Toward the end of most bicycle magazines are numerous advertisements with some pretty amazing ways to spend a vacation on a bike. Adventure companies will pamper you as you pedal through Napa Valley, Tuscany, Scotland, or the Canadian Rockies. Fantastic trips, but they come with a price tag that simply makes the trips unobtainable for most of us. However, as I have learned over the last several years, one doesn’t need to travel to an exotic location or hire a bicycle touring company to have the trip of a lifetime. It just takes a sense of adventure and a little planning.
There is something special about a bike tour vacation that you can’t explain to someone that hasn’t done it. You wake in the morning and your only concern, for the entire day, is getting to the next location by sunset. The world moves at a slower pace, the speed of your bike. You are up close and personal with every aspect of the world around you – the geography, the sounds, nature, and people. You never know what you will find around the next turn – deer, an ice cream parlor, a river, a slice of pie, a lake, a friendly restaurant owner, a not so friendly chain smoker, a gourmet restaurant, a bald eagle, or a cold beer.
For the last two years, a friend and I have taken a bicycle tour leaving from one of my law firm’s offices, with the final destination being an event in Traverse City, Michigan, where we fit and give bicycle helmets to kids as part of an event our firm co-hosts in three locations around the State, called Lids for Kids. Last year, we left our office in Grand Rapids and traveled two days to get to Glen Arbor, before riding a short distance to Traverse City. This year, we rode from our Lansing office, for three days, to Leland. Both adventures didn’t require me to travel beyond the very place I would have started my day if it had been a routine work day. Both were done on a shoestring budget. And, both were among the best bicycle rides I can remember taking. Below is a summary of our most recent adventure, which includes our route, accommodations, gear, and some things we learned along the way.
THE RIDING PARTNER
The first key to planning a successful bike trip is finding a good riding partner. For me, this was an easy choice – my friend, Wade Burch. For those not familiar with Wade, his race resume includes finishing 58th at the 2013 UCI Cyclocross World Championships, 2nd at the 2016 Michigan Cyclocross Single Speed State Championships, and more failed solo efforts in road races than anyone could possibly count. Wade is the perfect traveling companion for a bike trip. He knows how to fix most things that can go wrong with a bicycle, isn’t overly competitive (i.e. he is not a half-wheeler), and his skills as a photographer guarantee that the memories of the tour will be well documented. It is also helpful that Wade is a stronger rider than me, so when faced with a headwind, there is no shame tucking in behind him for miles at a time. However, Wade also fits the most important criteria – he is someone I want to spend my days with. He is a good friend, with a good sense of humor, common values, and similar interests. We could talk all day on and off the bike, or be completely comfortable riding next to each other in total silence.
If the tour is going to be a success, your bicycle obviously needs to get you from point A to point B. In addition to being a quality and sturdy steed, your bike should be comfortable, since you will be spending most of the day in the saddle. It is also important to have the right tools in case something goes wrong and clothing since weather can change quickly, particularly in Michigan during early May.
Wade rode a Trek Ion cyclocross bike with a rear mounted rack and panniers. He also had a large and heavy handlebar bag that was stabilized by a front mounted rack. I am a huge fan of the wide (700 x 32), gum wall tires he ran, which had slick treads.
I rode my Trek 920 adventure bike but changed out the mountain bike knobby tires for 700 x 38 slicks. The bike comes equipped with a front and rear rack and I used Thule waterproof panniers on the front and rear. My favorite additions to the bike are probably a bell from Spurcycle and camouflage handlebar tape.
We both carried more than we needed. Extra bibs, jerseys, sweaters, t-shirts, winter jackets, rain jackets, walking shoes, and jeans. We certainly could have packed lighter, but we weren’t looking to set any speed records and wanted to put our focus on being prepared for all conditions and having a good time. As a result, fully loaded, the bikes weighed in above 45 pounds each! We also both packed multi-tool kits, a chain tool, spare tubes, patch kits, pumps, and plenty of snacks.
The route was roughly planned based upon past experience, Google Bike Routes, and Rails to Trails routes. However, as we quickly learned, the planning could have been far better. Many of the roads and trails were difficult to ride. After about 50 miles we were essentially trying to head in the right general direction (northwest) relying heavily on our GPS.
Day 1 – Lansing to Stanwood
We left from south Lansing and traveled northwest. We took mostly rural roads passing through DeWitt, Westphalia, Ionia, and Belding, before making it to our stop for the night, Healy’s Outback Ranch, a horse farm, near the Canadian Lakes. The day totaled about 120 miles and was mostly flat. On rural roads with light traffic. Healy’s was a great stop, the owners helped us improve our route for Day 2 and surprised us with baggies of cookies and other snacks as we were heading out in the morning.
Day 2 – Stanwood to Manistee
We went a little out of our way to pick up the White Pine Trail in Stanwood. This section of the trail isn’t paved. In fact, there isn’t even limestone or gravel. It is a hard packed dirt (with some grass) but rolls pretty good. Definitely better than some of the dirt roads we encountered on Day 1. We followed the trail through Big Rapids and it eventually came to an end north of Reed City. On the way, the trail cuts through the Paris Fish Hatchery (make sure to bring quarters to purchase food, so you can feed the trout!).
Shortly after we left Reed City, we were able to get on U.S. Bicycle Route 20 and take it through the Manistee National Forest. That night, we had a great meal and a few beers at The Fillmore. We highly recommend this place, and the owner, Dell Knapp, is a bicyclist who rode an old Schwinn to work that night!
Day 3 – Manistee to Leland
This was the day! Similar to the second day of last year’s tour, when we rode from Ludington to Glen Arbor, we spent most of our time on M-22 (much of which is part of U.S Bicycle Route 35). An awesome road that runs next to Lake Michigan and makes you feel alive. The highlights are too numerous to list, but some of the better ones include the view at Inspiration Point just north of Arcadia (and the descent down from Inspiration Point), ice cream on the Platte River, the descent into Empire, Inspiration Point overlooking Glen Lake, and just about any place you look in Leelanau County. After 3 days and over 300 miles, we planned to take the most direct route to Leland. However, as soon as we hit the Leelanau Peninsula, we couldn’t stop, and continued to add more and more miles to the ride – the views included cherry farms, Grand Traverse Bay, interior lakes (Glen, Leelanau, Little Traverse), wineries, and Lake Michigan.
Day 4 – Leland to Traverse City
A short day, we looped around Upper Lake Leelanau, cut across the peninsula, and took the TART Trail from Suttons Bay to Traverse City, for the Lids for Kids Bicycle Helmet Event. It rained most of the way and we had our only flat, but still a fantastic day on the bike.
Don’t trust Google Maps
At the beginning of our trip, we tried to follow a route from Google. While Google does a great job at a lot of things, bicycle routes isn’t one of them. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that Google doesn’t understand the traffic on the road, or the quality of the road surface. Some of the suggested roads were simply too busy. Others were poorly maintained dirt roads that were like riding through sand. On one stretch, I recall working to keep my speed above 7 mph on a flat surface! Additionally, Google had us traveling on a bike trail that had not yet been finished.
Trust the U.S. Bicycle System
The U.S. Bicycle Route System is a national network of routes on roads that are deemed appropriate for long-distance bicycle travel between states. The roads we were able to follow that were designated part of U.S Bicycle Routes 20 and 35 were perfect for riding. Smooth and relatively low traffic. (However, we believe some of Route 35 must have significant traffic once the weather gets a bit warmer and school is out for summer vacation.)
Stop and Eat Frequently
You have all day to get from Point A to Point B and you need fuel. That town you are about to roll through might have the best ice cream, pie, coffee, donuts, or Twizzlers you have ever tasted. You will never know unless you stop and give it a try! Also, be prepared in case you don’t see places to stop and buy food. Our favorites include Justin’s single serving packets of Chocolate Hazelnut Butter and Vanilla Almond Butter, ERG energy bars, and Kate Burch’s chocolate chip cookies.
Don’t Be Stingy with the Chamois Cream
Prior to taking a tour, you likely won’t have put in anything close to the daily miles you will be logging. More important, you will not have spent nearly the amount of time in the saddle, day after day. As a result, certain pressure points might not be fully prepared for the trip. Bring a lot of your favorite chamois cream and consider getting some small, sample sizes for easy application throughout the day.
Wear comfortable shoes
If you have multiple pairs of cycling shoes, wear the ones that are the most comfortable. If you don’t have a selection, make sure you have one pair you could wear all day, for multiple days. Wade and I both made the mistake of wearing shoes that were too small on the 2016 tour and, last year, foot pain was our biggest issue. This year, it was a non-issue.
Don’t Look Down
Don’t be a hammerhead. Don’t look at watts, speed, or even the time of day. Look around and absorb the world around you. There will be surprising and amazing sights, but also familiar sights and sounds that will bring back warm memories. At one point on our ride, we rode a stretch of M-22 that we had ridden the prior year and came across a fruit stand. We both commented how we remembered the stand from last year, a man working on the roof, playing NPR on the radio – The Dianne Rehm Show, and were both amazed the other had the same, very specific recall of what seemed like a less than spectacular part of our trip. It showed us the value of being present every moment of the ride and finding something special about each moment on the bike.
Conclusion of my 2017 Michigan Bike Tour
I can’t recommend a self-supported, local bike tour enough. Please, make the time to take your own bicycle adventure. You won’t regret it. It doesn’t need to be an extravagant trip to Europe. It can be a ride from your house for an overnight at a local campground, state park, a hotel, or even an overnight visit at a friend’s house. It can last two days, or 30 days – 100 miles a day, or 20 miles a day. The point is, you can make it what you want so that it works for you. No matter what happens, odds are you will enjoy every minute and every mile.