Big wheels keep on turnin`

By Bob Crawford

Last year, retired Michigan State University cinematographer and editor Bob Crawford rode in the annual Dick Allen Lansing to Mackinaw bicycle tour, known as the DALMAC. The 300 mile-plus trip, spread out over five days, kicks off on Sept. 1; its named after the former state representative from Ithaca who started the event in 1971. This was Crawford’s second DALMAC; here’s what the experience was like for him.

Cruising at an average speed of 15 miles per hour and headed north, I glance quickly over at the shadows that our four bicycles cast towards the middle of the road. Next to me is a white stripe. If I drift too far to the right, I risk running my front wheel on to the soft shoulder of the road, a quick way of losing my balance. I am at the rear of a pace line with three of my friends just ahead of me, my front wheel no more than two or three feet behind the bike just ahead. Four guys cruising by the cornfields of mid-Michigan, our eyes constantly scanning for potholes, four perfectly synchronized shadows headed toward some small town the name of which I don’t remember.

We have chosen the five-day tour: five days to cover the distance from Lansing to Mackinaw City. It’s a distance of over 300 miles, and is considered by some riders to be the easiest route, as we are only cycling 65 to 70 miles a day, not nearly as demanding as the Quad Century in which bikers complete a 100 miles a day four days in a row. No, we are not in a race, just 2000-plus bikers on four different routes pushing forward like lemmings marching to the sea.

This is my second DALMAC, and, in comparison to some of the riders that have participated in this event for more than 15 years, I am a rank amateur. Last year, the youngest to complete the course was an 11-year-old girl, and the oldest was a man in his 90s. At 73, I am considerably older than the average rider, and I am sometimes subjected to that qualified compliment, “You’re in great shape for your age,” an irritating reminder of my growing limitations.

Each day our tents and camping gear are transported by trucks to our next location, and, by late afternoon, we wade through hundreds of brown duffels all looking remarkably the same, as we try to locate our particular bags. Bone-tired and saddle-sore we set up our tents, our first stop the campgrounds located at Central Michigan University at Mt. Pleasant. The second day we camp at McBain; our third day we stop at Elk River; the fourth stop is just outside of Petoskey; and, on the final day, we ride to the finish line at the local high school in Mackinaw City.

Bikers are not allowed on the Interstates, so we stick to the backroads that pass through Michigan’s small towns, places with names like Maple Rapids, Perrington, Shepherd, Farwell, Lake George, Marian and Temple. Towns with perhaps a sign on the outskirts proclaiming that in 1992 the local high school was Michigan’s Class C cross country champion. Towns with one gas station and two rusty gas pumps, a hardware store — there’s a good one in Perrington — and a main street with a small caf. Places off the beaten track, where farmers gather in bib overalls on a Saturday morning to discuss the price of feed over a cup of coffee. Towns with local charm instead of endless strip malls and fast-food chains.

Once a year, packs of bikers wearing streamline helmets, tight lycra pants and psychedelic shirts advertising past DALMAC rides zoom through these hamlets. Sometimes we stop for 10 or 15 minutes to load up on Gatorade and power bars and to stretch our muscles, as we nod to the townies and retired couples who sit on front porches staring at us. Small kids have set up lemonade stands with cookies to earn a few dollars from those in need of a sugar fix.

Then we are on the road again, leery of potholes, cracks and loose gravel, always keeping a healthy distance from soft shoulders. Last year, my concentration faded for just a few seconds, and I went down. Fortunately, I only ended up with a few scrapes and a bruised dignity.

There are times when the unrelenting rhythm of my hunched-over cranking grows tedious, and I see myself as a hamster in a spinning cage. Sure, I need the exercise, I enjoy the fresh air, the cornfields and the camaraderie, but when, I keep asking myself, when can I get off this damn bicycle? At other times, I float along, maintaining an effortless pace and fully enjoying the moment. I suck in the clean air, smell freshly spread fertilizer drifting from adjacent fields, and then I am swallowed up by the endless rows of corn on either side of the road.

Eventually, I take the lead in our pace line. I can no longer take advantage of the partial vacuum created by the rider half a wheel in front of me. Instead, I am taking the full force of the wind and working twice as hard as the bikers behind me. After a couple of miles, I am tempted to drop to the rear, but I have not yet done my share of leading the pack and have no choice but to maintain a strong pace. It is my way of saving face and doing my share of the hard work.

Unable to maintain a decent tempo for more than 15 or 20 minutes, I drop off the lead position and fall to the rear, as the No. 2 man moves to the front position. I am tired and cannot keep close enough to the biker in front of me to take advantage of the draft he creates. I yell out to the three bikers ahead of me not to wait, saying that I will meet them at the campground at the end of the day. Dropping farther back, I watch them disappear over the crest of the next hill. In the parlance of bikers, I have been “dropped.”

Now alone, I am no longer part of a team. There are still many bikers behind me and others in front of me that I can catch, but I am no longer with my friends. I console my failure to keep up with them by mumbling that I am older and not in the shape that I used to be in. If I have a flat, break a chain, or have some other problem, I will have to bail myself out or rely on the support vehicle to stop and give me a hand.

Cycling alone and away from pace lines has its advantages, as I can enjoy the scenery and cruise at my own comfortable pace. I would be a liar if I did not admit I feel a tinge of regret, as I can no longer converse with my fellow bikers and will have to battle headwinds alone. I tell myself that there is always a younger set of bikers — usually males with no lack of testosterone — who will boast of their high speed and the number of fellow bikers they have “dropped” along the way. They race in packs, tearing up the roads, seeing nothing of particular interest, drafting with great precision, and definitely going from point A to point B faster than anyone else. A clear but somewhat shallow goal — and yet there is nothing I would like to do more that than to whip by those young hotshots on their expensive road bikes.

the third day, I find myself just outside of Elk Rapids, a village in
Antrim County with a population of around 2,000. To find my way to the
campground, I keep looking for the yellow Ds (for DALMAC) with the help
of arrows the tour organizers have painted on the roads. There are none —
at least none visible — as someone (probably some high school student)
has painted over them with black spray paint. I waste an extra
three-quarters of an hour biking in circles until I find the campsite.

things have happened: One year, some teenager scattered tacks across
one of the country roads causing a number of bikers to have flat tires.
Eventually I set up my tent and forget the time I have wasted by going
swimming in the cool water of Elk Lake with a friend.

am glad not to be on the road, as pedaling a road bike for six to eight
hours a day brings its own set of special problems: sore butts, aching
and burning thighs, cramped wrists and stiff necks, to name several.
Hunching over drop-down handlebars and forever looking forward to scan
road conditions causes a lot of lower back ailments as well. To relieve
the pain, I constantly flex my head back and forth and side to side, and
then I stand up in the saddle, hoping a change in position will give me
some relief. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I hope that a
good night’s rest will eliminate most of my kinks.

next day I encounter the infamous Wall, a very steep incline just
outside of East Jordan, another small village on our way north. A year
ago, I almost made it to the top but bailed out about a dozen yards from
the crest. I blamed my failure on being in the wrong gear. This time I
psych myself up by resting before the long incline that leads to the
wall and, at the same time, fortify myself with a bottle of Nestle’s
chocolate drink that a fellow biker swears by.

the Wall, I glance down and read a warning that someone has painted on
the road. “If your legs are burning at this point, turn around,” it
says. I am not intimidated. I tell myself that with a chocolate drink
under my belt I will shoot to the top. I keep saving my energy for the
final 100 yards. I round a slight curve and the Wall looks steeper than
ever. A paramedic wagon is parked to the side; nothing like an ideal
location in which to practice one’s trade. Putting my bike into the
granny gear, I lean forward and begin pumping with a vengeance.

I initially follow a straight line. Halfway up, this quickly changes to
a snake-like back and forth movement that carries me to the top. I make
it, but just barely. I glance back at the paramedic truck and wonder if
the paramedics were licking their chops as I rode by.

I wonder why in the hell conquering the Wall is such an important
challenge for me. Because it is there, I tell myself, because it is
there. I am the Sir Edmund Hillary of northern Michigan. I stand there
gloating for a few minutes, suppressing my smile as younger, more macho
types fail to make the grade, and then I groan at the sight of
16-year-old girl, tall and very beautiful, not an ounce of fat on her,
as she comes roaring to the top, as if she was out on a Sunday stroll.

next few miles are essentially a roller coaster ride, as I rocket down
hills reaching speeds of well over 30 miles per hour and then coast to
the crest of the next hill. Occasionally, a maniac passes me on the
downhill run, and I am tempted to keep pace, but at that speed I know I
am toast if I hit a pothole or loose gravel. Over the years, both age
and the desire to live a bit longer have overcome my fantasies of
excessive speed.

the last night of our tour, most of the bikers camp at the high school
just outside downtown Petoskey. Weary of setting up my tent and sleeping
on the hard ground, I spend the night with my cousin and his wife, who
have a luxurious cabin on Lake Charlevoix. Never again will I take for
granted the simple pleasure of sleeping on a bed and having a bathroom
several feet away.

next and final day is a breeze as we cycle just over 60 miles across
relatively flat terrain. Much of the route takes us through the Tunnel
of Trees just north and west of Harbor Springs. Due west is Lake
Michigan, and from time to time, when passing a clearing in the densely
forested tree line, I get a beautiful view of the lake. I stop, rest for
about a quarter of an hour and take close-up photographs of the rock
formations jutting out into the lake.

the road cuts inland and eastward towards the high school in Mackinaw
City where my wife and a handful of good friends greet and congratulate
me for completing the journey. I have arrived.

I do DALMAC again and endure all those sore muscles, the aching butt,
cold showers and mediocre food at high schools, put up with the pressure
of maintaining a position in a pace line and the nights of questionable
sleep in a tent that is soaked with dew every morning? Are you kidding?

wait. In a more contemplative mood, I see four perfectly synchronized
bikers moving in flawless harmony in the early morning sun, their
shadows cast evenly toward the center of a back road somewhere in the
cornfields of mid- Michigan. The only sound is the whirring of tires on
asphalt, and then I hear the light-hearted camaraderie of spirited
bikers at the end of the day.

Sure, I will do DALMAC again.