Features

This Is How We Roll

Bicyclists travel different miles in different styles
encore-magazine-feature-bike-travel-paul-guthrie-july-21
Paul Guthrie commutes from Portage to downtown Kalamazoo by bike every day, including in the winter.

© 2021 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

Say "cyclist" and it immediately conjures up an image.

Maybe it's of an athletic type, somewhat scrawny but with enormous calves, unashamed of their skin-tight jerseys and bibs as they ride an aerodynamic carbon bike that looks like a knife cutting through air and is so light that carrying an energy bar seems to double its weight.

Or maybe it's someone in a dorky helmet riding an old mountain bike that's not quite the right size, wearing a brand new bike shirt stretching over their gut and cargo shorts, or khakis stained black on the right cuff from the bike's greasy old chain. (Full disclosure: This describes the author of this piece when he started riding regularly 10 years ago. Not much has changed, except he has a better bike.)

Tim Krone, owner of Pedal Bicycle, has seen all sorts of biking styles, all sorts of bikers.

"Even people riding that expensive road bike — you see all kinds of body types, you see all kinds of income brackets. You see it all," he says.

"Anybody can do it. You don't have to wear special types of clothes ... . Hell, you don't have to wear a helmet if you don't want to (though safety calls for one). I tend to, but, you know, nobody's going to make you, I don't think. And you don't have to wear funny-looking shoes."

Look around, and just as you see different colors and styles of bikes, there are also different types of riders. But all have one thing in common: Biking puts them in touch with that 10-year-old inside who revels in the freedom of pedaling out into the fresh air.

Paul Guthrie, commuter

To explain his bike commuting, Paul Guthrie talks about how he avoids putting CO2 into the atmosphere with a car and about the money he saves on gas, and of course there's the exercise. But one gets the feeling there are other reasons why he rides his bike to and from his job.

Guthrie is the lab manager at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo. He has a 20-mile round trip from his home in south Portage to downtown Kalamazoo. Much of his ride is on the Portage Bicentennial Trail, through a surprisingly wild strip of land in a suburban/commercial area. "You see deer, turkeys, who knows what — I think I heard a coyote the other day," Guthrie says.

He sees people on bikes, on foot, pushing baby strollers, and they all seem happy and greet him with a smile or wave. "That's kind of a culture you don't get involved with when you're entombed in your metal box," he says.

"On the trails, they're much more likely to wave at you and acknowledge you than those next to you in a car. I always ring my bell when coming up behind so I don't startle them."

Guthrie admits that there are some inconveniences to commuting by bike. He will reluctantly drive his car to work in winter when bike lanes are "kind of a frozen slush."

Rain? No problem. He puts on a light rain jacket and shoe covers. If he dresses for the cold in the morning, and Michigan weather turns hot for the ride home, he's got pants with removable legs, jackets with removable sleeves. "There's no bad conditions, only inadequate gear," he says.

In his rack bags are work clothes. Bronson provides showers, but Guthrie says he seldom arrives to work sweaty. "It's not like you have to race in. You can ride at your own pace," he says.

It helps to have an employer that encourages biking. In 2017, the League of American Bicyclists awarded Bronson Healthcare the "gold" designation as a Bicycle Friendly Business because of its Bike2Work program. The hospital installed bike lockers and provided other incentives for employees to ride their bikes to work.

Guthrie's main problem on the road has been motor vehicle drivers. His worst incident was in 2013 on Portage Road about a mile from his house, when "a distracted driver hit me from behind, going at least 45 mph. I was lucky. I got knocked out but had no serious injuries, but it was pretty much an eye opener."

He always tries to be seen on the road, but the driver apparently didn't notice his bike's bright, flashing lights. "She got a ticket is all," he says of the driver.

Guthrie now rides with a helmet mirror to see what cars are doing as they come up from the rear. He also invested in brighter lights — "the brightest ones in the world!" he says, laughing.

Guthrie also installed a bike camera to capture evidence during incidents like the one in 2020 when a driver ignored Guthrie’s right-of-way at the intersection of Kilgore Road and Lovers Lane. Guthrie and his bike survived the impact, but the driver fled. The police were able to read the license plate from Guthrie’s camera footage, "but apparently it was an improper plate." The driver hasn't been found.

Overall, Guthrie says, he doesn't have trouble with other vehicles. He credits improved bike infrastructure in Portage and Kalamazoo, like the bike lanes on Burdick Street and Lovers Lane. When asked why he keeps commuting by bike after his life has been put in danger, he answers, " If you quit riding because of that, you surrender in a way. You certainly have to be very vigilant, and you can't assume anything about vehicles or drivers."

Cars are convenient, and our society is built around them. So, is biking an act of rebellion against car culture?

"In a way," Guthrie admits, laughing. "But rebellion's not always a bad thing."

The Turner-Crows, family riders

At 8, Millie Turner already has a lifetime of memories of being on a bike.

Her earliest memory: "I would say I was 2 or 3. We got this thing you could put on the front, and it was kinda like a (child's) car seat but for bikes."

Now she rides her own bike or on a tandem with her dad, Ike Turner.

It's all "really fun," she says, but "when I'm on the tandem, my dad farts on me."

Ike and Millie's mom, Melanie Crow, laugh when she says this. Millie is known for her bluntness and was often seen in downtown Kalamazoo as a toddler in the front bike seat yelling "Get out of the way!" at pedestrians.

The family — including her sibling Milo Turner, who, now as a teen, doesn't ride with them as much — has long explored their Westwood neighborhood and beyond on bikes.

"Getting ice cream!" is Millie's favorite ride. They also take the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail downtown to get tacos.

Their regular KRVT ride is about 11 miles, "and Millie's been super great with that," riding her own bike, Ike says. "The hills are a bummer. They're hard for adults as well as kids."

Ike is the obsessive rider in the family. In 2016 he pedaled from Kalamazoo to his home state of North Dakota. "This last year I put on 3,400 miles on my bike,” he says, “and I would wager that more than a third of them were with Millie on the tandem."

Crow is also from North Dakota, where she fell in love with bikes. "My friends and I would just ride around on the river trails," she says, “and it was just the best feeling — that childlike feeling of just exploring, going places. You want to hold onto that a little bit.”

The family pedaled out to Kik Pool in Upjohn Park most summer days in 2019, but the pool closed in 2020 due to the pandemic. So last year the family had to get creative with destination options.

"On the other end of Westwood, there was this house that had tons of cats, like 30 cats,” Ike says. “They're all black cats. At night, around dusk, Millie and I or Mel and I would ride over there and just hang out with these cats. We did lots of little things like that."

Back when they would bike to Kik Pool, Millie rode in a trailer pulled behind Ike's bike. On one of those rides, near Bronson Hospital, Ike says, "a Jimmy John's delivery driver pulled out on us, and I went apoplectic, just yelling and screaming and cursing. I looked back, and Millie was just laughing. She got to see Dad lose his cool."

Ike admits that he and Millie "yell at people a lot. It was a tense political time this past year." Aggressive drivers or the yard signs and flags of one of the presidential candidates were their usual targets.

"If somebody would blast past us in a truck, we'd both let loose. And I don't know if I felt insulated because I had a child with me, like this person wasn't going to stomp me to death, or Millie would witness her father get murdered in front of her."

Safety is important to the parents. "Just getting the right equipment is crucial and the right helmets and the right-fitting helmet, and getting your kid to wear their helmet,” Ike says.

The three laugh. "We have to force it on her," Melanie admits.

As a family, they enjoy trails like the KRVT and the Kal-Haven. On roads, they take low-traffic neighborhood streets in the Westwood, Stuart and Vine neighborhoods.

Some people might think biking is too dangerous an activity — so why do it?

"I love the feeling of biking,” Melanie says. “It's kind of like flying a little bit, flying with wheels. Walking always frustrates me because you're going too slow."

Although Ike has had a few close calls with motorists while riding solo, he admits he's "obsessed" with bike riding.

It makes them both feel like kids, so maybe having kids is an excuse to experience that?

Melanie laughs. Ike says, "Totally!"

"It's one of those lifestyle things that we don't even think about," he says. "Our older kiddo used to be more into it but has phased out of it as they got older. It happens."

All parents have an "ideal vision of what you hope or want for your kids, and I have this vision of, I hope, that they gravitate towards bikes when they get to college and see that freedom you can get from it,” he says. “And, yeah, it is dangerous ... but people all over the world have been doing this forever, or since 1890 or whenever."

Jillian Howland, group road rider

The Kalamazoo Bicycle Club cut back its group rides in 2020. Covid-19 was in the air, though how much in the air to be a danger to cyclists riding together was a matter of debate. The general consensus in the bike community, KBC member Jillian Howland says, was that outdoor riding in reasonably small, distanced groups would be safe.

"You know, if you're not blowin' snot rockets directly at someone, it's going to be pretty hard to catch the viral load necessary to create an infection of coronavirus,” she says. “That's how I handled it last year. There were probably four people I would ride with. Never ride more than three at a time. "

Wait, wait, back up there. "Blowin' snot rockets..."? Is this the kind of thing that gives the impression that hard-core road cyclists are unlike most people?

Howland says she doesn't do that, but it's a habit that came out of bike races where the competitors didn't want to stop to politely blow their noses.

"We don't want to scare anyone away!" she says with a laugh. "I think that no one wants to see that, and no one wants to accidentally get hit with one."

Group riders' ways may seem mysterious: In their skin-tight "kits" pushing for an average speed that many people would struggle to hit in a sprint, they ride in a formation that makes them visible on the road and causes motorists to wait until it's safe to pass (which motorists should do, anyway). Are they athletes? Are they training for something? Where are they all going?

"I put the social aspects of group riding as No. 1 one for most people," Howland says. "Everything is more fun with a group."

Such as riding Howland's favorite route: the KBC's "fish inspection ride." The group rides to Plainwell to see "Rosie the Ginger Ninja," a fish sculpture installed by the former Plainwell paper mill on the Kalamazoo River. "It's a pretty big fish," she says. KBC members take selfies with it to show they did the 30+-mile round trip.

"Also, if you head to Richland, there's a big frog carved out of wood that some people visit," Howland says.

Long KBC rides are also "a way to explore where you live or maybe a neighboring county. Get a little adventure in, feel like you've been productive. You got a lot of exercise, and you got to see something new that you didn't before."

Group rides often go where Howland says she wouldn't venture alone. Being in a group also pushes her to go a little faster than she'd go alone, she says.

But group members aren't elite speed demons. Many times Howland rides in a "mixed-speed group — some people are fast, some people are slow, so there is always this unspoken courtesy where you always go as fast as the slowest rider."

Another plus is that there is usually safety in numbers.

But the tragedy of June 7, 2016, is still fresh in the minds of KBC riders, she says. An intoxicated driver, now serving 40 to 75 years in prison, killed five people and injured four others when he ran his pickup into nine group riders on Westnedge Avenue in Cooper Township.

In general, though, group riding is safer because multiple riders are easier for drivers to see than solo riders. And with a group's many eyes and ears, someone is always quick to alert the others with a vocal update of the road situation.

"You're mostly concerned, is there a car back? Does the whole group know there's a car back? Is there a car up? Does the whole group know that?" Howland says. "It's all about group communications. You're very much kind of a whole organism, not just a single rider."

And if anything should occur with a careless or aggressive driver, there are lots of witnesses. Howland says when drivers throw harassment at bikers, "it's always easier to either not take it personally or take it in stride when there's six of you on the road versus one person hollering at a single rider. I always take it way too personally. 'What the heck, man? I'm just tryin' to stay fit!'"

For Howland, the rewards of biking are stronger than the hazards.

"It kind of helps me slow down," she says. “I can appreciate my surroundings. I ride on some of the roads that I drive on, and whenever I'm riding I notice things that I never would have noticed had I been driving.”

She remembers a sight on Eighth Street that she could only have witnessed on her bike. "A bald eagle had just caught a squirrel or a rabbit or something. Dove down in the middle of the field and started tearing it apart. And I was like, 'Oh my gosh! This is America!'"

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