Cyclists clearing the walks and trails of picturesque Traverse City

Winter has been long this year, and the snow has been piling up. But that's not stopping these folks from getting out and riding their bikes. Is there such a thing as too much snow when you have pedal plowing power? 
Bikes. With plows.

That's right. Wow.

This winter, adult volunteers in Traverse City began hitching hand crafted plows to their bicycles and pedaling all over town to clear sidewalks and the miles of trails that wind through the community.

There are five different bike plow styles, fashioned from supplies including plywood, plastics, aluminum, repurposed Razor scooter wheels, metal runners, and the stiff bristles on the heads of garage push brooms.

They are odd-looking contraptions at first glance. And at second glance. Heck, maybe forever. But they get the job done.

"At first, we got a lot of 'What the hell are you pulling behind your bike?'" says Ty Schmidt, the co-founder (with wife Johanna) of Norte! Youth Cycling in Traverse City.  

The two kicked their youth program into gear just in time for a brutal pounding of a winter. The members, from 10 to 18 years old, ride to school together every Friday and participate in other biking events spanning the wild ride that is Michigan's four seasons.

Bike plowing isn't a brand new custom. Years-old movements around the country have rendered it commonplace in many of the country's bike-friendly cities, according to Ty.

"It's a new idea here, but I grew up in Canada, where we rode bikes everywhere, just like most Europeans do," Ty said.  "They bike to work like it's the normal thing to do."

He says the city does a good job keeping Traverse City free of the substantial amounts of snow that tend to fall and drift and fall and drift again all winter long. But on weekends, when the municipal plows rest, as well as early mornings, after-work hours--whenever people fit  the time and energy into their lives--dedicated community volunteers hop on bikes to and plow. Ty is among them. He and Johanna are both physical therapists and  competitive cyclists. Their nine-year-old son bikes to school with his Dad every day, and Ty has been pedaling to work for most of his 37 years, beginning right after college.

"I was fat, I was out of shape and it was much easier to leave an hour early to ride my bike instead of dealing with traffic," he said.

Even living in Tucson, with an 18-mile trek each way.

"It's such a stress-reliever. If you're tired, if you're cranky, get on your bike for a great endorphin release and a fun ride."

Ty is reminded every day at work how vital healthy lifestyles are.

"I see things that scare me," he says. "Especially the epidemic of obesity and sedentary lifestyles. It's not just adults--we all know this is a problem for kids, too."

"That's really how this came to be," he says, of Norte! Youth Cycling and its many programs. "We want to get kids off their butts and take their fingers off the iPads. We want to give back to our community and share our passion for biking with Traverse City youth."

Biking is a four-season sport, the Schmidts insist, and they intend to show people how to make that a reality.

Ty and the rest of the pedal-powered plowers clean up Traverse City to help make it safer for schoolchildren, to lend a hand to the city, to stay fit and also to leave green footprints in their white, fluffy wake. As a bonus, Ty considers the plows a welcome alternative to snow shovels and a cleaner option than a snow-blower when they clear their own driveways.

"If I go out to ride for an hour, I can clear about six miles of sidewalk," he says. "It's fun and it helps keep the walks and trails clean. And we're talking zero emissions, clean energy and infinite miles per gallon."

Quick to offer credit where it's due, Ty explains the unique plows are constructed by locals who have perfected their craft.

"These machines are pretty bad-ass," he says. "Some are pretty heavy, so it can be hard to pull them--it takes a lot of strength. But I didn't design the plows and I don't build them. I just pull them."

Local physician and Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails board member Tom Auer and civil engineer and TART Trails' former executive director Bob Otwell are the mechanics behind the "bad-ass" bike plows that have cruised through what turned out to be a brutal inaugural winter.  The craftsmen don't work entirely alone, Auer says with an appreciative nod to Ace Welding Company and TC Millworks for their assistance with some duties involved, including welding.

"We are both interested in promoting healthy lifestyles and we love what Ty and his group are doing here in Traverse City," Auer says. "That club has given all of us a ton of momentum.  They are creating a sense of intergenerational awareness. They show young people and others just how much fun winter bike-riding can be and how to enjoy it."

He thinks Norte1 Youth Cycling is a catalyst for healthy change, acting as a community-wide energy boost.

"It's been an awakening," he says. "If we don't teach our children healthy habits, we're going to have big problems in the future."

Kelle Barr is a Portage-based freelance reporter who can be reached at Kellebarr@gmail.com
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