Dirt Church Connects Friends, Biking and the Great Outdoors in Traverse City

This is how Dirt Church works: 1. Meet up at the designated spot—the group’s public Facebook page gives the location of any given upcoming Sunday ride—and 2. “Go absolutely as hard as you can,” as one rider says.

This article is featured in the May 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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dirt church traverse city

You know those outdoor exercise groups where no participant is left behind? Yeah, so Dirt Church isn’t one of them. But, wait: the Sunday morning, rain-or-shine gathering of Northern Michigan mountain bikers isn’t as exclusive or, really, as hardcore as its reputation might suggest. A killer workout, absolutely. But also most welcoming to any and all riders ready to test their mettle—and a definite way to connect with like-minded individuals.

“Dirt Church is a nice change of pace,” says cyclist and bike blogger Cody Sovis. “I spend a lot of my time doing more specific training, so to get out with those guys in the woods, it’s different. It’s a lot more relaxed, more laid-back. It’s as hard, physically, as you want it to be, but the atmosphere is more about just enjoying the trails and being around a great group of people.”

Whether it’s navigating tree roots on two wheels, lacing up your running shoes and hitting the pavement, cruising the countryside by bike or paddling inland lakes, tackling outdoor pursuits in a group makes the experience all the richer. Maybe you’re altogether new to the activity, or it could be something you’ve long loved to do—either way, you’re with your people. You’ve found your community, your tribe.

“The ones that want to suffer and explore, are the ones who become part of the Dirt Church tribe.”

dirt church traverse city

This is how Dirt Church works: 1. Meet up at the designated spot—the group’s public Facebook page gives the location of any given upcoming Sunday ride—and 2. “Go absolutely as hard as you can,” as one rider says.

The male-dominated group may start out with 20 to 30 riders all together on the trails. Eventually, that whittles down to 15, then eight or nine. By the end of the ride, maybe it’s just two riders who finish together. Riders say if you hear someone talking behind you, you go faster; you’re going too slow. There’s no talking until the ride is over. In other words, stories of kids, family, and your latest work project all are saved for the end.

As one rider explained it, Dirt Church “started out pretty ragtag.” Its reputation: a few really fast people showing up, “purposely thrashing each other.” Admittedly, this initially proved intimidating to some in the local cycling community. There was a kind of mystique, a barrier to entry, the group’s earliest riders say.

And yet, from the start, anyone could join the punishing fun. Riders invited friends and slowly the group grew. In fact, the group got much bigger—in no small part because of the challenging nature of the rides, and because, over time, the ride became elevated from “event” to “rite.”

“For me, this ride has become a weekly ritual,” says cyclist and Dirt Church co-founder Eli Brown. “I ride a lot in the summer but mostly alone—except Dirt Church. So this is a social event for me for sure. Some strong friendships have been built, and many new friendships as well as new business connections. They say that ‘biking is the new golf’ … the bond that comes from suffering together in the forest, and the stories over a cold one after are great ways to get to know people.”

dirt church traverse city

Over time, riders often experience both ends of the speed spectrum: life happens, intrudes on training hours and sometimes you’re lacking in miles logged, while other times you might be rocking it and feeling especially strong. Rides typically last a couple of hours, with different riders pedaling different distances. Ten miles for one guy, 30 miles for another.

“When Sunday morning comes around, I am always a little nervous,” Brown says. “Most of the fast guys in town can and do show up. The format is simple, as I lead the group on some new trails, trying to make a different loop than I have before, the pace ramps up. Yes, we regroup between interactions, some of the time, but usually it’s pretty fast up front. Having a ride like that once a week for me, is basically the only time I go hard. Which is nice to have that happen regularly to stay in shape.”

Post-sweat-fest, it’s all about kicking back and re-capping. Riders lick their wounds, share stories, have some beer and laugh about where each got left behind, where they ended up, the wrong turns taken.

dirt church traverse city

Riders say Dirt Church offers a deep level of camaraderie. The post-event is rich and meaningful, whether you finished first or finished last. There’s a feeling of connectivity back at the parking lot. Participants describe it as a pretty tight group, because it’s as hard for the seasoned veteran as it is for the guy who showed up for the first time.

“Dirt Church has grown into a pretty incredible thing,” Sovis says. “Rain or shine, winter or summer, it’s on. I go to as many as I can make, and it’s different every single time I show up.”

“Always someone new shows up, but a lot don’t come back,” Brown adds. “The ones that do, the ones that want to suffer and explore, are the ones who become part of the Dirt Church tribe.”

The friendships formed extend beyond Dirt Church. The beauty of the Facebook group page is it allows for quick postings about day-of get-togethers. Someone may say they’re going to be at a certain trailhead that afternoon, and others can respond and let the person know they’ll be there, too. There’s always going to be someone in the group able to meet up.

dirt church traverse city

Heather Johnson Durocher writes from Traverse City. She is founder of michiganrunnergirl.com. Erik Olsen is an active lifestyle, commercial and editorial photographer with a Michigan influence. Find more at erikolsenphoto.com.

dirt church traverse city


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