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Traverse City: Beach town, foodie town, now a cycling town?

Wed, Jun  15, 2011 - By Michael Norton

TRAVERSE CITY – For decades, this laid-back Michigan resort town was mainly known for its sugar-sand beaches and casual Midwestern vibe. More recently, it’s been winning accolades as an up-and-coming “foodie” destination, thanks to its award-winning wines and farm-to-table cuisine.

Now, it seems to be attracting yet another group of fans. Bicyclists.

Cherry-Roubaix bike raceIt makes a lot of sense, actually, since Traverse City has long been a friendly place for recreational cyclists. The region’s glacier-carved landscape of gentle hills, long narrow lakes and winding rural roads, is challenging but not exhausting, and there is a well-developed system of paved and unpaved trails available for off-road cyclists. But the trickle of serious cyclists has become a flood.

Thousands of hard-core off-road cyclists have long known about the city’s legendary Iceman Cometh Challenge, a 27-mile point-to-point race held each November – sometimes in blinding snow – in the nearby Pere Marquette State Forest. Now in its 22nd year, the Iceman is the largest single-day mountain bike race in the U.S. But in recent years, “TC” has broadened its appeal to road-racing cyclists and recreational riders.

“This is getting to be quite the cycling mecca,” says web designer Tim Barrons, who races with the 43-member Hagerty Cycling team. “Traverse City’s name is starting to get around.”

The first sign of that increased interest came four years ago, when a group of local racers decided to create an August event called the Cherry-Roubaix. Named for a small city in northern France (best known for its teeth-jarring cobblestone streets) the Cherry-Roubaix began as a ride through Traverse City’s historic Old Town district, whose streets are paved with massive bricks brought as ballast in the holds of 19th century lumber schooners.

Since then, the event has grown to include a Tour de France-style road race on the nearby Leelanau Peninsula and now features a series of downtown sprint races, a charity ride, a kid’s ride and a cruiser classic. The 2010 Cherry-Roubaix attracted almost 600 racers and spawned a much larger event, the week-long Third Coast Bicycle Festival, which brings cyclists of all ages and ability levels to this bike-happy town.

This year’s festival will be held Aug. 12-21 -- and now that the Cherry-Roubaix has been named the official event of the 2011 and 2012 Michigan Road Race Championship, the entire week should see a major influx of participants. They’ll include triathletes, fixed-gear riders and road and cyclocross racers, as well as ordinary folks who just like to get outside on their bikes for some touring.

The festival will begin with an “all-bike” version of Traverse City’s celebrated “Friday Night Live” block party, with sprint races through the middle of downtown, demonstrations of obstacle-course riding and high-flying BMX jumps. Saturday begins with a charity ride fundraiser for the local women's cancer fund on the scenic Old Mission Peninsula, followed by the harrowing Cherry Roubaix Criterium road races in Old Town.

On Sunday, the focus shifts westward to the winding roads of the Leelanau Peninsula for a 13.7-mile road race. (There’ll be organized group rides for non-racing cyclists who want to get out to the course and watch the race.) Monday will bring a group ride to the Old Mission Peninsula sponsored by the Cherry Capital Cycling Club, and Tuesday will feature a fun ride in which obstacle cyclist Jonathan Pool and his crew of  2 Wheel Technique offer tips and instruction for riders who want to stretch their limits.

Wednesday events will include a time trials race on the Old Mission Peninsula and a downhill race on the ski hill at the Mt. Holiday Ski Area, while Thursday’s festivities open with a cyclists picnic and a costume/bicycle parade to the State Theatre for “bike movie night.” On Friday, there’s a “fixed gear alley cat” high-speed scavenger hunt, and

Saturday will be given over to a wide range of classes and clinics on techniques, equipment and skills, as well as a mountain-bike ride on the popular Vasa singletrack trails, while Sunday will feature a major triathlon (combined swimming, biking and running) at Bowers Harbor on the Old Mission Peninsula.

More information and registration materials can be found at www.cherry-roubaix.com/ and www.tcbikefest.org/. For information about lodging, events and attractions in Traverse City, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-TRAVERSE or www.traversecity.com. Photo: Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau.