Au Jus Cycling club, an informal group of “50 somethings” rides the Leelanau Trail section of TART Trail once a week and then enjoys a burger and beer in Suttons Bay. It’s about tradition, community and pedaling.
Every Thursday evening, weather permitting, the Au Jus Cycling club convenes. We meet up near Darrow Park, road bikes in tow, and wend our way up the TART Trail to Suttons Bay, where we dine and drink at the Village Inn before returning to TC. Ours is a small bike club, informally established, yet ripe with ritual if short on history. We have no dues, no Board of Governors, nor any Organizational Mission Statement. Certainly, no website.
Our weekly numbers vary as fickly as our northern climate, but usually we count less than 10. We are all “50 somethings” (maybe more) well past our competitive biking prime, although I doubt that any of us has ever experienced a moment in our biking pasts that could be construed as competitive sport, though one member, Ironman Dave, has competed in triathlons. We don our silly but effective apparel: Lycra tights, wicking jerseys, gloves, cleated shoes that, when we dismount, force us to ambulate like penguins—and then we complete the ensemble with brilliant helmets and buggy-looking glasses before we harness our aluminum and carbon steeds. We may not be pro, but we look the part.
The Leelanau Trail section of the TART is our pathway of choice and one of our northern trail gems for hiking and biking. This section was transformed into a multi-use trail from the original Manistee and North-Eastern Railroad route, whose main cargo was harvested, old-growth timber from as far north as Northport, but it also transported potatoes, which grew well in our sandy soil. From 1892 to 1934 the rail connected Traverse City with Manistee and included passenger service, which peaked at 190,000 travelers in 1915. The automobile brought about its demise, but here and there, remnants from this era can still be seen. About 10 miles north of TC, just alongside the trail, there is an old abandoned potato shed that serves as our bike club’s short-run turn-around destination. Asphalted in 2012, the Leelanau Trail quickly became a favored path for us, since you end up in Suttons Bay, with its array of eateries and shops. That Suttons Bay provides the perfect mid-ride refueling station for the Au Jus Cycling Club is our good fortune.
We’ve replicated our 32-mile trip every Thursday through the summer, into the fall, and will continue until snow covers the path. While the summer sun painted hills, fields, orchards, and vineyards with dazzling light, warmly enriching the breezes to stir up an olfactory complexity that would rival any regional riesling, fall’s palette brings something new. Now, as we ride, a cool chill rises up from our surroundings and requires leg and arm warmers, maybe even a head beanie for some of our follicly challenged members.
We cycle with greater purpose and quickened pace as the sun falls quickly post autumn equinox, providing only muted rays to color the peninsula in a solemn amber hue. The changing colors amid the rolling hills meld with the peninsula pungency, creating a rural potpourri of aged apples, musky leaves, chimney smoke, wet leaves, and pumpkin-cinnamon spices. In truth, some of these scents are real, some, no doubt, merely memory residue from past falls merging with the present. Such is the way of memory not perfectly ordered as a linear construct.
With summer’s end, the wind begins its annual rhythmic shift and we begin to battle the prevailing northwesterly wind. It chills our faces, reddens our noses and within it reside the whispers of winter to come, but we are not quite ready to listen. We cling to a vision of continued temperate climes and many more miles to roll before winter alters our canvas. But we northerners know much of nature’s mercurial cadence and the impending end to our cycling days is but a buried thought away.
The Village Inn is our staple stop in Suttons Bay. The Au Jus Cycling Club is a reliable creature of habit. As long as there is daylight for our return journey, it is always the Village Inn. One can, quite literally, state that the Village Inn has stood the test of time; it is the oldest tavern in Leelanau County, dating back to the 1870’s. Here, food choice creates the only division among the members of our bike club occurring within a simple food selection dichotomy: you are either an au jus burger-proud carnivore or a cobbler-salad lightweight. Ironically, the latter selection receives a good deal more ribbing than the former. Steel may be real when it comes to bike frames, but as for that which fuels the builds of body: meat is king.
Whereas any and all libations are liberally accepted, food selections are carefully observed and openly critiqued. It is believed—by some members of our peculiar cycling group—that au jus is the nectar of the gods. One such member, Mike, is a strong rider whose size belies an astonishingly strong cycling powertrain. He holds to the belief that this special ambrosia gives him “the edge” when our somewhat geriatric peloton hits the asphalt for the return journey to TC. I am not quite certain what “the edge” is, but its source comes from gulping down au jus served in a small bowl followed by a primordial grunt, reminiscent of how Popeye would devour his spinach. That Mike is frequently the pace-setting lead rider of our group could be construed as evidence to the validity of this belief.
We are, in the simplest of terms, a deer camp on wheels. We are men at play, lucky enough to find ourselves amidst the most beautiful playground on Earth. A cycling club whose compass is guided by camaraderie and a good midnight meal.
I have been a fly-fisherman for decades. Often, when others find interest in attempting this sport, I caution them. Fly-fishing is one of the most challenging and least productive fishing one can do. With Zen-like wisdom I offer this: fly- fishing is not about the fishing. Similarly, biking with Club Au Jus is not about the biking. It is about a group of grown men foraging fun amongst the rolling hills of Leelanau County, eating up miles of asphalt on the most basic of man’s inventions.
Applying reductionism theory, we are simply trying our hardest to keep our senior status at bay through motion and movement. Although an unspoken truth, an invisible thread of commonality held between us is that we keep moving while we CAN keep moving. We are the rolling stones shedding the cursed perils of aged moss with every turn of our bicycle cranks, with every hill we attack, with every vineyard, hops field, and cherry orchard we pass. We intrinsically understand that all too soon, our season will end, our trails to diverge.
Heading into high school, I recall sage advice from my advisor: “Join something. A club. A sport. An activity. Become part of a greater community by being a small part of the community.” I am an import to Northern Michigan, three years removed from my down-state transplant. In heeding the advice of my school advisor—some 38 years later—I “joined” a group of cyclists. In doing so, I have found a sense of community with a unique lot of cyclists. We neither seek notoriety nor pursue accolades for our sport. We enjoy the ride, enjoy the company, appreciate the trail, and cherish the region.
This article was originally featured in the September 2016 issue ofTraverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Todd Manns writes from Elk Rapids; [email protected]
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