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


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

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.


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.


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