State attracts visitors of motor-less bent

For seven days last summer, James Jeske, 66, bicycled along Michigan's western shore. The 500-mile-long trek took him from New Buffalo at the base of the Mitten to Mackinaw City at the tip of the Lower Peninsula.

Jeske did not cycle the peninsula alone, though. He was with 400 other cyclists on the Shoreline West Bike Tour who wound their way through towns like Ludington, Charlevoix and Harbor Springs -- averaging nearly 60 miles each day. Undaunted by the distances, the event planner and U.S. Air Force veteran from St. Louis, Mo., keeps coming back for more. In fact, Jeske has cycled his way around Michigan for the past 25 years.

 “I come to Michigan,” he said, “because of the friendly atmosphere, the lakes, and the beautiful scenery. I love the wonderful farmers who have their fresh cherries and produce along the roadside.  It has all the aspects to make bicycling and vacationing great.”

Michigan boasts more than 300 bike tours that criss-cross the state, said Rich Moeller, executive director of the League of Michigan Bicyclists, with approximately 45,000-50,000 cyclists who participate in them. Of the 300 tours offered, five are a week-long; of those, two sell out every year. The rest are at near capacity.

The booming bike tours means big business for Michigan and it may keep getting bigger.

Michigan tops trail rankings

Michigan is ranked No. 1 in the country for the largest rail-trail system with more than 2,400 miles of bike trails, according to Josh DeBruyn*, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Michigan Department of Transportation. (Rail-Trails are the rights-of-way of old railroad lines converted to recreational use.)

Jim Sayer, executive director of Adventure Cycling, said within the next five years Michigan could become one of the top 5 bike tourist destinations in the country. One reason, he said, is that there is a major vitality to the (Michigan) bike movement: “When I visited, there were at least 20 bike co-ops springing up all over.”

He added, “Michigan is also one of the most assertive states in setting up designated bike routes.”

Michigan's rise among bicycling destinations may gain added momentum from legislative changes. Under existing law, cyclists must indicate a right turn with an upturned left arm. But House Bill 4782 would allow cyclists to extend his/her right arm horizontally to indicate a right turn. House Bill 4996 calls for a similar change. Nancy Krupiarz, executive director for Michigan Trails and Greenway Alliance, which, supports HB 4782, explained:

“If a cyclist sticks his/her arm straight out, the motorists are more aware that the cyclist is making a turn and the cyclist is able to notify the motorist what they are doing. That is always better for safety.”

But Michigan's primary advantage on cycling tourism may be what keeps James Jeske coming back year after year: the Great Lakes. “The Great Lakes provides many opportunities for tourists, from sand dunes to lighthouses to beaches to attractions to just the scenic beauty of these wonderful gems,” said Moeller of LMB. “Michigan has some wonderful roadways that are bicycle-friendly and offer great views of the lakes.”

Money in the spokes

According to a 2010 University of Wisconsin study, the Badger State enjoyed more than $920 million in economic benefits due to bicycle recreation and tourism. Of that total, the study credited almost $540 million to out-of-state cyclists alone.

“We have to be in that range,” argues Moeller of the bicyclists' league.

George Zimmermann of Travel Michigan, the state's tourism agency, said Michigan has not conducted a statistical review of bicycling tourism, though his agency has heard anecdotal reports of increased activity.

“Bicyclists rent cabins, hotel rooms, buy food, gas, souvenirs," said Moeller. "People spend money on bicycles and repairs.  When you look at the bike industry and what it brings to the state, bicycling cuts across all lines because everyone can participate, young, old, the serious or the casual cyclist."

And potential cycling tourists are primed to spend.

 The average household income of bicyclists, said Moeller, is roughly $125,000 a year. “They are people who have expendable income and when they come to tour, they want to spend, and they do," he noted.

“(The) local community is seeing dollars from folks coming in from somewhere else.  I think that attracting out-of-town folks to your community to spend dollars is always a good thing, whether they come from another state, country or just another town in Michigan," Moeller said.

That's not exactly news to James Jeske. He plans to return to Michigan this summer to bike through the Upper Peninsula, meet up with old friends and enjoy the familiar terrain.  

 “We cannot do those kinds of bike rides here in Missouri,” he said. “They just don’t work. Nobody does biking better than Michigan.”

Dana Hollowell is the first holder of the Center for Michigan’s student fellowship. An award-winning journalist, she has experience in the broadcast and print media. Hollowell grew up in the Detroit metropolitan area.

* CORRECTION: Josh DeBruyn's name was misspelled in the original version of this story.

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Thu, 04/05/2012 - 9:00am
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for finally shedding some light on what is a growing opportunity for Michigan as one of the premiere bicycle destinations in the country. Michigan is a sleeping giant growing rapidly with very active state associations (Michigan Bicycle Racing Association and Michigan Mountain Biking Association). As one of the fastest growing sports in the country, Michigan is a leader in cultivating and attracting professional racers and amateur touring cyclists along with strong ties with USA Cycling which sanctions our races thus giving them a national marketing footprint.. This is not only a fast growing green industry which results in fitness, healthy lifestyles for families and communities, but an economic development engine for those locations which have created annual race events drawing hundreds and sometimes thousands of people from all over the country. As our communities turn towards more walkable and bikeable solutions in their designs, we can only be winners with increased tourism and economic growth! Thank you for this article! Lisa Hadden. President, Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber of Commerce. Organizer/promoter Le Tour de Mont Pleasant / USA Cycling Official
Barbara Hicks
Thu, 04/05/2012 - 9:29am
Great article! However, "Josh Dubrian" is actually Josh DeBruyn.
Derek Melot
Thu, 04/05/2012 - 9:45am
Ms. Hicks, Thanks for the note. We have corrected the spelling.
Thu, 04/05/2012 - 9:43am
Nice story. But wouldn't we get even more cyclists if we did not require them to wear a helmet?
Thu, 04/05/2012 - 10:19am
Uhh, I'm pretty sure that you're thinking of the law that applies to MOTORcycles. This article is about PEDAL/HUMAN powered bicycles.
Robert Madsen
Thu, 04/05/2012 - 10:21am
Those who ride bicycles are not required to wear helmets in Michigan. However, any promoter of a ride or race can require all participants to wear helmets. I would recommend that all those riding bicycles wear a helmet. It doesn't take much to get a closed head injury in a fall from a bicycle. See you on the road!
George L
Fri, 04/06/2012 - 8:31am
There is a growing trend in cycling where riders are riding "Fat Tire Bikes" .These bikes have tires that are almost 4" wide and are suited for sand and snow. I can see new adventure riding developing on the seemingly endless sandy dirt roads.
Jackie Rowe
Fri, 04/06/2012 - 9:57am
A girl from Michigan, Lianne Miller, my daughter, was the National Collegiate Women's Mountain Bicyclist when she was attending Michigan Tech. I believe the year was 2002. She was a founding member for MTU bicyclist club and they have some really great trails in Houghton. If you come to Petoskey and tackle the hills east of town you will see what a great training area she grew up in! Or just ride the paved path from Petoskey to Charlevoix right along Lake Michigan, which is how she commuted to work in the summer. Gorgeous riding.
Chris MacInnes
Sat, 04/07/2012 - 7:56am
Thanks for showcasing that no place does biking better than Michigan! We have so many assets, from beautiful, safe trails often along crystal clear lakes, rivers and streams, to routes through quaint villages and bustling cities.... You betcha-- as a Michigan Girl (and an cyclist), I'm biased and proud of it!
Patrick Licavoli
Sat, 04/07/2012 - 9:36pm
I did a tour from Detroit to Beaver Island last summer, and am planning on doing another tour there this summer.