DFP 2014-4: Michigander Bike Tour: Tales of Spartans, Wolverines and bears

MICHIGANDER BIKE TOUR: TALES OF SPARTANS, WOLVERINES AND BEARS

PHOTO ABOVE: Michigander veteran Ron Campbell, the author of the articles on this blog, shows off his helmet-top “Sleepy Bear” mascot to 3-year-old Vayla Tilmos near the Michigander Finish Line in Reed City on July 18, 2014. COURTESY PHOTO

By RON CAMPBELL
Detroit Free Press Special Writer
August 5, 2014

REED CITY – Only on the ‘Gander.

Where else would you see smiles on the faces of a bunch of limping, helmet-haired, sore-assed folks who had just ridden their bicycles 300 miles through torrential downpours in the legendary Sleeping Bear Dunes and northwest Lower Michigan on unseasonably cool days, endured a week of Michigan State-Michigan squabbling and concluded their arduous trek on an abandoned railroad bed frequented by an all-too-real, wide awake black bear?

My 371 fellow cyclists and I completed the 23rd annual Michigander Bike Tour at Reed City High School on July 18, a sunny, 75-degree day. There was no immediate word on whether the adult bear a few riders encountered near the tiny village of Tustin on the White Pine Trail – a mostly-paved rail trail along the north-south corridor where the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad formerly operated – got to wherever he was going.

But thankfully, if he did, he arrived without chunks of Michigander veterans Sam Kennedy and Brian Rumohr in his belly.

Kennedy is a 61-year-old retired GM warehouse worker from Belleville who enlivens the Michigander finish line every year by waving two checkered flags and yelling congrats as riders pedal past him, accompanied by whoops, cheers and tunes like the ever-appropriate Sister Sledge classic “We Are Family” blasting from his wife Rita’s boom box.

“Last leg of our trip from Cadillac to Reed City, I left at 7:30 in the morning, riding with my friend Brian,” Kennedy said in a Facebook post the next day for his closely-knit Michigander family. “We saw something moving 50 yards ahead. Stopping the bikes, we found out it was a black bear on all fours, higher than our handlebars.”

“Bear sightings in the Northern Lower are not a big deal,” Free Press outdoors columnist Lydia Lohrer told me last week. When stories about human-bear encounters are published, she said, “you will inevitably find locals laughing that seeing a bear is even news.”

But, Lohrer added, “I wouldn’t get close to one.”

Kennedy and Rumohr were so close that the first-ever rider-bear encounter on the ‘Gander was kind of a big deal in the moment, and no laughing matter.

“It was a bit tense,” said Rumohr, a 36-year-old bank manager from Grosse Pointe. The animal “was strolling down the White Pine Trail directly towards us. I think we handled it really well. We waited awhile from the distance, made sure he wasn’t interested in us and gently rolled by the area after he wandered off into the woods.”

As word got out on Facebook about the encounter, riders’ reactions flooded in.

“Oy vey; glad you’re okay,” said one. Another: “Oh my gosh! I had heard that two separate groups had seen bears on the trail. Whew!” And “I caught it – and put it on top of my helmet. You sissies exaggerate!”

That last one was my own two cents worth. Truth be told, I’m lucky I’ve survived long enough to write about it, because Pit Bull – that’s Sam – lives in the gym and looks like he could go a few rounds with Ali in his prime. Brian’s pretty well-sculpted also, possibly from chasing around his two son Finn, 4, and daughter Piper, 1. Has pretty steely nerves, too, being a certified pilot as well. Point is, neither one is a sissy. Folks on the Michigander rib each other like old frat brothers and sorority sisters all the time.

Anyway, I had picked up an adorable Douglas Cuddle Toy bear at Toy Harbor in Traverse City two days earlier and attached it to my helmet top, renewing an old Michigander tradition of adorning our protective headgear with silly things like Beanie Babies, Energizer bunnies and Malibu Barbies. Twenty years ago, in fact, my Strangle Me Elmo earned me a mention in one of former Free Press outdoors writer Eric Sharp’s stories about Michigander III.

I’ve not matured much in the two decades since then, but on the ‘Gander, that’s perfectly okay. It’s our week to blow off steam and enjoy a brief respite from the stresses of everyday life, camping out in colorful tent cities every night like school kids off for the summer, riding our bikes from town to town and ice cream store to ice cream store with our friends along back roads and our great-grandfathers’ converted old dusty railways.

Only on the ‘Gander.

When people complimented me on my cuddly friend, I thought of our rain-soaked but still spectacular ride three days earlier along iconic M-22 and M-109 through a certain nationally-renowned park and whispered, “Quiet, please; my bear is sleeping.”

Kristen Kramer, a 17-time rider from Clinton Township, helpfully posted this on Kennedy’s page: “You don’t have to be able to pedal faster than the bear. You just have to be able to pedal faster than Brian.”

Kennedy joked that he’ll be working on improving his zero-to-60 acceleration time for next year, just in case.

As a University of Michigan grad, Kramer, a registered nurse and accountant, is intimately familiar with wild animals. I say that as a Spartan who endured the lean years before Magic, Percy and Mateen. I can still remember sitting in my 12 North Hubbard Hall dorm room one late fall night unable to block out the disheartening sound of the blaring horns of Ann Arbor-bound cars after a Michigan victory over State in a basketball game at Jenison Fieldhouse.

I hasten to add that I’ve befriended many surprisingly nice people on this ride who from my perspective just happen to stand on the wrong side of our state’s Great Divide.

Two great universities, two nationally-prominent athletic programs. Can’t we all just embrace that and find peace in our time, Michigander style? Well, you be the judge.

In the Leland High School cafeteria on the third day of the tour’s main 6-Day option, I sat down to a table of about ten people, some I knew, some I didn’t. We’re all friends and family on the ‘Gander anyway; we’re all the cool kids. Pick any table, make some new pals. Tennessee drawls, New England accents and California surf-speak blend harmoniously on the ride.

I was wearing my green cap with the white “S” and noticed a guy I hadn’t met before in a maize and blue T-shirt. “Only on the Michigander will you find Spartans and Wolverines breaking bread peaceably at the same table,” I announced with grandiloquence to my old ‘Gander buddy, Rob Litwin of Clawson, and the others.

“I DIDN’T ASK YOU TO SIT AT THIS TABLE!” bellowed the Michigan dude, 62-year-old Royal Oak resident Rick Irving.

Only on the ‘Gander. The whole table erupted in laughter.

There’s a term for that special brand of Michigander merriment: aerobic laughter. “Downhill Bob” Charbonneau, a retired GM engineer from Grand Rapids, coined it years ago to describe the unique tour phenomenon of “laughing so hard and for so long that there is exercise value to it.”

“We’re approaching aerobic levels,” Downhill Bob, a longtime volunteer baggage truck driver on the tour, said to me with a sly grin at one point early on our last evening as over 50 riders celebrated with locals at the Mitchell Street Pub in Cadillac. We were enjoying rousing toasts, having a few beers and fish bowls, swapping stories and already reminiscing about what for most veteran riders is far and away the best week of the year.

Rumohr, like most of us a passionate advocate for cyclists’ rights – did you know that under Michigan’s Motor Vehicle Code, we have every bit as much legal right to the road as cars and trucks? – paid public tribute to the pub’s energetic staff for taking good care of our spirited, larger-than-expected entourage.

“To the great people of Cadillac and the wonderful Mitchell Street crew,” he shouted over the music and laughter, raising his glass at the bar, “everyone here tonight with a smile on your face, please make an extra donation to the crew so that they will love cyclists every time they see us, forever.”

I asked him afterwards what prompted that toast.

“Cyclists have been given a lot of grief lately,” he said somberly. “Some of it has been borderline death threats publicly on social media, and it makes me sick to my stomach to think that someone would orphan a family because they were delayed 15 seconds on their commute home to their own family. It’s something that has to stop, and if it has to come from positive energy from cyclists, so be it. Please don’t crowd me or my friends with your two-ton car; I’m only wearing spandex.”

Back to the fun stuff: Many of us stuck silly “Hello, my name is …” tags on our shirts at Mitchell Street that night, the kind that smirking juvenile delinquent Bart Simpson would dream up – if he was starring in an R-rated movie. For one of a group of four women from the Grand Rapids area who are fairly new to the ride and weren’t quite sure if they wanted to participate in the bawdy spectacle, Shelby Township resident Ron Lenders came up with a relatively tame one: Iona Traylor.

Her friends tentatively joined in: “Iona Traylor II” and “III.” In an inspired burst of creativity, the fourth one requested “Iona Traylor-Parke.”

Only on the ‘Gander.

Infantile humor? You bet your Avocet. But for a group of people with occupations running the spectrum from college professors, corporate pilots and television news directors to private investigators, health care professionals and grocery store cashiers, ranging in age from 2 to 85, hailing from 25 different states across the U.S. and dealing with serious medical conditions, family troubles or financial crises, the Michigander’s aerobic laughter is the best medicine, well-deserved.

A significant source of laughs – and pseudo-serious Spartan-Wolverine enmity – was 63-year-old Unadilla resident Art McCleer, U-M Class of ’73. The retired engineer and farmer has been on all 23 Michiganders as either a rider or tour volunteer. He makes a family vacation of ‘Gander Week every year, driving our route and providing assistance to riders with his wife Karen and their two sons, Philip, 17, and Terence, 13.

“How was Northport?” Art asked me innocently after we’d set up camp at the Grand Traverse County Civic Center in Traverse City on the fourth day of the tour’s 6-Day option, July 16. After a 50-mile ride from Frankfort through the Dunes to Leland on the cool, rain-soaked morning the day before, the skies had brightened and temps had climbed into the high 60s for our easy 32-mile jaunt along famously scenic M-22 and two state-of-the-art “bicycle freeways” – the paved, gorgeous Leelanau and TART trails along the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay – to the Cherry Capital.

The only issue I had with Art’s deceptively pleasant query was that Northport was not on our route, as he knew full well. To get there from Leland, I would have had to make a wrong turn left, northbound on M-22, instead of properly making the right turn our directional arrows painted on the road indicated, south towards our lunch stop off the Leelanau Trail to charming Suttons Bay.

A few years ago on the ‘Gander, the McCleers watched me ride away from the rest stop they hosted along a lonely country road in precisely the wrong direction – and did absolutely nothing about it, I have contended ever since. Oh, they may have yelled after me, but I didn’t hear them. For all they knew, my version goes, I could have been terrorized, Deliverance-style, by some backwoods yokels and never heard from again.

Art and family have all called me WrongWay ever since. When beleaguered former Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry drove the wrong way down Pennsylvania Avenue and crashed, Art snidely emailed me a link. When word got out that a guy missed a turn on the Pere Marquette Trail on July 13 and racked up 114 miles on a day our official total was 58, Art gave me a new name.

WrongWay I. The other unfortunate soul is now WrongWay Junior, even though he’s a bit older than me.

I got a late start heading out of Traverse City to Cadillac on the penultimate day of the Michigander, July 17. I was looking over my map book in the morning sunshine outside the Civic Center when the McCleers pulled up, fully loaded, their custom-made trailer overflowing as if they were the Beverly Hillbillies, ready to offer their unique brand of “assistance” to wayward riders.

“WANT A HAND-DRAWN MAP, WRONGWAY?” Art called out.

“NOT FROM YOU!” I snapped back. He snickered and drove off, thankfully without blasting “The Victors” over his “Michigan Blue” Savana’s stereo, as he tends to do whenever a Spartan is within earshot.

I accidentally listened to a snippet of that dang song in a Michigander V video – which featured a relatively youthful and svelte Art McCleer riding around with a big dopey grin and a huge ‘M’ flag attached to the back of his bike – that he emailed me a few days ago. I concluded my disgusted reply with “GO GREEN!”

“I just ate; please go easy on the Green stuff,” he shot back.

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 until 2001. It is now run by the Lansing-based Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance (MTGA). In his final dispatch from the first ‘Gander that August – South Haven to Rochester – then-Free Press reporter Neely Tucker wrote of their final seven miles on the Paint Creek Trail.

“The sun was brilliant. There was a light breeze. We were covered with road dust and sweat, and the end of our travail was so close we could taste it. Suddenly, we didn’t want to. Suddenly, the end of this inaugural Free Press Michigander felt like the last day of summer, and the finish line loomed before us like the first day of school. So we postponed it. Nine of us truants left the officially sanctioned Michigander route, pedaled up to Bald Mountain State Park, and took turns rocketing down a grassy hill, no brakes allowed.”

Tucker, now a Washington Post staffer who recently completed a national book tour in support of his highly-acclaimed first novel, “The Ways of the Dead,” also noted that an Art McCleer had “stopped into every bar he saw on the 275-mile trip. He made each barkeep sign his tour map, and he had 22 signatures at the finish line.”

Alas, Art – now a family man – only hit two watering holes this year: the Mushroom Bar in Mesick and, big surprise, Art’s Tavern in Glen Arbor.

“Life changes,” he explained. “I don’t have any leftover time for bars anymore. Besides, I am too tired.”

Yet another Michigan Man, nine-time rider Bill Williams, put the ‘Gander version of the Great Divide into perspective.

“The Michigander is the only place outside of immediate family where your allegiance to Michigan or Michigan State is clearly secondary to the fact that you’re out there with everybody else,” said the software projects manager from Troy, who hit the trails and towns with his wife Sarah, their children Brayden, 6, and Aurora, 4, and another family they reunite with every year on the tour, Novi residents Wayne and Maria Tilmos and their kids, 6-year-old Mason and 3-year-old Vayla. Maria often chauffeurs Vayla around in a seat attached to the back of her orange Trek hybrid. “The rivalry becomes at most a point of gentle needling, and certainly doesn’t rise to the venomous levels you see elsewhere.”

Only on the ‘Gander.

“While the riding is undeniably great, some of the best parts of the Michigander are the relationships that grow from year to year, Williams added. “It’s always fun at every ride break to see whose kids are going to end up on the backs of which bikes!”

During the tour, Williams promoted his company’s Win4Youth charity, an “exercise for dollars” program for which he hopes to raise $2000 himself for children’s charities around the world. (To inquire about the charity, email Williams at billsquared@gmail.com.)

“For the kids, the Michigander is unquestionably the highlight of their year, the one thing they talk about and look forward to year-round,” Williams said. “For them, it’s an excuse to get out and camp. The new trails were fantastic, particularly the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. While we obviously could’ve wished for better weather, the sheer beauty of the trail and the forest we wound our way through far outweighed the conditions we endured. It was great to get in a bit of hill work as well. The rides between Leland and Traverse City and Traverse City and Cadillac were challenging, but by no means torturous.”

Williams’ positive spin on the less-than-ideal weather we dealt with on our soggy Sleeping Bear morning reflects the unshakable resilience and sunny disposition all ‘Gander riders seem to have. Riding in a hard rain means a refreshing midday shower, an impromptu bike wash and an airtight excuse to linger a bit longer at the pub at lunchtime, a flat tire leads to making a new best friend of the trailing rider who will inevitably stop to help you and a steep incline is a character builder with the promise of a thrilling wind-in-your-face, heart-in-your-throat, two-wheeled roller coaster free fall after the teeth-gritting ascent.

We make ebullient, perfectly-coifed TV news show anchors seem like hypochondriacs.

One of the reasons I got such a late start out of Traverse City was that my buddy Les Rosan and I had been chatting at breakfast with another ‘Gander vet, a pony-tailed 62-year-old hippie with a mischievous gap-toothed smile named Charlie, along with his friend Kim, aka April Faithful.

Charlie, a Berkley resident whose mystical “Joy Riders” gang of yore is the stuff of tour legend, pedals a fat-tired orange and red Salsa Dos Niner mountain bike. He is a gifted storyteller whose tales are every bit as colorful as his wheels, with the significant caveat for me as a journalist that they usually contain precious little truth.

A pretty good example of this is the fact that his real name isn’t even Charlie. It is David Wolfcale, and he’s a golf course maintenance specialist at the Birmingham Country Club when he’s not creating eclectic artwork or riding his Salsa or one of his several other bikes. (An aside to the Pulitzer Prize committee: I deserve consideration simply for sleuthing out the name on his birth certificate, as only two or three other people on the whole ride – including many who have been laughing at his monologues for over 20 years – know his true identity.)

While I was covering the Michigander for the Grand Rapids Press in 2011, Charlie — uh, David — came up to me one day and told me he’d rescued a baby clothed only in a T-shirt on a trail, making it sound like he’d stumbled upon Moses in a basket amid the bulrushes along the Nile.

Of course, I wasn’t buying it, and didn’t mention it in any of my stories that year.

But there in the Civic Center cafeteria, Charlie (can’t help it; that is now and shall forever remain his Michigander moniker) and Kim had me almost believing that story, finally, and regretting that I had missed out on a sensational scoop.

Charlie and Kim took off to begin the day’s 48-mile ride to Cadillac. Les, a columnist for the Mt. Pleasant-based Morning Sun, and I debated possible areas of truthfulness in Charlie’s musings and the dilemma such wisecrackers pose to us as writers and reporters duty-bound to record facts.

At that very moment, an ebullient, perfectly-coifed young woman walked over to us and asked me, “What’s going on here?”

Holly Baker, a reporter and anchor for Traverse City’s Channel 7 & 4 Morning News team, wanted her own scoop about our little True North trek. Les and I could hardly contain ourselves as we snuck glances at each other, barely suppressing aerobic-level giggles in the knowledge that we were both thinking exactly the same thing.

SEND HER TO CHARLIE!

Only on the ‘Gander.

I love this grand tour and my “cycle-logical” family — even its maize and blue members — so much that, in a post-ride flush of Michigander camaraderie and magnanimity, I am about to type something unthinkable for a long-suffering pre-Magic, pre-Coaches Izzo and Dantonio, “same old Spartans” Spartan.

GO GREEN! And, what the heck, here goes. GO B—.

This is turning out to be more difficult than I’d thought it would be. Almost torturous.

GO BL–. Just a sec. Let me ask a couple friends, both prominent MSU alums, for guidance here.

Joey Spano starred for the MSU women’s varsity basketball, softball and field hockey teams from 1971-74, won the Neil Jackson Outstanding Alumna Award in 1999 and is a past president of the MSU Varsity ‘S’ Club. She is currently the Director Of Community Relations and Education for the West Bloomfield School District and, as her prime seats at the most enjoyable 2014 Rose Bowl will attest, still has strong ties to Michigan State athletics.

“DON’T DO IT, RON!” Joey texted me after I explained my quandary, then threatened to call star defensive end Shilique Calhoun and have him “PUT YOU IN YOUR PLACE!”

“True SPARTANS would never compromise their undying loyalty and allegiance to the GREEN AND WHITE,” her message continued. “It will be a cold day in H-E-double hockey sticks before you ever get a ticket from me for a SPARTAN game of any sort.”

Joey tends to shout, textually speaking, in Sparty matters close to her heart.

For further advice on how to handle this delicate situation, I turned to Don Fouracre, a financial services headhunter from Bloomfield Hills who was a standout on Spartans’ lacrosse teams in the mid-‘60s. Lacrosse was a non-varsity club sport back then, but Fouracre and his teammates shared practice facilities, locker rooms, classrooms and successful seasons with members of MSU’s Big Ten championship-winning football squads of 1965 and 1966, including Bubba Smith, Clinton Jones, George Webster and Gene Washington, all of whom were among the top eight picks in the 1967 NFL draft.

“If Bubba was here, he’d break your legs,” Don told me matter-of-factly when he came to my register at the Royal Oak Trader Joe’s yesterday. The 6’7”, 265-pound defensive end played a key role in the infamous 1966 “Game of the Century” between Michigan State and Notre Dame, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988 and went on to become a Hollywood actor after his nine years in the NFL. He died in 2011 in Los Angeles at the age of 66.

Sorry, U-M friends, there are some roads a dedicated old Spartan biker just can’t ride down. After all, my place is for evermore on Michigan’s nation-leading network of rail trails every July, not at the mercy of All-American hopefuls and gigantic Spartan spirits.

When you complete the Michigander, you feel so strong, so energized, so full of life that you feel like you can do almost anything. The “almost,” in this case, applies to saying “GO BL–.”

Jeopardize my standing in Spartan Nation? Not even on the ‘Gander.

As my Michigander brothers and sisters exchanged email addresses, congratulations and hugs under pure blue Michigan skies and the last few riders rolled triumphantly under the yellow “Michigander 2014 Finish Line” banner at Reed City High School – right back where the 6-Day had begun on July 13 – I noticed an impossibly cute little girl taking an interest in my helmet.

“You’ve got a bear on your head,” three-year-old Vayla Tilmos pointed out sweetly. I leaned down so that she could pet my sleeping bear, and she held up the wildflowers she was clutching in her tiny hands so that he could awaken to their fragrance.

I didn’t have the heart to say it, since she pals around with a U of M family and wouldn’t quite understand anyway, but I was just grateful he wasn’t a wolverine.

 —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.

 

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