of a long, exhausting, exhilarating ride of nearly 300 miles through scenic northern Lower Michigan whoop and clap as their Michigander brothers and sisters coast by.

Gentle rays of sunshine poke through wispy clouds, a welcome respite from the tremendous morning downpours that soaked my resilient 386 fellow riders and me during the first half of our 43-mile leg on this final day of the 22nd annual Michigander Bicycle Tour, July 19. All this, after we’d endured four straight 90-plus degree afternoons, unusually high humidity and a scorching sun earlier in the week.

After crossing the finish line myself just past noon, I think of the buoyant slogan on the matching new lilac-colored T-shirts two of my Michigander friends, GM parts specialist Kathy Cota of Waterford and retired teacher Bonnie Michalak of Royal Oak, showed off the night before in Mackinaw City.

“Life is good,” the shirts read, above a depiction of a grinning cyclist, naturally. “Enjoy the ride” was printed below.

I’ve just completed my 17th ride and have long considered the Michigander my favorite week of the year. Many of my comrades-in-legs feel the same way.

“This is my Christmas week, because I look forward to it all year,” 56-year-old Clawson resident Rob Litwin, also a 17-timer, told me at the Mackinaw City Recreation Complex. We battled booming thunderstorms, torrential rains and high winds on our second of two nights camped out there after a much-appreciated optional day off on July 18, the penultimate day of the tour.

Talking about riding the first leg of the tour on July 13 from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs – a pleasant, sunny 82-degree day that preceded our withering heat wave – after dealing with the everyday worries of life and work in the weeks leading up to the Michigander, Litwin added, “The weather was perfect, the sky was blue, the smell of Lake Michigan and the pines along the Little Traverse Wheelway was intoxicating, the scenery was beautiful, and all of a sudden it just hit me – I felt great and I had an ear-to-ear smile.”

The Little Traverse Wheelway is a paved, 26-mile long rail trail – a former railroad corridor that has been converted into a multi-use recreational trail – that connects Charlevoix and Harbor Springs. The other featured rail trail on this year’s Michigander was the North Central State Trail (NCST), a 62-mile long ribbon of crushed limestone between Gaylord and Mackinaw City, on which we pedaled July 16 and 17.

The Mid-America Trails and Greenways Conference named the NCST – which passes through quaint tourist towns and forests and includes especially picturesque stretches beside Mullett Lake and the Sturgeon River – the best rail trail in Michigan in 2011. We racked up additional mileage on back roads throughout the week.

The Free Press co-founded the Michigander with the Michigan Chapter of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in 1992 and sponsored and covered the ride extensively in its early years. It is now run by the Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance (MTGA), the Lansing-based nonprofit organization for which it raises funds.

Joe Chicky, an 82-year-old Canton resident who missed the first Michigander back in August, 1992 but has ridden all 21 since then, is one of the oldest cyclists on the tour.

I asked the retired GM supervisor, who rides a gray Schwinn Voyager hybrid with a 35-year-old leather Brooks seat, how he felt after he crossed the finish line.

“Tired!” he said, beaming. “I’m glad I made it!

“I ride the Michigander because I’m able to do it and because I fully enjoy it,” he added. “The people on the ride treat everyone else as equals. If everyone was like they are when they’re on the Michigander – just good, friendly people – the world would be a much better place.”

Chicky is a much-loved fixture on the tour, famous for his entourage of family members who wear T-shirts that say “I’m With Joe” on the back.

“I’m Joe,” Chicky’s own T-shirt states matter-of-factly.

His multi-generational group this year – one of the many families on the ride – included his daughter Leslie Griffiths, her husband Andy Griffiths and their daughter Lindsey Griffiths, all from South Burlington, Vermont.

Kim Kimball, one of the last remaining old-timers who has ridden every single Michigander, said that before he got married, his Michigander friends made up his first family.

We are indeed family here, both biological and “cycle-logical.”

“It’s fun to watch people grow up, and grow old, on this ride,” said the 56-year-old park maintenance specialist from Oxford. He flies a flag bearing a peace sign beside his tent. “It helps keep me young at heart, and keeps my heart pumping.

“I keep coming back because of the people and the camaraderie,” Kimball added, echoing Chicky and most other tour vets.

As more riders pedaled into the Harbor Springs Middle School parking lot on our last day, I somewhat jokingly asked him if his four years in the U.S. Marine Corps helped prepare him for the 280-mile ride that took us from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs, Bellaire, Gaylord, Indian River and Mackinaw City, and finally back to Harbor Springs for our spirited grand finale.

“You’re damn right it did!” Kimball said, and he was as serious as an empty water bottle on a thermometer-bursting day. His ever-present grin had become more visible since he’d shaved off his bushy brown-and-grey-streaked beard midway through the ride. “Because you don’t quit on yourself on the Michigander.”

Kristen Kramer, a 46-year-old registered nurse and accountant from Clinton Township, didn’t quit after wilting in the 94-degree heat during the second day of our 7-Day route. She called upon the energy reserves of her inner child.

(Riders on the overlapping 252-mile 6-Day route began on July 14 in Harbor Springs. The 2-Day participants rode a total of 56 miles from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs and back, primarily on the Little Traverse Wheelway, on July 13 and 14.)

“For one week a year, I get to be 8 years old again,” said Kramer, a 16-time Michigander rider, who was accompanied on the tour by her friend Darren Brewster, a 50-year-old Comcast installer from Warren. “I ride my bike, I play with friends, I sleep in a tent and I eat ice cream. I have no job, no boss, no deadlines, no mortgage payment, no stress.”

If any folks had a right to feel stressed out on the Michigander, it was Brighton residents Kelly Poppe, 52, and Fred Purol, 62. I met them on July 18 on Mackinac Island, which many of my fellow riders and I visited on our off-day.

I learned on that rainy morning that the couple had gotten engaged four months earlier and, two weeks before the Michigander began, decided to get married – during a week of pedaling more miles each day than many folks ride all summer, in intense heat and pouring rain, and camping out in a tent every night in the company of almost 400 other dog-tired, helmet-haired, limping, snoring people with weird tan lines who think nothing of gallivanting about in public in unforgiving spandex shorts and tops.

Romantic?

You bet your Avocet it was.

“Bike riding is one of our passions that we share,” said the newly-renamed Kelly Poppe-Purol. “Fred and I couldn’t have been happier with how the week transpired. All of our plans fell right into place. Everything seemed to come together so easily, with absolutely no stress.”

“Biking is what got us together in the first place,” added the groom, who was on his third Michigander. “It wasn’t a typical wedding, but it was very romantic.”

Tying the knot on storied Mackinac Island – one of the Great Lake State’s choicest spots for both exchanging wedding vows and riding bikes – didn’t hurt.

Reverend Thomas Marx, a Mackinac Island resident, officiated the small, private ceremony at the Harbour View Inn on July 17, after arriving on his bicycle in a suit and tie, with his Bible in his basket. Highland resident Linda Dove, a longtime friend of the bride’s who also rode the Michigander, was the matron of honor and served as the couple’s witness and photographer as well.

Add “The Wedding March” to the 2013 Michigander soundtrack, which – in addition to the fitting Sister Sledge classic – ranged from “Hot Fun in the Summertime” to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and from “Everybody Hurts” to “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.”

“The Harbour View Inn and Mackinac Island will hold a special place in our hearts forever, and the Michigander as well!” said Poppe-Purol, who was on the ride for the fourth time and works in human resources for Thai Summit America, a sheet metal stamping company.

The bride and groom might not have felt stressed, but the icing on their wedding cake did, and melted in the day’s 93-degree heat. The couple spent their special night at the Harbour View, boxed up what was left of the gooey cake and put it out on the dessert table for their fellow riders to enjoy the next night when they returned to the Michigander camp in Mackinaw City.

Both newlyweds said they plan to return to the tour on a regular basis. Fred Purol, a finance manager for Reliable Carriers, a Canton-based trucking company, pointed out another advantage to getting married under such unique circumstances.

“It will always be easy to remember our anniversary!” he told me with a sly smile.

It’s not so easy to explain the essence and appeal of the Michigander to folks who have never ridden it, let alone to those who think that riding a bike is just for kids.

The Michigander, with its 280-mile 7-Day option and 50 volunteers and 736 riders on its three overlapping routes this year, is the nation’s longest and largest rail trail-based bike tour, according to MTGA Executive Director Nancy Krupiarz. It takes place annually in July in the Great Lake State, which leads the nation with a total of 2623 miles of rail trails. Its riders pedaled an average of 40 miles per day on the Little Traverse Wheelway, the North Central State Trail and back roads, came from 23 states and Canadian provinces and ranged in age from 5 to 84.

That doesn’t begin to define the Michigander Mystique.

The Michigander, which Bicycling Magazine cited as one of its favorite events in its Multiday Ride Guide last year, is Rochester Hills residents Jeff and Debbie Rice receiving a rousing toast from about 50 of their brother and sister cyclists as they celebrated their 23rd wedding anniversary at Short’s Brewing Company in Bellaire on the evening of July 14.

“That was great,” said Jeff Rice, a 54-year-old carpenter. “It felt like family – the people, the fun, the atmosphere … and the beer.”

The Michigander is the kind-hearted woman with the wet towel who noticed us riding by just south of Charlevoix during the second leg of the 7-Day route earlier that day. Her house was near the bottom of a steep hill we had to climb, a task made all the more daunting by 94-degree temps, an unshaded open road and a burning sun.

Even more dispiriting, at least to me, was the sight of two sleek yellow and black motorcycles for sale by the side of the road before her place. $5200 for the pair. “What kind of twisted individual would taunt us like that?” I wondered as I removed the coin purse from the rear bag of my silver Bianchi hybrid and found I was $5179 short.

The nice lady lowered my body temperature and lifted my spirits when she dipped her towel into a small plastic tub of cool water and dropped it on top of my temporarily de-helmeted head. She politely denied my request for a loan of $5200, however. That was a double bummer, because in that heat at the bottom of that hill, I was sure that my impulse purchase would have not only made my quest for the summit a lot easier, but would also have allowed me to do one of my fellow riders a huge favor by selling him or her the second of those mighty bumblebees at a modest profit.

I would have applied it to next year’s tour fees.

Regarding the 2014 edition of the Michigander, ride director Barry Culham told me, “We are looking to have the route in northwest Lower Michigan, in the Traverse City area.” He said he hopes to announce the specific route by Christmas, and that applications will be available by late February.

The Michigander is 65-year-old Rochester Hills resident Catherine Herron, another 22-time tour participant, insisting that a proper banana split has vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream – not just vanilla – and her childlike delight in finding the perfect one at the Big Dipper Ice Cream Parlour in Cheboygan when we passed through on the NCST on July 17.

“This Michigander was the best ever!” Herron exclaimed at the finish line. She says that every year, and means it.

It is Lesa McDowell-Smouter and Slcott Smouter, both 50, of Troy, Mich., who first met in South Haven during the 2005 tour, nurtured their friendship on subsequent rides, started dating in 2008 – and married in August, 2009.

The Michigander is grizzled veterans regaling wide-eyed rookies with tales of riding trails that were little more than piles of rocks and loose sand in the early days, of a flustered woman who wound up in a busy men’s locker room after taking a wrong turn in one of our host schools and of an unfortunate camper finding out too late that he had set up his tent over an automatic sprinkler.

It is “Downhill Bob” Charbonneau, a retired GM engineer from Royal Oak who walks and rides with difficulty after a serious car accident but serves as a volunteer baggage truck driver on the tour year after year just so he can enjoy its “aerobic laughter.” Inspired by Michigander merriment, he coined the term to describe the phenomenon of “laughing so hard and for so long that there is exercise value to it.”

The Michigander is busy mom Sarah Williams riding her seventh straight tour with her family and friends, a few years after being wheelchair-bound and told by doctors she would probably never walk again. It is newspaper columnist Les Rosan, serenely pedaling along on his 20th with his own old and new riding buddies, a surgically-reduced right lung and pacemaker/defibrillator in his chest.

It is 5-year-old dynamo Mason Tilmos, the youngest rider on the tour, imploring his mother Maria and father Wayne, “We’ve got to hurry up; we can’t let them win!” after taking turns passing and then being passed by another family on the trail.

Ease up there, little buddy. We’re all winners on this ride.

The Michigander is Hawaiian-themed rest stops and dedicated volunteers and medics and riders stopping to help others with a flat and surprisingly tasty meals in the school cafeterias and the welcome sight of a brand new multi-colored tent city after a hard day’s ride. It is the Beanie Babies and Indiana Joe and the Bike Lady and Ruth the Masseuse and Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers and Michigan Cycling Charters and the Biker Babes (and Dudes) and Grandpa’s Gang.

It is talking to a percussionist in the Windsor Symphony Orchestra about “Scheherazade” in the morning, to a fire alarm inspector and a consultant and a bank manager about, well, all kinds of things I can’t talk about here during a rollicking afternoon pontoon boat party on Burt Lake and to a husband-and-wife team of doctors from North Carolina about nutrition and the weather in the evening. It is handshakes and hugs and promises to keep in touch in the parking lot on the last day.

The Michigander is Joe Chicky, the patriarch of the “I’m With Joe” contingent, getting emotional when I repeated to him an astute comment Michigander veteran Jim Walter made at the end of last year’s ride.

“In a way, we’re all with Joe,” Walter observed as we were about to leave the Mackinaw City Recreation Complex, and his words were as true as the spokes on a perfectly-balanced wheel.

“Oh, wow!” Joe said when I relayed Walter’s assertion, tapping his heart with his right hand, eyes moistening.

Chicky told me he had no complaints about having to ride in this year’s heat, and then explained why: On a frigid night in Korea while he was serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he said, “I was so cold, I truly believed I was going to freeze to death. And when I got out of my sleeping bag, I vowed that if I ever warmed up again, I would never complain about hot weather.”

The Michigander is Howard “Putter” Schoenherr, who rode the Michigander many times with his daughter, Shelley Schoenherr. Howard used to run the Sanford Lake Bar and Grill in Sanford, Mich. and served as a Midland County commissioner for 12 years. He often tried to put up a façade as a crusty old curmudgeon, but couldn’t quite pull it off. We could all tell that he was really a big softie.

“YOU’RE GETTING FATTER!” he’d growl when he saw me on the ‘Gander for the first time each year, renewing our annual frat brother teasing sessions with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. Howard always seemed to have a mischievous gleam in his eyes.

“YOU’RE GETTING UGLIER!” I’d cheerfully retort. Then we’d wish each other a good ride and be on our merry way.

Howard passed away last September at the age of 79. A mutual Michigander friend broke it to me in an email with the subject line, “Some Sad Michigander News.” Howard’s participation in the Michigander was such a significant part of his life that it was mentioned in his obituary.

You missed a good ride, Howard – and we missed you. Ride in peace.

It is Rob Litwin saying, “The Michigander always helps me find my smile,” and his grateful wife Jackie adding this: “He rides into this brave new world each year, and always finds his way back to himself, and back to me. He comes home a better husband, a better dad, a better man.”

If there’s another summer event that inspires those kind of poignant testimonials, I’d like to hear about it.

And perhaps most of all, the Michigander is Sam “Pit Bull” Kennedy, a 21-year tour vet whose legendary status is so well-documented that he received an autograph request during the 2011 ride after the proprietor of a West Michigan party store recognized him from his picture on the front page of that day’s Grand Rapids Press.

Kennedy, 60, a retired GM warehouse worker from Belleville and no stranger to the gym, owns the Michigander finish line. Bare-chested, clad in his trademark black and white striped shorts, barking words of encouragement and praise into his bullhorn and theatrically waving his pair of checkered flags as members of his cycle-logical family ride by, he is the Michigander at its very core.

The morning clouds have all drifted away above the yellow banner at Harbor Springs Middle School on this now-idyllic July afternoon. The last few riders cross underneath it, serenaded by the stomps and claps of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and Sam’s calls of “ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST!” and “CONGRATULATIONS!” The latest edition of the Michigander Bike Tour draws to a close under nothing but blue skies.

Come on home. Life is good, indeed.

And on the Michigander – a sun-kissed, rain-soaked, sweat-streaked, aerobic laughter-filled, triumphant tear-stained, thigh-burning, soul-enriching, gloriously scenic two-wheeled journey all the way back to those carefree summer days when the only thing that mattered was that school was out until September and riding your bike to the ice cream store with your friends was just about the best feeling in the whole wide world – life is even better.

Enjoy the ride?

We live for the ride.

–For more information about the Michigander, log on to: http://www.michigantrails.org/michigander-bicycle-tour

–Detroit-based freelance writer and Michigander veteran Ron Campbell can be reached at: roncamp22g@gmail.com.