He’d been asking us to do it for over
a year. The Mario ride. We were too scared, until today.
Today we did The Mario Ride.
Mario is an adventurer and explorer in the
classic sense. To him, the world is still fascinating and
there is always something new to explore. He can find wonder
in the most mundane things and notices things I’ve
ridden by a hundred times, but Mario makes them interesting:
“Look at how these trees are planted, in groups of
three, then five, then three- they did this on purpose…”
Had Mario lived in a different age he would
have been an officer on Magellan or Columbus or Ponce de
Leon’s ships as they sailed to a new land, or perhaps
a member of Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South
Pole or Edmund Hillary’s first ascent of Everest.
He would have been a naturalist who foraged for food, built
cabins and communed with nature.
But Mario lives a displaced existence in suburbia
and has made himself an expert on the local flora and fauna
however scarce it may be. He also continues to explore,
usually on his bike or cross country skis, and he goes to
places where none of us go on our bikes- until today.
When Mario got a cell phone he started calling
us from the oddest locations. “Yeah, hey man…
I’m on Belle Isle, I just rode all the way up Jefferson
downtown and right by Cobo Hall.” It would be 40 degrees
and pouring rain. While we were trying to muster the willpower
to sit on the indoor trainer for an hour or two Mario was
out in the real world. Instead of getting ready to ride,
he was riding.
To set the stage for this epic, Detroit is
kind of like an urban bull’s-eye of concentric rings.
The outer rings of the city are made up of pleasant and
quaint suburbs whose affluence and newness increase as you
get farther from the center of the bull’s-eye. But
as you approach the center of the bull’s-eye you get
the impression of moving toward the focal point of some
titanic disaster. The landscape becomes ruined, jagged,
rusted and disheveled. The roads become worse. The characters
you see on the streets seem hardened and mean, sometimes
desperate, and they cast confused glances at a man on a
bike worth more than most houses are in this area. The middle
rings of the bullseye are heavy industrial: Trucks are built
here, steel is forged, and gigantic black snakes with locomotive
heads drag enormous loads of dirty raw materials to belching
ovens. Smoke stacks breathe fire and no one seems alarmed.
Three story high tanks streaked with menacing stains bear
strange letters and numbers on ominous warning placards.
Vehicles that are broken are left where they stop. Their
age is apparent by their decay. It’s ugly here. Ugly
and abandoned. There is no one on the streets unless the
factories disgorge their employees for shift change, and
even then they leave the area quickly. It always seems gray
here. As you get closer to the center the tightest rings
of the circle are simply destroyed. They look like news
reel footage of Dresden, Stalingrad, or Fallujah or even
Hiroshima after the Big One. Whole city blocks are shorn
clean of buildings- only a few charred timbers remain as
evidence of previous habitation. The barren expanse is punctuated
with a burned out vehicle, a disgusting mattress, a pack
of mangy dogs. Other ruins are burned, exposed, torn open
and listing under heavy collapsing roofs. The predominant
impression is of neglect and despair. This is the inner
rings of the worst of Detroit, and it is a larger ring than
most Detroiters care to acknowledge, large enough and scary
enough that the cyclists never, ever go there.
In the center of the ring, at the bulls-eye,
is Downtown Detroit. This area was ruined by riot and recession
and racism decades ago. The affluent majority, regardless
of race, color or creed, shunned the area in droves as they
made for newly propped-up, pre-fab, mass produced “luxury”
homes in places like “Lake of the Woods” (from
the $350’s) and “Winds on the Brook”.
Never mind that there weren’t any woods or brook,
they went there like pilgrims in SUV’s and circled
the wagons anywhere there weren’t decrepit buildings,
crack houses or abandoned vehicles. Detroit had become a
cruel wilderness not suitable for recreation let alone habitation.
There was a nucleus that hung on at the epicenter
though. The Coney Island places, Greek Town, a few small
theaters, a few good restaurants. They hung on, and hung
on and hung on. Just when it seemed like an exercise in
poor decision making something happened. Actually, a number
of things: A new Opera House, A new theater- several in
fact, a handful of small new restaurants started by brave
people against the odds in bad neighborhoods. And they hung
on. Then the money started to flow back in the way water
does after a toilet has been flushed: A new stadium, more
new restaurants, the big companies and then the casinos.
Eight years ago the center of the bulls-eye
began to come alive with renewed vision, hope and vigor.
If you put the pin of a compass at the center of downtown
Detroit and traced a 1 mile circle around it you will fine
many new, fine restaurants, bakeries, museums, sporting
venues and theaters in that circle. The Coney Island places
are still there, with their vaguely ethnic staff who communicates
in some odd, codified, unintelligible foreign vernacular
and the pentameter of an auctioneer. The center is coming
back, rather quickly in fact, with new buildings and streets
and signs and all the things that make a city alive again.
This is our destination: the center of the
Bull’s-eye. To get there we need to pass through the
outer rings. It is 14 miles to the center, and the same
14 back out. The temperature is 29 degrees and it’s
damp. Wind is 15 mph steady out of the East: The Hawk. The
wind makes it feel like about 20 degrees. The wind chill
while riding into this makes it feel like about 12 degrees.
It is cold. Today the sky is the same color as the smoke
that blots out the sun around the factories we are riding
to- if there were any sun.
Our crew is the typical group for such missions:
Mikey, a former U.S. National Cycling Team member, Stephen,
the young gun strong as an ox but short on reason and patience,
Mike Aderhold, the wisest of the group and the most graceful
rider, myself, and our leader on this ride, Mario. No one
else wants to come. Some riders are doing the same old ride,
to the north of here along Hines Drive, but that ride is
so old, we do it all summer long. Now it is time to do something
Once out of Dearborn proper, things change
fast. We’re on a freeway it seems, and there is no
traffic on a gray Sunday morning. Under an overpass, by
an abandoned field and out of town into the industrial ring.
At the top of a bridge-climb we turn south and descend between
a steel mill and a truck assembly plant, one of the largest
in the world. There is not a living soul out here, but the
air is filling with hissing pipes and odd chemical smells.
Strange fogs originate from seams and vents and waver into
the air, God only knows what creates them- but no one wants
to be near them. A giant freight train lumbers over a bridge
we turn toward but still no living person is visible. Just
We dive under the bridge after a tight left
hander on pocked pavement and head for a blackened tunnel
under the railroad tracks. The concrete is eroded by chemicals,
time and filth.
“Every man for himself!” yells
Mario, warning us as we disappear into the absence of any
daylight in the tunnel under the tracks. If the pavement
before this were bad, this surface is ten times worse. Heaved
and shattered and fragmented with deep holes at closely
spaced, random intervals. It is impossible to find a good
line in the dark. The sound of a piece of cycling equipment
clattering on the pavement is heard in the dark. Something
fell off someone’s bike. There is no dodging the chuckholes,
you simply hope for the best and ride with a firm, relaxed
posture, using your arms to soak up the hits. It felt like
working a speed bag or a jackhammer.
Aderhold had the sense to ride his cyclocross
bike, as did Mikey. Even Mario is using 25 mm wide flat
resistant tires. I’m on my regular road bike with
23 mm tires and one spare inner tube. This has been an incredibly
sturdy bike though, and I make it out the other side of
the tunnel shaken but undamaged.
We climb back up a hill from under the tracks
to a right turn where we see the lines of train cars gorged
with ore, coal and coils of freshly banded sheet steel ready
for the hungry stamping machines that chomp down on steel
and spit out quarter panels.
This section of road skirts a graveyard- what
else- with headstones stained in dripping black from the
rime of air pollution. The stones are huddled behind a huge
wrought iron fence that gives way to a small but devastated
slum and an empty intersection with a busted traffic light.
Beyond this section the signs change. We have
left the United States and entered a transplanted Middle
Eastern country. The signs do not even pay lip-service to
English subtitles, they are entirely Arabic. This area,
by contrast to a city block earlier, is clean, orderly and
bustling but alien in appearance. It looks like a place
you’d see on CNN. A mosque is letting out and men
are milling through the parking lot, not knowing what to
make of us. We wave and attempt greetings in Arabic. They
are polite but puzzled by us. There are a lot of satellite
dishes in this neighborhood. One house has five large dishes
bolted to the front, each pointed to the south. Curious.
Mario is a capable tour guide, an expert on
the city as well as nature. “Look at the spot on that
building where the bricks are missing- that used to be where
the Budweiser eagle was when that was the Budweiser building…
Look at that bank building…” He directs our
attention to the lower spans of the Ambassador Bridge, an
enormous suspension bridge that crosses the Detroit River
to Windsor, Canada. “There are hundreds of pigeons
under there…” As if on cue they take to wing
in unison and fly from the girders that tower five stories
The skyscrapers of the inner city come into
view. That is our destination- the center of downtown. It’s
a straight shot now, directly into The Hawk, the freezing
wind pointed at us and away from downtown. Steven isn’t
dressed correctly, and he suffers from The Hawk, asking
“When are we turning around?”
Entering the inner rings of the bulls-eye
the traffic picks up; skyscrapers crowd us and tower overhead.
After a quick right, then left, then right again we are
in the center of downtown; Greektown.
Greektown is crowded this morning. We stop
at a popular pastry and bakery store for coffee and baklava.
The men are freezing and reluctant to stop, knowing the
only real comfort comes from getting home. We huddle in
an alcove and share cups of coffee while I down a chocolate
dipped baklava dripping in honey.
Personally, I’d prefer to go inside,
peel a layer or two off and make myself comfortable for
a half hour break before we head home. But the men are having
none of that and want to get back to the task at hand, especially
Stephen, who is freezing from a lack of adequate cycling
The Greektown crowd figures we are street
performers, mimes or Cirque de Soleil rejects because of
our cycling regalia. We get more odd looks. Who rides a
bike downtown? In February?
Once the coffee is gone it’s time to
pick up the tailwind and ride back through the rings of
the bulls-eye and home to the suburbs, out of the impact
zone. Before we head west Mario takes us on a brief tour
around the Renaissance Center along the Detroit River. The
wide Detroit River has the affect of making the cold air
even more wet and frigid, as though we are splashed in ice
water. It is freezing here. We finish our circuit of the
Riverfront, completely abandoned today, and settle on our
westerly course back to Dearborn.
The steel haulers offer a draft and we are
sucked along behind these dented up trucks for blocks at
a time, speeding the trip home.
The trip back is easy on the tailwind and
the landscape is familiar now and also, somehow, less menacing.
My hands are painfully cold and I am really looking forward
to a hot shower and another coffee.
On the way back it occurs to me that this
ride would be exotic and fun on a hot summer evening: A
new frontier, different from the pastoral, rolling hills
in the green countryside west of town. I can see hard training
rides going along this route- challenged by tough pavement
and difficult winds on a hot summer afternoon.
It took an explorer and believer to find this
route. While we all headed west along with the other cyclists
something inside Mario told him to go the opposite way and
see what is there. It’s the same thing that spoke
to Edmund Hillary, the Wright Brothers, and Charles Lindberg.
Had it not been for this idea- this notion to explore something
new, we would have never gone on The Mario Ride.
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