In my searches for another bike tour reasonably close to home I had come up empty until a few years ago when I discovered a new tour offered by Wilderness Voyageurs that was located right up in northern Michigan. But when I looked at the itinerary, there were a number of things that just didn’t appeal to me, so I kept looking.
I was then pleasantly surprised when I received a flyer from Carolina Tailwinds — whom I had never traveled with — and found that they were doing a similar tour up north, but with what looked like an ideal itinerary. It had been almost 10 years since I rode the Shoreline West tour, and I still had many fond memories of it, but it was not one that I was likely to repeat. So it was a real no-brainer to sign up for the 2019 trip. It would even be taking place during the same week as that year’s Shoreline tour.
I knew in advance that there would be some tough hills along the way and was actually looking forward to tackling them on the Felt with its lighter weight and lower gearing than the Specialized Sequoia that I had ridden in 2010. The trip would also be a good test for the Garmin Varia radar taillight that I added this year. Otherwise, I was planning on riding fairly light — at least for me — and not having the added weight of the rack and trunk bag that I was used to taking along “just in case.”
Day 1 – Sunday, August 4, 2019 – Mission Peninsula
The tour began when we met up with our guides in late morning at our first luxury hotel of the trip: the new Hotel Indigo in Traverse City. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this new-to-me outfit, but my concerns were put to rest as soon as I met our guides, consisting of Anne and Greg Fleming — the owners of Carolina Tailwinds — as well as a third guide, Lark Elliott. They were outfitted with one large van towing an enclosed trailer and a second van mainly for passengers with some storage in back. There were 17 people on the tour, many of whom had flown in and were renting bikes from the company. Their setup was quite impressive since they have to haul as many bikes as might be needed and still have rooms for people like me who brought their own. When I arrived they were efficiently fitting people to their bikes, installing pedals and seats, and greeting the new arrivals.
After brief introductions and a light lunch at the hotel, we set off on our first ride out and back on the Mission Peninsula. To be honest, I was really concerned about this ride. Even though I had been riding a lot, I knew that this ride was quite hilly, and starting a 45-mile ride in the afternoon of a hot day might be a struggle. It’s definitely not my time of day!
Our route took us out along the eastern shore road to the park and lighthouse at the end of the peninsula. The roads were fairly quiet for a weekend, and it was certainly a calm and scenic ride, with great views of the East Bay and expensive summer homes along the way. We started by riding out of town more or less as a group behind our guide, but then we naturally began to spread out as everyone rode at their own comfortable pace. When we got to the lighthouse, Lark was there with the van so that we could grab some snacks, go take a look at the lighthouse and shoreline, and refill our bottles.
The route back mostly used the western shoreline road, sensibly avoiding the central ridge route that carries the most vehicle traffic. But again, that means tackling some hills, albeit none that would have been that difficult except for the mid-afternoon temperature. There was a scheduled stop where we had the option of sampling the local brews at the Jolly Pumpkin or visiting a nearby winery, but we were scheduled to have a “cocktail hour” together back at the hotel at 6:15 and I’m not sure that anyone stopped for long. I headed straight back along the shoreline with traffic gradually increasing as I got closer to town. Reaching the main road, I was glad that there was a quiet marked bicycle route through residential neighborhoods off the busy highway that took us across town and right to the hotel for a total of 44 miles for the day.
After handing my bike over to Greg for safekeeping, I went into the hotel, got my room key, retrieved my bags, and went up to my room for a much needed shower and brief relaxation. It wasn’t long before we convened at the rooftop lounge for drinks and to enjoy the great views of Grand Traverse Bay. About a half hour later, we walked a few blocks through the downtown area for our dinner at the top-rated Towne Plaza restaurant, where we dined outdoors on the patio under the trees. It was a great way to start to get to know each other and celebrate the end of our first day on the tour.
Day 2 – Monday, August 5, 2019 – Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Leelanau Peninsula
Our second day started with a van shuttle out to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan. The first order of the day was the “Dune Climb” that is obligatory for all visiting tourists. I’ve done it a number of times before, but joined in the fun because it is just that: fun! It’s one of those things that is best done barefoot, and you will certainly learn on the way up how useful your toes can be. But I did feel the previous day’s miles in my legs as I climbed!
The route for the day called for us to start by riding from the Dune Climb to the top of Pierce Stocking Drive a few miles away for the great views of the lake from the top. I’d driven up that road a few times and knew that it was really steep in places and didn’t want to start a long day of riding with a big climb. So along with a few others, I elected to leave my bike on top of the van and ride up to the overlook before starting out.
We once again had perfect weather with clear skies that afforded a spectacular view of the lake from the overlook at the top. It’s a long way down from the parking area to the lake level and signs at the top warn against going down if you’ re not sure you can make it back up. They now levy a $3000 charge if you need to be rescued! Still, we saw a number of people down there with some slowly beginning the climb back.
After taking in the view I was anxious to start the ride, which began with a very fast downhill run through the woods with some tricky turns along the way. The bike path then took me all the way 5 miles back to the Dune Climb parking area and it felt like it was downhill all the way! After checking in with Greg, I continued on another 5 miles along the path to the popular town of Glen Arbor, where we were to order lunch (at Tailwinds’ expense) at the Cherry Republic restaurant and store. I had a lot of Glen Arbor memories from past vacation trips and the Shoreline bike tour, noting that not much has changed over the last 40 years.
I finished lunch early but was anxious to get going because, once again, there were 40 miles to go in the heat of the afternoon. The route out of Glen Arbor went north for a while along M-22, which follows the shoreline up into the Leelanau Peninsula. I had been on M-22 on the earlier tour, but not this far north, and it was a much busier stretch of road. Fortunately, it has a very wide paved shoulder so that it is safe to ride with the traffic passing by, but I was nevertheless not sorry when I turned to the east after a number of miles to start the journey on quieter roads across to the eastern side of the peninsula.
The northern part of the state was heavily sculpted thousands of years ago by the glaciers, which created numerous north-south trending ridges. There are also a number of long, narrow lakes with a north-south axis. The first of these lakes that I encountered was Lake Leelanau, which is one of the largest inland lakes in the state and a popular summer destination.
The route passed north of the lake through the eponymous town, then turned and headed south for a few miles before again turning off to the east. Tailwinds provides excellent laminated route sheets for people to easily find their way in unfamiliar territory, but they had also sent me a set of FIT files for my Garmin Edge which were quite helpful as I zigzagged in an east-south-east-south pattern. Each road heading south was flat or gently rolling, but each time I turned to the east there was a significant hill ahead.
I had been looking forward to these occasional steep climbs, hoping to compare favorably with the way I’d handled them 10 years before. But what I discovered was that the advantage I now had in a bike that was lighter, had better gearing, and was a better overall choice for the route was being offset by 10 years of aging! But as the day proceeded and I tackled a number of hills in succession, I managed to relearn my climbing technique and by the time I went up the last big one of the day, I did quite well at it and was (almost) ready for more.
Eventually the route crossed the route of the Leelanau Trail: a paved rail-trail running from Traverse City up to Sutton’s Bay near the tip of the peninsula. I turned onto the pathway and enjoyed 15 miles of smooth, quiet, traffic-free riding that took me all the way back to the hotel by late afternoon. Overall I had done 50 miles on this second day of the tour and was certainly feeling the effects of the effort and the heat. But this was indeed to be the last difficult day of the tour.
This was a day for us to have dinner on our own, and since I hadn’t gotten to know the others very well yet, I was just as glad to spend the rest of the day alone. I had time to relax, clean up, check my email and call my wife, and then start thinking about dinner. When it came down to it, I really just wanted something simple and low key, so ended up at a nearby downtown pizza place and then stopped for the first ice cream of the trip at a popular regional chain on the way back to the hotel. I did manage to get back just in time, because a short downpour soon ensued, which turned out to be one of the only times we saw rain the entire time.
After two longish days, I decided that for the rest of the trip I wouldn’t try to be a “hero” and do every mile on offer, but would just manage my time to get as much riding in as possible while not stretching myself too far. It turned out to be a good decision, as I would discover starting the next morning.