Spring means it's time to turn the bikes toward Lake Michigan for the Kal-Haven Trailblazer

On May 7, bikers will return to the Kal-Haven Trail to celebrate spring, Michigan, wheels, and gears. The Trailblazer, an annual community ride on the Kal-Haven Trail, will be back after being put on hold by COVID. 
One can do a few miles of the trail for the event, but some have pedaled the entire length many times. It's "only" around 33.5 miles from the trailhead on 10th St., Oshtemo, to the trailhead at Bailey Ave., South Haven. 
But others might be new to this notion that, by using a bicycle, your muscles can take you all the way to Lake Michigan. 
The Big Bike Boom of the COVID era put a lot of people into bike saddles. Maybe they feel comfortable doing ten or 20 miles, but over 33?
Jeff Green, vice president of the Friends of the Kal-Haven Trail says it's all relative.
He lives in little Grand Junction on the trail now, but he is from New York City. "I grew up in the city, and the bicycle was the way you got around. I'd go from Queens to Manhattan on a bicycle when I was 14, and never think anything of it," he says.
As an adult, he's known people who do regular 80- to 100-mile rides. "These guys don't even break a sweat. This is just easy stuff for them because they just do it."
Kalamazoo to South Haven might seem to be an intimidating distance, but it is doable. "If you've never done it, yeah, there's some tips and tricks," Green says.
A Pure Michigan Trail
One trick is to understand what you're getting yourself into -- a nice 33.5-mile ride through woods, farmland, and small towns.
Vice president of the Friends of the Kal-Haven Jeff Green and Michigan DNR's Matt Metzger.It's "an adventure," Matthew Metzger, Michigan DNR supervisor of the Kal-Haven and Van Buren Trail State Parks, says.
"The trail offers riders the ability to make their way through gently rolling terrain, beautiful farm fields, wooded areas, and cross several bridges and streams," he says. "First-time riders can find rest and refreshments in one of the several communities along the route or stop at one of the many picnic areas along the trail," he says.
Metzger continues, "Adding to the experience, trail users can stop and read about the rich history of the trail and surrounding communities at one of the many interpretive panels installed along the way. Completing this journey, riders will come away with a fulfilling sense of accomplishment and a rich experience traversing one of the many great trails in Michigan."
And it is all Pure Michigan. In 2020, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources designated the Kal-Haven as a Pure Michigan Trail. South Haven was also designated a Pure Michigan Trail Town.
Before that was the first Great Lake-to-Lake Trail Route #1 ride in 2019, a 275-mile route from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron that begins on the Kal-Haven.
Vice president of the Friends of the Kal-Haven Jeff Green and Michigan DNR's Matt Metzger.That same year, the Michigan History Center began its Michigan Heritage Trail Project on the Kal-Haven. Signs went up for trail users to learn everything from how ice age glaciers created the challenging hills at the east end of the trail, to what the trains carried on the former rail bed. (People have no idea that around 80 tanker loads of oil left Bloomingdale every day at the start of the 1940s, Green says).
All that brought a lot of attention to the trail. Green says the Friends of the Kal-Haven Facebook page grew from "a few hundred likes to well over 2,000." In emails from Indiana to Iowa asking about the trail 
he sees signs of the trail becoming a destination for people from outside the state.
There haven't been any recent official counts, but any nice Saturday will show that something brought "an awful lot of people onto that trail. And COVID, I have to give COVID credit, it killed four of my friends, but I have to give it credit for bringing more people out to the trail," he says. "People wanted out of their homes, they wanted something safe they could do."
Safe, but be prepared
If you're thinking about doing your first Trailblazer this May, understand that you will have SAG stops -- Friends of the Kal-Haven will have stations with cookies, bananas, water, and most importantly, peanut butter. 
They will also have mechanics on call to help with flat tires, broken derailleur hangers, etc. 
("SAG" stands for "support and gear.") ("Peanut butter" is a high-density food rich in calories and protein. Some bikers carry expensive gels or chews for fuel, but, really, slap peanut butter on a cookie at a SAG stop and you can go for another 20 miles.)
All levels of bike riders out on a nice Saturday, April 23.The weather may be perfect, but this is Michigan, so it also may be sleeting/snowing/raining. Those were the exact conditions of the 2019 Trailblazer. "It was 33 degrees, it was horrible," Green says. Usually, there are 100 to150 bikes in a Trailblazer, but when the weather is that bad, less than 50 might venture forth.
What kind of bike? Any kind that's comfortable for you works. Know that the trail surface is unpaved -- hard-packed, with occasional gopher holes and ruts caused by rain. It isn't too hospitable to narrow road tires. Mountain bike tires, cruiser tires, trail tires, anything with a wider tread is best. 
Though the wider tread will make the ride easier, Green says, "For really skinny-tire bikes, street bikes, people do it all the time." He recommends a wider tire, but, "You don't need these giant balloon tires, they're overkill." 
Riding east to west, you'll have a few beautiful, downhill runs through the woods -- watch out for deer! Riding from the lakeshore, you'll have the winds at your back, and you'll gain a new appreciation for southwest Michigan's topology as you climb a few moderate grades. (Note: This is the bed of the former Kalamazoo-South Haven Railroad, laid in 1870. Rail trails are great because they're railroad grade -- meaning no really steep hills. If an 1870s train engine could haul multiple cars full of lumber up those hills, then you can haul yourself up those hills.)
Take it easy, or ride hard
We've got our opinions (full disclosure: Mark Wedel has pedaled the trail multiple times a year since 2011) so instead of rambling on about gels and tires, we asked members of the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club Discussion Facebook group what their advice would be for newcomers to the Trailblazer. They replied in a thread:
Jay Bridgeman: "The most important thing to riding long distances is building up your mileage before tackling a ride like this. Start off with smaller distances and work your way up. And the more you ride the stronger you will become. Your body will become acclimated to your seat, body position, etc. You will learn what your body needs for nutrition as you ride. What clothing works or does not work on hot days or cool days."
Rick Bauer: "Take it easy. Ride at a conversational pace. If you feel any desire to push it, don't overdo it.... A couple of bananas, maybe a Cliff Bar and a couple of water bottles can get you there. I prefer an off-road/commuter bike, with fatter tires than my road bike, for the trail. It has a rack so I can pack a picnic lunch on a leisurely ride."
Julie Amundson Weighman: "My 14-year-old grandson and I rode from the (10th St.) trailhead to the South Haven beach. I was on my very nice lightweight gravel bike, and he on a rickety old borrowed mountain bike. Our original intent was to ride 10 miles out and 10 miles back. For some reason, he wanted to keep going. He rarely gets on a bike and needless to say, has not ridden since. He went beyond the goal and seemed to enjoy every moment. All kinds of bike riders out there!"
Paul Selden (president of Bike Friendly Kalamazoo): "The Kal-Haven Trail and Trailblazer gave me concrete adventures to work up to for my 'long' rides.... Follow the advice of (others), but also: bring enough gear to be self-sufficient on the road (change an inevitable flat, rotate out a shredded tire, repair a broken chain, etc.) and exposure protection for the weather you are likely to encounter (rain, cold, etc.). I still laugh when I recall the Trailblazer I rode one cold, rainy May day when I was wearing plastic bread bags over my mittens, about 10 years ago. Someone riding back from South Haven dressed only in Lycra on the other side of the road called out 'nice bread bags' and in my mind, I just thought, 'You can't have them! They're not for sale!' -- happy with warm dry hands (and body, in my bright yellow rain pants and jacket). Oh yeah -- helmet cover was a plastic hotel shower cap and by then I'd bought decent waterproof shoe covers, and good wool socks."
Jeff Pregenzer: "We've decided that, once your legs are in shape, to minimize saddle pain it helps to ride hard then take more breaks off the saddle. As opposed to riding easy and spending more time on the saddle through the day. Also standing up on the pedals as much as possible can help."
Dustin Black: "I once did the Kal-Haven and back on a whim using a 21-speed Schwinn from Meijer with one water bottle and no snacks. 2/10, don't recommend." 
For more information and to register for the Trailblazer visit here.  
The Trailblazer is the opening event of Kalamazoo Bike Week.

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.