July 04, 2018ALMONT — More than 600 members of the PALM (Pedal Across Lower Michigan) bicycling group rolled into Almont Thursday for a respite and sleepover on the grounds of the Almont Middle School.
The cyclists were in the final leg of a journey that began in Holland and concluded on Friday in St. Clair, culminating with a celebratory parade of bicycles.
The group spent much of the previous day riding through rain showers before stopping in Otisville, where they spent the night.
PALM Ride Chairman Andy VastBinder said group members hit the road at 6 a.m. the following day, with Almont as their destination.
VastBinder, whose participation in PALM dates back three decades, said the group consists of people of all ages and from various walks of life.
"We have young riders and members who are in their 80s and 90s," said VastBinder. "Just last week we had a 7-year-old boy celebrate his birthday by riding 50 miles."
Adult siblings, Janet Howse and David Degraeve, said the Holland to St. Clair ride was their fourth in the past six years.
Veteran PALM riders Janet Howse and David Degraeve find welcome respite upon their arrival in Almont on Thursday afternoon. photo by Tom Wearing.
"It's a good way to stay in shape," said Howse, a 52-year-old teacher from Lansing. "We also get to investigate parts of Michigan that otherwise we'd probably never see or visit."
Degraeve, a John Deere parts maker, said a unique fraternity tends to develop among the bicyclists.
"There are a lot of friendships made along the way," he said. "Our riders and routes change, but we're like a large family."
"Bicyclists are the nicest people to be around," Howse added. They're respectful and quiet at night. It's early to bed and early to rise."
VastBinder said this year's entourage included a large number of first-time riders.
"We've got a lot of 'newbies' with us on this ride," he said. "But that's how we all got started.
"I always enjoyed riding bikes when I was younger," VastBinder recalled. "About 30 years ago some of my friends went on this ride and I joined them. I've been doing it ever since."
Though not a newbie, sixteen-year-old Joe Gavlek of Escanaba is still a relative newcomer to PALM riding.
"My mother and her friend had been making the ride," Gavlek recalled. "One year my sister and I badgered her to let us come along. That was in 2014 and I've kept doing it."
Though physically disabled, Gavlek is able to make the weeklong trek using a 'hand-cycle.'
"It's a challenge," he admitted "Going up the hills can be a problem, but I just keep going at a slower pace."
Regardless of pace, Gavlek relishes the exercise, freedom and opportunities to socialize that cycling provides.
"I really consider myself lucky to be able to do this," he said.
SAG to the rescue
For riders who experience flat tires, equipment breakdowns or emergencies along the route, members of PALM's (SAG) road team are always available and ready to assist.
VastBinder expressed thanks to Almont Community Schools for providing the group access to the middle school's restrooms, showers and grounds for camping.
He applauded the school district's janitorial staff and food service employees who prepared a hardy supper for PALM members Thursday evening.
"We're never sure what to expect at the schools we stay," said VastBinder, "but Almont treated us great.
"The food and accommodations at the school were outstanding," he continued. "When we arrived, members of the football team were there to help us out."
In return, VastBinder said PALM members generously donated to students who were raising funds to benefit the district's athletic and other programs.
"Everything worked out very well for everyone involved." he said.
While the 2018 Pedal Across Lower Michigan ride is in the history books, organizers are already making plans for next year's ride.
"There's a lot of preparation and planning that goes into it," VastBinder said. "We'll be meeting soon to plan our strategy for next year."
Get ready for 2019
PALM is geared toward families and beginners, and the daily mileage expectations reflect that.
However, how much you enjoy yourself on the ride tends to be directly proportional to the preparedness of the rider.
Once prospective riders have taken every step to ensure that their bicycles are road worthy, training in advance is beneficial if not essential.
Organizers say "it basically comes down to spending as much time in the saddle as possible.
"That means starting our in the spring by riding at least three times a week. Then begin to gradually increase the distances you ride until you get to at least one 50-mile ride in the weeks leading up to PALM."
Veteran riders say the secret is not only to build up one's muscles and aerobic capacity, but to become comfortable in the riding position; and especially in the saddle.
For more information about PALM, visit the website at: www.palmbiketour.org.
Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.