Thursday, April 23, 2015

My First Century

It was 1989, my thoughts were short, my hair was long; caught somewhere between a boy and man. Oh wait, that’s not right. But I was headed for northern Michigan.
Map of Michigan
It was 1986; I was just graduating from college in the slowly dying city of Flint, Michigan. My girlfriend at the time suggested the idea of riding the DALMAC bicycle ride from Lansing to the Mackinac Bridge. I said “sure, why not”. DALMAC stands for Dick Allen, the congressman who created the ride, Lansing and the Mackinac bridge. Growing up, it was simply “the bridge” to me although it’s alternately called “Big Mac” or “Mighty Mac” and is the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere.
For those of you who aren't familiar with Michigan, take your right hand with your palm facing you – that’s a map of Michigan. Approximately in the lower-middle of your hand is where Lansing is, the state capitol, and the home of Michigan State University. On top of your middle finger is the Mackinac Bridge (pronounced “Mackinaw” trust me). If you take your left hand, palm facing you again, with your thumb up and the tip of your pinky finger almost touching the middle finger of your right hand, now you've also got a map of the upper peninsula (“yupers” live there, or “U.P.-ers” …if you’re a yuper, then us “down-state” people are trolls because we live below the bridge). The bridge connects to the two peninsulas. Generally speaking, the fingers on your right hand is the area called "northern Michigan" because the "upper peninsula" is the Upper Peninsula.

As a recent graduate, I was 22 years old - a legal adult but not yet possessing a fully-developed frontal lobe. As such, I was still prone to questionable choices and failure to consider reasonable consequences. Unlike most recent college graduates, I had money. That is thanks to the nature of the college I went to and the full-time co-op requirement that gave me a salary all the way through. But basically, I was still a college kid and this was going to be another road trip.

Back to the story. I bought a used Raleigh 10-speed (see Further Research) with a Reynolds 531 frame since I didn't have a bike and didn't want to spend real money on a brand new bike. This was springtime and the ride was over Labor Day weekend, so I had some time to get in shape. I found the occasional 50-mile, organized bike tour in the rolling countryside well outside of Detroit. Apparently, they offered centuries (100 mile rides) but I never even considered them - just too far out of reach, or so I felt. They had names like the Assenmacher 100, Firecracker 100, River Raisin Tour, and "Slow Spokes" Peach of a Ride. They gave patches and sometimes a T-shirt. I still have a few of the patches; never figured out what to do with them. During the week, there was a deserted county part and I’d haul my bike there in my pickup truck and ride for an hour after work. The 50-mile rides were a struggle against monotony and headwinds. The hills were rolling and not too steep. Nonetheless, my legs ached after each ride.
To set the stage, you need to know that I wore tennis shoes because the pedals had toe straps. I didn't own any Lycra; I wore gym shorts and T-shirts – or sweat pants and sweatshirts if it was cold. Eventually I got some touring-style bike shorts (with chamois, but cargo pockets, tan color so they didn't look like bike shorts). I had the tan leather gloves with crochet backing that gave me a really odd-looking tan. Well, “tan” may be an exaggeration for me, but slight discoloration at least. White calf-length gym socks with stripes. I wish this were someone else’s story, but regrettably that was me in my prime.
By the end of that summer it was time for the big ride. My girlfriend had backed out of the ride. And incidentally the relationship was over by that time next year. But a few other college buddies had signed up spontaneously, and a couple others unbeknownst to me. They were going – hadn't trained, but they were going. At that age you could just put down your beer and go ride 300 miles without training.
The deal with the ride was great for college kids, families, as well as adventurous old folks. There was a SAG wagon. There was a U-Haul truck to carry your street clothes and camping gear. They would haul your stuff to the next stop and, when you got there, you’d put up your tent, roll out your sleeping bag and do it again the next day. There were designated lunch stops. The stops at the end of each day were at schools, so we had showers and a big football field to camp on. The organizers provided the meals, group-camp style. All we needed on the bike was a water bottle and a banana – no caffeinated gel packs back then.
There were three route options in 1986, although I have no recollection of the decision process. There’s a theme here. There was a 5-day route and two 4-day routes (east and west). All three departed from the capitol in Lansing and went to Mount Pleasant on the first day, home of Central Michigan University. The last day went through Petoskey for all three, as well. We took the 4-day “east” route: Lansing to Mt. Pleasant, …to West Branch, …to Gaylord, …through Petoskey, and finally over the bridge. There was an optional century route which we originally had no intention of riding. But I wouldn't be writing this if we hadn't changed our minds.
Then, as I'm sure now, the DALMAC ride draws a full spectrum of cyclists: complete novices, people so out of shape that completing it is not assured, semi-athletic occasional riders, touring types, wannabe amateur racer types, serious cyclists. I’m sure today there are hipsters on fixies, tandems galore, recumbents, pink tutus, kids on mountain bikes and ill-advised time-trial bikers with aero gear. Back then, pretty much everyone was on a “10-speed” steel bike. We were college kids and looked like it ...and acted like it.

My Buddies

Me: 23-year-old, newly minted college graduate with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I probably weighed 155 pounds. I had been the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity president. I had a nice, stable job at the General Motors truck plant in Pontiac, Michigan – of which I was going to quit by end of the year (although I didn't know it at the time, but that’s another story).
Ken Hill: Ken was still in school, two years behind me, tall, lanky, a reasonable athlete. He was from the thumb (refer to your map of Michigan). He was smart, and up for adventure. I didn't know he had a bike. But here he was. He had ridden a few rides close to 25 miles in preparation, that's it.
Steve Harvey: He was in Ken’s class, about my size but had the body of a wrestler. I remember one day someone taught him to do a standing back-flip – took him two tries to perfect it. And Steve had a perpetual grin, a solid chiseled cheekbone grin. And he was smart, too, but then almost everyone at that school was off-the-charts smart. I remember talking to him once about how he gave up playing college football to come to General Motors Institute (we had no intercollegiate sports). I suggested he go to Harvard graduate school and use his eligibility to play there – play in the Harvard-Yale game. I think he seriously considered it.
Ken, Me and Steve

Day 0

I had a shiny new GMC 4x4 pickup and agreed to haul our bikes to Lansing. We didn't have a place to stay but assumed we could spend the night at the Michigan State University chapter of our fraternity. Unfortunately, no one was there that holiday weekend (school probably wasn't in session yet), so we let ourselves in and likely had a beer or two. See comment above about frontal lobe development; henceforth to be referred to as "youth".

Day 1

It was fairly cold the day we started on the capitol steps in Lansing with hundreds of other people. All the bikes had their requisite orange flags sticking six feet up in the air off the rear hub. Just in the right spot so you couldn't swing your leg over the seat, you had to tilt the bike and step into it like a stiff pair of hip waders. We had a big, massive roll-out through town and out into the countryside. We barely arrived in time. Frankly, I don’t remember much else from the first day.  Ken reminded me that the other cyclists were amused at the six-pack of Coor's beer that Steve had strapped over his rear tire. Hey, it's a road trip, right?

After a late, youthful start, we worked our way through the pack to finish among the earliest riders. We arrived in Mount Pleasant, on the campus of Central Michigan University, picked out our gear and positioned our tent on the grassy knoll away from the others - so as not to disturb them with our youthfulness. I met an old guy who rolled in with a ton of gear attached to his bike. He had a two-burner Coleman stove. He was riding across the country, more or less along Interstate 80 and 90 from Washington state. He said in Montana they’d let cyclists ride right on the Interstate, but once he got into the Midwest he had to take side roads. I tried to imagine how he got through Chicago. Whenever possible, he hooked up with organized rides like this for the extra support. It made this ride seem small. After showering, we waited for the others and for the barbecued dinner. (In California, “barbecue” as a noun more than a verb, but in Michigan it’s not - it's an adjective or a verb.) Then we wandered into town. In no time, Steve found a college house party. Somehow, much later, I found Ken but not Steve and we went back to camp. Without Steve.
Apparently, helmets were optional

Day 2

The next morning there was still no Steve in the tent. We watched the entire group of cyclists leave. We waited. There were no cell phones back then. We packed up our stuff, left Steve’s bike sitting there and rode off to chase down the others. The SAG wagon followed at a prescribed pace to collect people who were going too slowly to make it to the finish. Partway through the morning, the SAG wagon pulled up alongside Ken and me to ask if we wanted to throw our bikes in the back. Otherwise, we’d be unsupported. Nah, we’ll be fine. We were. We caught most of the others and actually finished before most. At the final stop, we eventually saw Steve riding in – wearing the same jeans and dress shoes from the night before. Ah youth.
Not learning our lesson, we wandered into downtown West Branch. We stopped at a party store (Michigan for “liquor store” or “convenience store”) for beer. Surprisingly, we ran into two more friends from college: Gail Bartman and Laura Maxwell. We never actually rode with them, but having studied together in Flint it was no surprise to see them on this particular corner.

Laura later told me that Gail talked her in to riding, saying that if she got too tired the SAG wagon could take her to the next stop. With minimal training, she strapped her bike onto her Chevette to drive to Lansing. The plan changed when the alternator literally fell off her car. So she flew instead and rode "the crappiest borrowed bike you can imagine." Ah youth.

Day 3

Laura and Gail (possibly)
The morning of the third day was quite cold. We were further north, of course, and Labor Day Weekend in Michigan signals the coming of fall. I like the word “crisp” for this type of morning. We could see our breath. The pain of two long days of riding was immediate. I was so sore that I could barely sit on the saddle. But my legs were so sore I could barely stand up to relieve the saddle pain. This was going to be a tough day. Nothing in particular stands out in my memory. The destination was Gaylord on I-75 (that’s what we called it, “I-75”, not “Interstate 75”, not “75” and certainly not “the 75”) which was the main highway north. I’d been on it countless times as a kid. My only association with Gaylord is the Call of the Wild museum. As a very young kid, the place was terrifying. It was full of taxidermied animals, many in attack poses with plaster rocks and plaster trees behind them. It was also full of tacky kids’ toys like plastic bows and arrows, rubber-band guns, politically incorrect tomahawks and other sorts of things with which you could put your eye out. The toys provided my dad with a couple hours with no whining from the back seat – by the way, no seatbelts. But Gaylord represented a marker that you were getting close to the bridge. It meant you were way up north. It meant progress for the interminable “are we there yet” ride that kids endured. For this bike ride, it meant we had crossed over the point of pain and suffering and started to become one with the bike.
On the shores of Lake Michigan, probably Grand Traverse Bay

Day 4

By now we felt strong. The pain on the saddle was tolerable. At breakfast we were reminded of the optional century route that went along the shore. We opted in because that’s the way you make decisions when you’re 20-something and 300 miles from home. Not only did we feel good enough to survive 100 miles, we felt good enough to ride like maniacs – because that’s what you do when you've capriciously decided to ride farther than you've ever ridden in your life. We were hunched over, pedaling like mad, drafting each other – orange flag poles arching back. We’d sail by unsuspecting touring cyclists at break-neck speed. None of us had bike computers or speedometers, so it was “really fast”. With much pride and a certain amount of arrogance, we flew by the guys in their matching team jerseys. Ha! Take that.
In retrospect, I’m sure my 50-mile training rides over the summer did some good. Base miles are always good. But the infrequent nature and lack of intensity in my training meant that the first day or two of this ride were a shock to my system. Not the satisfying weight and warmth of slightly over-exerting well-trained muscles, but the sharp pain as if rusty knives were involved. I rode myself into shape on the first two days. I have no idea how much training my buddies did, but I’ll assume it was close to nothing. By Day 4, however, we were all in good form. We were all addicted to the endorphins.
Petoskey is a town named after the state stone of Michigan; the stone is named after Chief Ignatius Petosega, from the Ottawa tribe and founder of the community. I looked up the second part to write this, but I knew the first part. I also knew that the state motto, “si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice,” translates to “if you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you” from my Michigan history class. The last word is pronounced sur-KOOM-spi-kay, not SUR-kum-spice. But I digress. We had time and energy to stop at Pirate’s Cove to play miniature golf; at least I have the score card. Many years later, I brought my young son to visit his grandparents in Traverse City and we played putt-putt at the other Pirate’s Cove. An epic battle of toddler chasing the ball through the man-made mountain waterfall. But that’s another story. From Petoskey, we rode along the Lake Michigan shoreline to Mackinaw City. (No, I did not just misspell “Mackinac”. The city at the southern end of the bridge is spelled differently than everything else around there …phonetically. It adds confusion and helps separate residents from tourists.) On to the bridge.
A modern photo, courtesy of DALMAC
Mackinac Bridge is normally closed to bicycles. The DALMAC ride and the Mackinaw City “Scenic Bike Tour” are the only exceptions. The bridge has an element of danger. As a kid, I was scared to drive over it. The road surface was expanded-metal grating, so you could see through it. It’s about 200 feet above the water in the middle. It’s a little steep to climb on a bike, 5%, and an equal descent going into St. Ignace on the Upper Peninsula side. The Straits of Mackinac can generate some fierce crosswinds. So the authorities are a bit careful with bikes crossing. They grouped up the cyclists and platooned them over. While I’m sure we would have preferred to sprint to the finish and pass a few more people, it was definitely the most climactic end to a ride that I can recall. My maniac buddies and I were subdued for the crossing, but hardly tired.
And that was my first century.

The obligatory patch, and my first (and only) century pin.

Still Riding?

I moved to California and stopped riding for several years. The Raleigh is gone. I'm back. I've since done 15 other centuries. Lately, one a month. No one seems to give pins for centuries anymore.

Further Research:

I'm trying to determine the exact year and model of my old bike. I definitely remember the Reynolds 531 sticker (which makes it older than 1985). The photos provide a small amount of help in that it was red, and thin double stripes on the seat tube and that's what's proving hard to match. I recall it had stem-mounted shifters and foam, cushioned handlebars (not tape). The seat was molded and somewhat ergonomic (making it newer than 1983, I think), but I added a gel seat cover anyway. It came with toe straps on the pedals. Right now I think it was a Raleigh Super Course, but the stickers were different.