reviews
editorials
"how tos"
maintenance
race schedules
event reports
 
pageok

 

 

The Mario Ride.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

 

Rider in wet conditions.

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.

Except Mario.

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 new.

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 us.

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 above us.

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 clothes.

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.

Send us your feedback on this editorial here.

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
Site Designed and Maintained by: Intuitive Business Solutions.

 
pageok