DFP 2014-1: “This will be a hoot in August”: Remembering first Michigander as registration for 23rd edition ends


PHOTO ABOVE: Free Press reporter Neely Tucker on his challenging preview ride of the inaugural Michigander route in March, 1992. PHOTO BY GEORGE GRYZENIA/COURTESY OF DETROIT FREE PRESS

Detroit Free Press Special Writer/Traverse City Travel Guest Blogger
June 30, 2014

TRAVERSE CITY – It all began 22 years ago, with a Detroit Free Press Magazine article about “The Bike Trip From Hell.”

I can still remember the cover illustration of bicyclists on a trail catching my eye one Sunday morning. Then the headline of the story in the magazine’s April 19, 1992 edition drew me in: “This Will Be a Hoot in August.”

Some crazy dude with a pony tail had ridden 275 mostly-solitary miles across the Great Lake State’s southern Lower Peninsula, from South Haven to Rochester, on icy roads and rail trails – abandoned railroad corridors that have been converted into multiuse recreational trails – through a blizzard and sub-zero wind chills in March.

Then-Free Press reporter Neely Tucker had just christened the inaugural route of the Detroit Free Press Michigander Bicycle Tour.

Next month, the True North version of the 23rd annual Michigander will roll through the paradise that is northwest Lower Michigan, including Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the Leelanau Peninsula and Traverse City, from July 12-18.

It will be my 18th ‘Gander ride, and considerably warmer than Tucker’s first.

The 258-mile 6-Day and 293-mile 7-Day tour options begin in Reed City and Farwell, respectively, and will travel on M-22 – the sublime subject of all those trendy bumper stickers – back roads, the Fred Meijer White Pine, Betsie Valley, Leelanau and TART (Traverse Area Recreational Trail) rail trails. Riders will set up tent cities in the tiny village of Mesick and such quintessential Up North resort towns such as Frankfort, Leland, Traverse City and Cadillac.

After breaking camp in Cadillac and embarking on an easy 30-mile morning on the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail and back roads, my 6-Day and 7-Day comrades-in-legs and I will conclude our exhilarating trek through scenic northwest Lower Michigan when we roll triumphantly under the yellow Michigander 2014 Finish Line banner in Reed City on July 18.

It’s not too late to join in on the fun and sign up for the tour Bicycling Magazine cited as one of its 10 favorite events in its 2012 Multiday Ride Guide. Michigander Director Barry Culham has extended the registration deadline for Free Press readers to this Thursday, July 3.

As of June 29, 654 riders had signed up for one of the tour’s three options, including the family-and-beginner-friendly 2-Day ride, which starts in Farwell on July 12 and will take riders 35 miles along the paved Pere Marquette State Trail to their overnight camp in the crossroads town of Reed City, an old Michigander favorite, and 35 miles back to Farwell the next day.

In his classic story that introduced readers to the nation’s first and still the longest and largest rail trail-based bicycle tour, Tucker wrote about his frozen misadventures on the inaugural route. The main event, August 16-21, 1992, was sponsored and covered by the Free Press after the Michigan Chapter of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy asked the paper to join them in a project to raise awareness of and funds for the rails-to-trails campaign.

As a recent journalism grad who always took my bike with me on my frequent Michigan State Parks camping excursions but never rode great distances, I thought to myself, “That sounds, uh, interesting.” And “Wow, his editor must be a sadist.”

“I was dumb enough to keep pedaling, lucky enough not to get hurt, and numb enough to undergo heart surgery without anesthesia,” Tucker wrote then. “Even now, with the chill lingering in my bones, I can imagine that it might be fun to do this in August. But in early March the Free Press Michigander was the Bike Trip From Hell. After all, I did pedal through it. (The route passed through the community of Hell, 15 miles northwest of Ann Arbor.)

“And just as I suspected, it was frozen over.”

As I read Tucker’s article all those years ago, I couldn’t really envision that the ride would endure and grow into such a popular event that veteran cyclists now breathlessly anticipate ‘Gander Week the same way kids work themselves into a frenzy looking forward to Santa hurrying down their chimney every winter, a rocking, rolling Christmas in July trek through sleepy one-light villages and charming resort towns via back roads and rail trails.

Neither could Tucker himself.

“I had no idea it would turn into something that would last this long,” Tucker, now with the Washington Post, told me in an email last week from Austin, Texas. He was on a national book tour promoting his highly-acclaimed first novel, “The Ways of the Dead.”

Tucker, who has corresponded from over 50 countries in his career as a journalist, said his main thought after Michigander I was, not surprisingly, “This is a lot more fun in August than in March.”

“The Michigander I did with everybody else was a nice, laid-back, days-in-the-sun hangout,” he added. “You never had to come indoors. It was great. The trip I did solo in March? Well, I don’t recall being much colder, whether it was Poland or Bosnia or the mountains in Georgia. But (on the ’92 Michigander in August), everybody spoke English, and nobody was shooting at me, so it was still pretty low key. But God, my butt hurt.”

I’ve never had to deal with blizzards or bone-chilling temps in my Michigander career, but I have ridden my share of challenging miles on the long days and rough trails of the ‘Ganders of yore, including the infamous ’97 ride from South Haven to Traverse City.

Another former Free Press staffer, retired outdoors writer Eric Sharp, dubbed it “The Michigander Death March.” He rode and wrote about the tour for the Free Press from 1994-2001.

We survived Michigander VI, as we always do. While I was preparing to cover for the Grand Rapids Press what turned out to be the hottest Michigander ever in 2011, a 340-mile semi-circular route that began in Gobles and ended in South Haven, Sharp told me he’d been particularly impressed by Michigander veterans’ devotion to 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.”

Now that I’m not a just wide-eyed reader but one of those grizzled vets myself, following in the footsteps of Tucker, Sharp and others writing about the Michigander for the Free Press, I am grateful that Tucker blazed those trails on the very first ‘Gander route – and that he lived to tell me and so many others about it.

And I am pleased to bring good tidings of great summertime joy: This year’s Michigander route promises to be one of its most alluring ever. Nancy Krupiarz, the executive director of the Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance (MTGA) – the Lansing-based nonprofit organization that now oversees the ride – is pretty stoked as well.

“It’s wonderful to be able to return to the well-loved trails of past Michiganders,” said Krupiarz. “But this year, to be able to add the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, set in the beautiful and unique surroundings of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, is really exciting.”

The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail runs 10 miles from Empire to Glen Arbor through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which “Good Morning America” named “The Most Beautiful Place in America” in 2011.

The Michigander rolls every July now, but that’s not the only change in the two decades since Tucker’s “great adventure,” as Brian Dickerson, his editor at the magazine, pitched the unusual March, 1992 assignment.

“I think Brian was more scared that I was going to die on that trip than I was,” Tucker said when I asked if he’s ever forgiven Dickerson, now a Free Press columnist. “I’d let him buy me a bourbon if he wanted to.”

Some lean years followed after Free Press sponsorship of the ride ended in 2001, but ridership is again on the upswing. Trails have vastly improved in surface quality and in number. There is now an all-paved road bike option. And despite some suspicion and resentment over the years from a few malcontents whose property adjoins rail trails we’ve pedaled – and some small, sharp objects thrown in our path – we’ve never had gunfire directed our way either.

The 2013 edition of the tour attracted 736 total riders from 23 states and Canadian provinces, who ranged in age from 5 to 84. Many of them pedaled 280 miles from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs, Bellaire, Gaylord, Indian River and Mackinaw City.

The man who rode the first Michigander route in both winter and summer over two decades ago said that this year’s True North edition “sounds beautiful,” and has a special message for the cyclists who will be enjoying it.

“Good luck and Godspeed,” Tucker said. “It wasn’t like that in the old days!”

He added that his experiences made up for the chilled bones and sore rear end he got during his long rides in March and August, 1992 – because they gave him so much more.

“You don’t get rich in this job,” the Mississippi native and award-winning writer said. “You just wind up with a lot of great stories. And the Michigander – and that, by luck of the draw, I got to pioneer it – is a great story to tell.”

So here’s your chance to make plenty of new friends, engage in a healthful activity in one of the most spectacularly scenic parts of the state and blaze some new trails of your own.

Here’s your chance to become part of the Michigander story yourself.

Why miss out on all the fun? Life is full of uncertainties, but both Tucker and I are pretty sure about one thing.

This will be a hoot in July.

–Former Free Press reporter Neely Tucker’s website address is: http://www.neelytucker.com

–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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