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Sightseeing by bicycle

Join a rolling tour, and you'll see the best of the Upper Midwest.

Michigander bike tour.

© Kirt Livernois

The Michigander bike tour uses trails along lakes Michigan and Huron.

There's nothing like traveling the countryside on a bicycle.

From a bike seat, you hear the murmur of wind through field and forest, and you actually notice the sky and its clouds, as mesmerizing as a lava lamp.

You can ride on your own, but it's more fun to join one of the many cross-state rides organized by bicycle clubs and charities.

For six years, I rode on the MS Society's Ride Across Minnesota, a rolling oasis of harmony and good will.

On the same week in July, the Des Moines Register holds its Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Started by two columnists in 1973, it's now the granddaddy of cross-state rides and attracts up to 20,000 people from every state and many countries.

I grew up bicycling in Iowa and rode my first century when I was 16, so people always were amazed I'd never ridden Iowa's big tour. I wasn't wild about the idea – I suspected tranquil TRAM had spoiled me for rowdy RAGBRAI – but finally I did it.

Both rides give city dwellers a rare window into rural and small-town life. But they're different, all right.

RAGBRAI is so big – 8,500 weeklong riders and 1,500 daily riders, plus unknown numbers of unofficial hangers-on – that it's bigger than most of the towns it goes through. People spill out of the motels and campgrounds and into private homes and front lawns.

Highways are closed to cars, but they're still so clogged that riders have to carefully watch the wheels around them. The year I rode, an Iowa man was killed when he clipped the tire of a bicycle ahead of him and was thrown off his bike.

There's transport for gear, and the last town usually offers a shuttle back to the starting point.

But there's such a crush of people that most people form teams and organize their own gear transport and shuttle. Converted school buses follow the riders, many emblazoned with rude names: Team Angry Bitch, Boozehounds, Baboon Butts.

Yes, drinking is a big part of TRAM. My friends and I stayed one night at a relative's house, one night on the lawn of a nursing home and one night next to a church, so we were insulated from late-night parties.

A dad and his daughters on an Illinois bike tour.

© Larry Varney

On GITAP, the Grand Illinois Trail and Parks ride, this family wore T-shirts that read, "1 Dad, 2 Daughters, 3 Bikes, 7 Days . . . Priceless.''

But one morning at a pop-up espresso shop along the route, I ran into Twin Cities friend Fran Howley, who had camped at a private home and was beyond grumpy.

“I went to bed at 9, but I didn't get to sleep until 2:30, when all the drunk and profane people stopped drifting by,'' she said. “This will be a one-time experience for me.''

But at the same coffee stop, I met Rob Svendsen, a triathlon coach from Chicago. Like so many people, he was enchanted by the hugely enthusiastic welcome riders get from small towns along the route.

“Iowa is just special,'' he said. “It's kind of like the movie “Waiting for Guffman,'' where all these people are planning months in advance for just one half day.''

These Iowa cornfields pull in people from all over the world. One small town asked riders to mark their hometowns on a map of the world, and by 9:30 a.m. it showed riders from Ireland, France, Finland, Thailand, Germany, Italy, Australia and Hong Kong.

For me, three nights on RAGBRAI was enough. But of my group of eight from the Twin Cities, I was the only drop-out.

My friend John Lauber of Minneapolis, who also grew up in Iowa, likes to ride a partial RAGBRAI.

“I do think seven days of RAGBRAI is too much; it's a horde, and you feel like you've joined the Crusades,'' he said. “But I just love the small towns, because they rise to the occasion. And I like the countryside.''

All the rides have one thing in common: For a week or so, people get to occupy a parallel universe.

Its couture is smart-alecky T-shirts and helmets topped by traffic cones, loons, Viking horns and raccoon tails. Its cuisine is barbecued pork, sweet corn and root-beer floats.

Its citizens are unfailingly friendly and their language a cheerful Bizarro dialect in which "headwinds'' become "air-conditioning.'' Its terrain is storybook farmsteads and peaceful hamlets. 

For many folks, that's a real vacation.

A map of riders on RAGBRAI.

© Beth Gauper

RAGBRAI riders mark their hometowns on a map.

Choosing a ride

For anyone who's reasonably fit, bike tours are the best possible way to see the countryside, and they're also of the great deals of vacation travel.

On rides that benefit good causes, you're almost guaranteed that fellow riders will be people worth knowing.

At most, the sponsors do everything for participants except pedal and set up tents.

To get the lowest rates, sign up early; most tours increase fees as the tour approaches. Some tours limit riders and sell out.

Fees include a camping space, hot showers, snacks, gear shuttle and on-road support. Some rides offer a meal plan. Usually, children's fees are discounted.

Registration fees increase as the ride gets closer; sign up early to save.

Here are some of the best non-profit bicycle tours in 2016

Bike campground at the Soo Locks.

© League Michigan Cyclists

Riders on MUP, Michigan's Upper Peninsula Tour, camp in Sault Ste. Marie, near the International Bridge.

For one-day and weekend trips, see Tours on two wheels

For more, see Bicycling in MinnesotaBicycling in Wisconsin and other Bicycling stories.

June 12-17, GITAP, Grand Illinois Trail and Parks ride from Coal City, Ill. This loop ride, sponsored by the League of Illinois Bicyclists, will follow part of the old Route 66, with overnights in Oglesby, Washington, Bloomington-Normal and Pontiac.

Cyclists can ride 260 to 500 miles. Ridership is limited to 225; reserve a place as early as possible.

June 18-24, PALM, Pedal Across Lower Michigan tour. This family-oriented tour starts on Lake Michigan and heads east.

In 2016, it's a northern route, from Pentwater to Oscoda on Lake Huron. Overnights are in Whitehall, White Cloud, Evart, Gladwin and Hale. Registration opens Jan. 10.

July 17-22, 2017, Michigander. The Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance sponsors this ride with two-, six- and eight-day options through northwest Michigan.

This year, the ride will go through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and the Leelanau Peninsula, with overnights in Frankfort, Leland and Traverse City.

July 10-16, Habitat 500 in Minnesota. This 500-mile tour benefits Habitat for Humanity and is limited to 135 riders, who must raise $1,000.

This year, the route starts near Duluth in Proctor and loops to McGregor, Grand Rapids, Hibbing, Aurora and Two Harbors.

July 10-16, MUP, Michigan's Upper Peninsula Tour. The League of Michigan Bicyclists sponsors this 334-mile loop tour of the eastern U.P. From St. Ignace, cyclists head to De Tour Village, Sault Ste. Marie, Paradise and Newberry, with two rest days for sightseeing.

Riders are limited to 150; reserve a place early.

July 20-24, MS TRAM, The Ride Across Minnesota. This well-organized, family-friendly tour benefits the Minnesota chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. It was started in 1990.

This year, the 281-mile route goes through central Minnesota from St. Joseph, with overnights in Sauk Centre, Fergus Falls, Wadena and Little Falls. There's also a three-day weekend route.

Registration is $40, and riders must raise at least $300. Riders are treated to bountiful food at official rest stops, about every 10 miles, and can buy food from various civic groups at the evening stop, usually a city park or fairground. There's also evening entertainment.

Costumed riders on RAGBRAI.

© Beth Gauper

Many teams on RAGBRAI wear costumes.

July 24-30, RAGBRAI, The Register's Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. This popular ride crosses Iowa, starting at the Missouri River and ending at the Mississippi, is in its 44th year.

This year, it's going through southern Iowa, starting in Glenwood and stopping in Shenandoah, Creston, Leon, Centerville, Ottumwa, Washington and Muscatine.

Passes for the 8,500 weeklong riders and 1,500 daily riders are chosen by lottery; deadline is Feb. 15 for paper entries and April 1 for on-line entries. Results are posted May 1.

There aren't any official rest stops, but towns along the route offer entertainment, games and food, and vendors offer food all along the route. Many citizens and businesses offer free camping or lodgings to riders.

Want to know what it's like? Here's a New York Times video of the tour in 2010, the year I rode on it.

Aug. 6-13, Shoreline West Bicycle Tour in west Michigan. This ride, sponsored by the League of Michigan Bicyclists, celebrates its 30th year with a  coastline ride from Montague to Mackinaw City.

RAGBRAI riders in Iowa.

© Beth Gauper

In Iowa, RAGBRAI draws so many riders that its route is closed to cars.

Riders can take the 386-mile, seven-day route to Mackinaw City, which includes a 41-mile day riding in Old Mission Peninsula, or the 159-mile, three-day route from Traverse City to Mackinac City. Riders are limited to 500.

Aug. 18-21, Bicycling Around Minnesota. Riders pedal 60 to 80 miles per day. All meals are provided.

It's limited to 275 riders, and spaces go fast.

Bike tours offered by for-profit companies

These tours still can be inexpensive if you camp and reserve early.

The Bicycle Tour Network lists many tours around the nation.

One of the region's longest-established companies is Eric and Kathy Schramm's Bike Wisconsin, which offers three weeklong bike tours each summer. Meal plans and bus shuttles are extra.

GRABAAWR is short of Great Annual Bicycle Adventure Along the Wisconsin River and was started in 1986. It starts in Eagle River and ends in Prairie du Chien.

In 2016, GRABAAWR is June 18-25. Mileage varies from 55 to 85 miles per day and ridership is limited to 700.

Bike Northwoods, started in 1999, heads north to Chequamegon Bay.

In 2016, Bike Northwoods is July 9-15. It starts in Superior, takes a day trip up Minnesota's North Shore, then heads east to Port Wing, Bayfield, Madeline Island, Iron River and back to Superior.

Mileage is 50 to 60 miles per day and ridership is limited to 400.

SAGBRAW stands for Schramm's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Wisconsin and is the state's oldest bike tour, started in 1977. Its route varies but usually is in eastern Wisconsin, along Lake Michigan.

In 2016, SAGBRAW is July 30-Aug. 5. It's a loop from Mishicot, with overnights in Green Bay, Sturgeon Bay, Ellison Bay and Algoma.

Mileage is 50 to 60 miles per day, and ridership is limited to 700.

Last updated on November 4, 2016