As the Michigander is to MTGA, so the Shoreline West ride is to the League of Michigan Bicyclists: their primary fund-raising event of the year. It is also Michigan’s true “signature ride,” passing through the most beautiful parts of the state and attracting riders from around the country. So after my great experience on the Michigander in 2009, I was primed to try a real road riding tour in 2010.
The route of Shoreline West is essentially always the same, right down to the towns and facilities where they camp each night. The western shore of the state along Lake Michigan is almost entirely prime vacation territory, and has been attracting vacationers and summer residents for many years from the Chicago area as well as from within Michigan. And although the term “shoreline” might make this sound like a flat route, nothing could be further from the truth. The shoreline roads often rise and fall along the large bluffs and dunes along the lake, and just inland you will find successions of short, very steep hills from terrain that was carved out by the glaciers.
One other attraction of this ride is that Bubba’s services were also available, so I was all set in that regard. Being an end-to-end ride starting near Muskegon and ending in Mackinaw City means that transportation of riders and bikes is required, and the organizers do that in such a way that you can either leave your vehicle at the start and get bused back after finishing, or drive to Mackinaw the day before the ride and get bused to the start. It seemed to me that the latter was the better option since I would finish right where I’d left my car and could head for home right after collecting my bags and cleaning up.
Being in Mackinaw City early on the day before the ride meant that I had to stay overnight in the general vicinity since it’s about a five hour drive for me to get up there. After arriving in the morning, we prepped our bikes for transport by removing the pedals and loosening the stem so the bars could be turned sideways for easy storage in the rented vans. Then we loaded the buses and started for Montague with a stop for lunch in Cadillac. The thing I remember as we drove down the US-131 freeway was seeing how many miles we were covering, and that we’d be riding all those miles — and many more — to get back to Mackinaw!
In Montague, I settled right into the Bubba Zone, which seemed very familiar. However, it was a bit of a different crowd from the Michigander, being more hard-core roadies — including a few tandems — and many who were doing this ride for the one and only time. It was harder to find riding companions like I’d had the year before, but I had no problem in planning to ride mostly by myself since there would be plenty of riders to converse with at all of the planned and unplanned stops.
Day 1: Montague to Ludington
Things didn’t look so great to start off with, as it rained overnight and into the morning. But it had stopped by the time I started out and, although the roads were wet for a bit, it was really the only rain we had for the entire tour. Everyone was in a good mood at the start and there was a huge crowd at the traditional first stop of the ride at the Cherry Point Farm Market where they were well prepared for a group of hungry bikers ready to spend a few bucks.
The route pretty much hugged the Michigan shoreline and soon we had numerous views of bright blue water and sandy beaches. The first town we came to, right about lunchtime, was Pentwater. This town has the usual shops and marinas, and of course plenty of restaurants. I opted to eat al fresco at a place right on the main drag. Then it was off to the larger town of Ludington where the night’s camping was at the local high school.
Day 2: Ludington to Frankfort
This day’s route took us right up along the Lake Michigan shoreline, usually not far from blue water and white beaches. This was also where we picked up route M-22, one of the most famous tourist highways in the state. It’s two lanes all the way, but with very wide shoulders most of the way, making for a scenic and safe route for bikes.
The intermediate town on this day was Manistee. Like many typical Michigan shoreline towns, it lies at an outlet where an inland lake flows into the big lake. This makes it a great place for sport boaters, who can keep their smaller boats in a safe harbor while occasionally venturing out into Lake Michigan itself. Manistee’s downtown looked like it had seen better days, but there were definite signs of recovery.
Another famous landmark along the day’s route is dubbed “Watermelon Hill” by the riders. This is because there is a rest stop featuring (what else?) cold watermelon at the top of one of the steepest hills of the tour near Arcadia. Being fairly new to road riding, I managed to get really psyched out after hearing about this hill, and really blew my approach to it. I felt like I was struggling, and due to the curve of the road I couldn’t see the top of the hill, so I got off and walked it. I really felt foolish when I found that I was actually quite near the top and could have made it! It’s especially embarrassing when everyone gathered at the stop can watch others coming up the hill. Oh well, maybe another time…
We ended the day in the town of Frankfort, which is another popular summer destination with a nice beach, a long pier, and a lighthouse. Instead of taking a shower that day, I rode down to the beach for a dip in the lake and a walk along the beach and pier.
Day 3: Frankfort to Traverse City
This was the start of the part of the trip I was really looking forward to, as we were coming to places that I was mostly familiar with, having taken a number of trips to the Traverse City and Leelanau Peninsula area. We started early and rode mostly along M-22 with its wide shoulders into the lakeside town of Empire. A local bakery shop gave riders a chance to refuel on coffee and pastries before heading farther up the shoreline to Sleeping Bear Dunes. I don’t recall if I climbed the dunes that time, but plenty of other riders took the chance to do so.
From there it was a short distance into Glen Arbor, which is the center of activities in the area and has plenty of shops and restaurants. By the time I got there, it was teeming with bicycles and the usual summer visitors. It was also lunchtime, and instead of fighting my way through one of the crowded restaurants I bought lunch fixings at the local grocery store’s deli counter and ate at a table out front while watching the cars and riders stream by.
From there the route went mostly straight across the Leelenau Peninsula and through the central town of Cedar. As with much of northern Michigan, the road along the shoreline is fairly flat, but going across in an east-west direction means encountering a number of hills. The biggest hill came just as we were getting close to Traverse City, but on the other side we picked up a paved rail-trail and followed that down into the city itself. My best memory in the city that day was having a pasty and a large, fresh fruit cup at a local restaurant, which was so welcome after a few days of “institutional” buffet fare!
Our campsite for the next two nights was at the Civic Center, which is located right on the main drag into town. The next day would be a layover day with no formal routes scheduled, so we were on our own to ride and relax as we pleased.
Day 4: Layover in Traverse City
This was a day with no formal plans, so I decided to do what most riders do on this “off” day and ride out the Old Mission Peninsula to the lighthouse at the north end. This narrow peninsula juts out into the bay between the Leelanau and the mainland and is noted for its abundant cherry orchards and other local agricultural products, including a growing hops farming industry for the many craft breweries around the state. It was a fairly easy ride in familiar territory, so I took my time at it. On my way back I stopped at a roadside stand to buy a small bag of cherries. Just before I got back to the Civic Center, I felt the rear tire go flat. Drat! Fortunately I was close enough to the end to just walk the bike back to camp and use one of Bubba’s work stands to conveniently change the tube.
The rest of the day was spent hanging out in the Zone and relaxing. This was back in the days before smartphones were common, and the local community college across from the civic center was kind enough to make the PCs in their library available for anyone who wanted to check their email and so on, and I took advantage of their offer.
The Shoreline tour also offers a three-day option for those with more limited time, so we picked up a few more riders in Bubba’s area and elsewhere. These last three days would be going through Michigan’s prime vacation areas, making the three-day a good option for many.
Day 5: Traverse City to Charlevoix
Starting off early as usual, we proceeded along a route that took us east on a rail-trail out of Traverse City and then northward to go up along the east side of Grand Traverse Bay. This took us by the famous sunflower fields, which were especially striking on such a clear, sunny day. The first stop was in Elk Rapids, where — again as usual — many stopped for a rest break, coffee, and pastries.
US-31 is a wide and very busy highway that goes all the way up the shoreline from Traverse City to Petoskey and the ride organizers did their best to avoid our having to travel up it. So after leaving Elk Rapids, we crossed the highway and took a beautiful, quiet ride along the shoreline of Torch Lake, which is one of many narrow, north-south lakes that are found in this region. This is one of the more popular inland lakes and is lined with expensive summer “cottages.”
At the north end of Torch Lake, we headed back west again, going up a short but very steep hill that was a harbinger of other glacially-carved hills that we’d be encountering over the next couple of days. This took us back to US-31, where we had to ride a few miles north before turning inland again. Fortunately, this road has a very wide paved shoulder — almost a full lane on its own — so although we felt safe enough, the roar and wind from passing vehicles made us glad to finally get off it.
The rest of the way to our night’s camping spot at Charlevoix’s high school took us across a sequence of steep ridges on rough tertiary roads: the kind of route where you get up as much speed as possible on the downhill, hoping that it can get you most of the way up the next big hill! This is what is euphemistically called “rolling terrain,” but I was having to get into my lowest available gear on many of the climbs.
The high school is located several miles out of town and at quite an elevation, so it was nice that our hosts provided a shuttle service for anyone wishing to visit the downtown area. So a number of us hopped on one of the school buses and spent a couple hours on the main strip, which is lined with restaurants and all the usual summer tourist shops. Again, it was nice to eat good food with table service and top it off at one of the many ice cream shops!
Day 6: Charlevoix to Harbor Springs
This was the last full-day ride of the tour and would take us past the busy city of Petoskey and around the bay to Harbor Springs, probably the toniest and most exclusive town along the shore. For this route, four options were offered. For those who wanted an easy, relaxing day on flat roads, one route went through Charlevoix and then along the paved Little Traverse Wheelway path along the lake all the way past downtown Petoskey and on toward Harbor Springs. The other routes went inland to go around Lake Charlevoix, through Boyne City, and on a route that bypassed Petoskey. I chose one of the latter options.
After starting off on a nice downhill toward town, the route turned eastward on a quiet two-lane road to go along the southern shoreline of Lake Charlevoix. A few miles along, the shorter option crossed an arm of the lake on the Ironton Ferry from where they would proceed to Boyne City. But I was feeling good and it was a really nice day, so I opted to continue on and go around the far end of the lake at East Jordan. This also gave me a chance to go past the East Jordan Ironworks, whose name I have seen for years cast into so many manhole covers and storm sewer gratings across the state. This seems like an unexpected place to find an iron foundry, but it made sense considering all the ore that has been mined out of the upper peninsula.
After passing through East Jordan, there was yet another option available that would have taken me on the road leading to The Wall: the best known tough climb in the state (again, not very long, but very, very steep!). I had originally thought about tackling it, but the previous day’s tough hills had reduced my confidence just enough that I wimped out and rode straight on into Boyne City.
Boyne City is a nice little town and typical of the summer towns situated on the many inland lakes in this region, complete with cottages, marinas, and a nice assortment of pleasure boats. Just past Boyne is Walloon Lake, which is famous as the boyhood summer home of Ernest Hemingway, and there are many memorials to him in the area. From there we rode along the heights at the eastern edge of the Petoskey area. Being out from the downtown, there were not any restaurants along the route, but many of us stopped at a place that was famous for its sausages to get something that would do for lunch.
Coming back down to the lake level, the final stretch took us on narrow, quiet back roads into Harbor Springs. We came into town on a shoreline road lined with historic old summer homes and mansions. Local lore has it that many of these were built by Chicagoland gangsters in the 1920s. Owners are restricted to keeping them preserved to their original appearance, which makes for a very nice upscale look to the neighborhood.
After going through the town and climbing up to where our final school stopover was located, I walked back into town to look around. Harbor Springs is not set up as a magnet for day-tripping tourists and many of the downtown shops feature designer brands, expensive resort wear, sailing equipment, and so on. I did manage to find a local coffee shop for some refreshment and enjoyed looking at the yachts in the marina.
That evening, in the daily briefing that always followed dinner time, the ride director mentioned that it would probably rain overnight, and that although we might not get rained on the next morning, we could expect to see a lot of flats. This seemed like a curious comment until he explained that, in order to increase traction for cars on the twisty road, they mixed coal slag into the asphalt to increase the roughness, and small, sharp pieces of this get scattered on the surface. This is not normally a problem for bikes, but when wet these particles tend to stick to a tire and then as it keeps rolling over them, they can gradually work through the tread! Hmmm…
Day 7: Harbor Springs to Mackinaw City
The day dawned wet but clearing, as predicted, and we broke camp for the final time, loaded our bags onto the luggage truck (Bubba doesn’t travel to the end of the ride), and headed out for the famous Tunnel of Trees. This stretch of road is one of the most famous scenic drives in the state, being especially favored by motorcyclists, bicyclists, and leaf peepers. It’s a twisty, narrow, tree-sheltered road along bluffs that occasionally offer a view down to the Big Lake. Our first destination, at the north end of the road, would be Cross Village.
Being early on a weekend morning, the road was virtually devoid of cars, making it feel more like a wide bike path than a road. It was all quite idyllic until I got just past the halfway point at Good Hart when I actually heard a hissing noise from the bike and knew that my back tube was history. Flats are never fun, but they always have a tendency to happen at a spot where it’s not convenient to fix them. This was no exception, as I was in the weeds on the side of the shoulderless road with early morning mosquitoes buzzing around. Fortunately, the ride had a sag-wagon vehicle cruising the route and they stopped to lend me a floor pump to inflate my tire after I had replaced the tube.
I finished the tunnel route and was just coming into Cross Village across from the famous Legs Inn when I felt the tire go flat again — maybe not surprising since I had not changed it under ideal conditions and may not have cleared out whatever was causing the puncture. So once again I flipped the bike over and changed out the tube. The ride’s official “bike doctor” had set up his van just across the road, so I went over to borrow a pump. I must have pinched the tube in my hurry and general annoyance with getting two flats so close together, and when I was inflating the tire it was just getting up to pressure when the tube blew out with a sound like a gunshot, blowing the tire right off the rim! Doubly embarrassing when everyone within earshot turned around to look…
This time I’d had it, so I carried the wheel over to the mechanic and paid him to fix it. Then I was off on the last miles into Mackinaw. These roads were nothing to get excited about and were some of the least interesting and scenic of the tour. There was one place open for refreshment that everyone was stopping at for a break, and then it was on to the finish line, where my biggest challenge was to find my duffel bags among a sea of hundreds of similar-looking bags. It seemed like it took forever, but after a shower and change at the school I was finally loaded up and headed back south.
I didn’t drive all the way home that day since I was meeting up with my son in Mount Pleasant for dinner and had a hotel reservation in Clare. All went well with that until I opened my car up the next morning and found my rear tire flat again — number four for the trip. After getting back home, the first thing I did was to order a set of Continental Gatorskin tires, and never had another flat as long as I owned that bike!
Except for the flats, this was the best tour I’ve done for routing and scenery. If I could figure out a way to do it again, but stay in hotels, I’d sign up in a minute.