"Look straight ahead! Your brain knows what to do," Elno Lewis (not his real name) calls across the ravine. I'm in Peckerwood Park, astride my elderly bicycle with the not-so-knobby tires, contemplating a coast down a 15-foot gully with a twelve-inch wide wood bridge spanning its bottom. At least I'm not quaking atop a thousand-foot hill, a powerless passenger in a rollercoaster car, I argue to myself. I'm boss of this dragster. So I go for the swoop-de-doo, swift and straight, propelling my shrieking neophyte self back up the opposite curve of the bowl. After this weightless thrill, I see the mountain of gusto it takes to ace the other dozen-odd obstacles in the biking course, custom-built by Lewis for adventures of the backyard kind.
Shortly after moving into his Pittsfield Township neighborhood, one chilly moonlit night Lewis set out to explore the dense woods near his property. "I started tromping back there, and the further back I got, the more I realized there was a nice trail back there. When spring came I thought I'd get through it before everything grew up so I went back in with a sickle and broom rake and clippers and all that stuff and just started hacking out trail."
By that summer, a nearly two mile-long looping course emerged in the thicket; Lewis continues to expand it with more "hidden dangers". It's a brutal beauty; riders twist around curves lined with mature hardwoods, dodging scraggly askew branches and clans of mosquitoes, skimming between tree trunks spaced barely a handlebar's width apart.
Lewis is happy to share his sanctuary; last summer, he hosted the first annual Peckerwood Park Invitational, a timed race through the course. "The biggest skill you need is confidence and the wisdom to know what you can do and what you can't do," he advises.
This year, 10-15 bikers will grind tire over a garden of small boulders; surge across a series of one-foot wide elevated platforms; jump seven logs of a generous girth; shimmy the Skinny, a 4-inch wide biker balance beam; and play on the Circus, a 50-foot fallen tree flanked by sculpted dirt ramps. One element missing this year: the challenge of cresting a 500 gallon fuel tank without clipping a deer skull overhead; the tank has mysteriously vamoosed, he reports, but the skull still waves to the winds – and to the bandits pedaling beneath.
These bikers aren't bandits in the classical sense, but rather expert-level riders that haunt trails not designated for public mountain biking; generally because of unique natural or manmade features in the land. As such, these risky riders won't surrender either their names or trail coordinates. "No one claims to be a bandit rider," says Lewis, whose stage name stems from a stint of tooting the harmonica in a band.
During his seven years in the saddle, Lewis has found Ann Arbor and surrounding Washtenaw County to have some of the best mountain biking in Michigan. "While there are numerous trails configured for beginners and casual mountain bikers, discreetly tucked not too far off the beaten track are several miles of clavicle-snapping, face planting, endo-cursed single track," he says. An ominous promise, most definitely.
To endo is to be launched headfirst over your handlebars, usually after hitting small loose rocks – "baby heads" in biker parlance – or too-stiff braking. These end-over-end tumbles will turn even the best mountain bikers, who churn out 22-25 bumpy miles per hour, into serious mountain boinkers. One place with a vibrant endo vibe is The Ridge, a bandit trail maintained by an unknown soul. Lewis deems the path dangerous to even walk upon. "People look, and most people come to their senses," when they see the tight-cornered trail coursing along the steep hills and trees banking the Huron River.
From ridgeline descents to shooting the subterranean, there is no depth these daredevils won't plumb. Take an underground tube passage 100 feet below Plymouth Road in Ann Arbor. Accessed via a swampy ravine, the five-foot high circular confine forces explorers to make flat over the handlebars.
"A2 Rider", a University of Michigan student who turns up to 150 miles of tread every month, passed through the pipe when it harbored a foot of water after a heavy downpour. He recalls, "You couldn't see the bottom, obviously, and it was slimy. Other than that it was fine." He's even pedaled Peckerwood Park a couple of times. "The obstacles, as built, I felt, were safe and well-constructed. … It’s a great little trail system. It's a lot of fun."
As the tire turns
Appealing as tubes and tumbles may sound, plenty of tamer dirt paths meander across area maps. Washtenaw County has 60 miles of established biking trails, many of which you can bike to, says Bill Mayer, president of the Michigan Mountain Biking Association (MMBA), the state's mountain biking advocacy group.
The MMBA does not endorse riding on unsanctioned trails. Its volunteer members design and maintain only officially designated trails around the state. Of its 3,000 members statewide, 500 are from Washtenaw County alone. Mayer figures that only about 10% of the state's mountain bikers belong to the association. Thus, an unscientific estimate puts the number of mountain bikers in Michigan at 30,000-plus.
Mayer, who heads over hills almost daily, calls the sport, "my Prozac. If I don’t get some exercise, I just don't feel right," says the financial consultant, who tops out at 200 trail miles a week.
One official trail, the Potowatomi – named after an early tribe of Indians who occupied the Great Lakes region – is loved by riders of all persuasions. Situated in the Pinckey Recreation Area, a portion of the 18-mile trail, popularly known as "Poto", swooshes through Washtenaw County. The Poto is "definitely a gem in Michigan," Mayer says. "It's absolutely beautiful. It goes through some of the most interesting topography you're going to see in Lower Michigan. But it's pretty remote and that's part of its attractiveness."
Poto is lauded by more advanced riders for its variety of natural challenges – like tire-sucking sand. Mayer notes, "it's got rocks, it's got steep climbs, it's got fun descents, it's got crazy U-turns. Really, it’s an absolutely gorgeous trail. It has a little something of everything you find in Michigan." The MMBA sponsors group rides at Poto every Thursday evening, for the full 18 miles, or for shorter 5, 11, or 14-mile sections.
Beginning and intermediate riders not up for power-pedaling the Poto will have more saddle security in Hewens Creek Park in Ypsilanti and Olson Park in Ann Arbor; gentler trails, without harrowing climbs and chutes. And two more Washtenaw county parks, Rolling Hills and Sharon Mills, have new trails coming on-track, Mayer says. The 10-mile long Rolling Hills trail, for intermediate to advanced bikers, should be ready to tread within two years. The 5-mile Sharon Mills path is designed for newbie-to-middling riders, with a mid-summer completion.
"My favorite ride is to just pull out of my driveway and ride around Ann Arbor all day …There's enough trail in Ann Arbor to keep you real busy," says Lewis, who loops 50-60 miles around the area every week. Look closely through the trees and you just might see a flash of bikers; but blink and they're gone in the dust.
When she's not solo hiking in the Rockies Tanya Muzumdar is a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate. Her previous article in Concentrate was Information Evolution.Photos:
MMBA President Bill Mayer Rides at Olsen Park- Ann Arbor
Bandit Riding at Peckerwood Park-Ypsilanti Area
Ash Sud and Arvin Malhotra Riding the Trails at Olsen Park-Ann Arbor
Trailhead at Olsen Park- Ann Arbor
MMBA President Bill Mayer-Ann Arbor
Bill Mayer Riding at Olsen Park-Ann Arbor
All photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He shoots regularly for Hour Detroit Magazine.