6 In North America/ Travel

Why I Want to Plan a Rust Belt Bike Trip

I love the Rust Belt, its frustrations, character and all.

I love the people. The innovators and pioneers who are returning home to help rebuild our economically throttled region.

I loathe (in general) the leaders. The corrupt politicians who continue the practice of back-room dealing, generally leading to development policies that favor suburban commuters over city residents, continuing decades worth of political ineptitude.

And yes, the weather can be a son of a bitch bastard at times.

To me, the Rust Belt is human. Humans are flawed. I can’t understand for the life of me why anyone would want to live full time in the city equivalent of a plastic surgery case, typically found in the Sun Belt. I’ll take the authenticity and character of the Rust Belt over anywhere else in the United States most days of the week.

I know some folks are troubled with celebrating the “authenticity” or “character” of the Rust Belt, questioning whether there’s actually romance or culture worth celebrating in a city surrounded by industrial wasteland. To that, I inarticulately say — Tough shit.

To be fair, it’s damn near impossible to see the cultural influence of a place without extensive travel or living elsewhere. In Texas, cowboy boots and accents are hardly special. There’s nothing unique about the west if you’ve been surrounded by mountains and desert your whole life. And rest assured the Irish aren’t as mystified by their rollings hills of perfect greenery as we Americans are. Instead, they bitch about the shitty weather like many of us in the Rust Belt.

Take someone from outside the Rust Belt to Cleveland or St. Louis, and they’ll surely be amazed to find a factory smack dab in the middle of a city.  Introduce yourself as a Detroiter in Florida, and everyone within ear shot will wonder just how similar you are to Robocop.

There are throngs of urban-snob types, such as myself, who I generally agree with in policy. That is, we should invest in more bike and public transit infrastructure.  We should encourage pedestrian-oriented development and fill deadening surface parking lots with mixed-use projects.

Where some lose me is the constant berating of their circumstances, generally frustratingly punctuated in a Tweet, Facebook post, or blog with “Ugh!” I could be wrong (it happens often), but it seems to me there’s a feeling amongst these folks that we, the Rust Belt, have very little worth celebrating. Our seemingly never-ending laundry list of problems drastically outweighs anything good about our humble region.

I disagree. Not that we don’t have a never-ending laundry list of problems. Sweet Jesus, do we ever! Rather, I disagree that we need to constantly lament where we are, discounting any sense of pride in the Rust Belt as mindless boosterism.

To me, boosterism is the Facebook power-user who shares every “Top 10” list they can with any positive mention of their city, then drives home to their suburban paradise with little knowledge of the city’s very real problems. I realize this sounds incredibly snobby, morally superior. That’s not my intention. These aren’t bad people, they’re just different from those who I see celebrating the culture of the Rust Belt.

So instead of whining that I’m stuck in the Rust Belt with a “grass is greener” complex toward Portland, Minneapolis or Austin (respectively kickass cities, I might add), I’d rather celebrate our fair region. And I’d like to celebrate through one of my favorite modes of transportation — cycling.

Introducing, Tour de Rust Belt.

A Rust Belt Bike Trip

For context’s sake, the Tour de France is approximately 2,131 miles. This hastily charted route is 2,062 miles, traveling in the following order: Cleveland, Buffalo, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, through South Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland.

A Tour de Rust Belt would be a way to further unite our intrinsically similar cities. Ideally, I see riders from cities throughout the Rust Belt riding on behalf of charities from their respective city, rotating the starting line every Tour to a different city. And I ultimately see this as a different way to bring attention to what many coastal types characterize as fly-over country.

When you think of the Tour de France, you think of pristine Paris and scenic mountain rides. It’s an admittedly stark contrast to the Rust Belt. But it’s because it’s a stark contrast that I think a Tour de Rust Belt would turn a few heads, and bring attention to our region beyond the latest report from The New York Times on Rust Belt ruin.

Obviously, there are plenty of kinks to work out, specifically breaking up the mileage and selecting smaller cities to stop in along the way. I admit I’ve done zero research on what specific bike routes should be utilized. This is basically an idea I’ve thought about for quite some time and finally decided to submit to the public at large.

What do you think, folks? Can it be done?

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  • Rick Wittkopp
    March 29, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    This would be awesome to actually see/do. You have a way of making these cities seem much nicer, and that is coming from someone who drives back to my suburban “paradise”. Though I do get to see some of the problems following your writing.
    My only question: Is there a bridge from Milwaukee to Michigan there? or is that the swimming portion?

    • Joe
      April 2, 2013 at 10:50 am

      No swimming! There’s a ferry. So hypothetically you’d end a leg in Milwaukee and take the ferry over the next morning. It allows you to hit Grand Rapids (a fellow Rust Belt town) en route to Detroit.

  • John Poole
    March 29, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    Looks good, except for the fact that you left out Akron and Dayton yet pass through Columbus. Since Columbus isn’t a rust belt city, I would rearrange the route to wind back up to Akron and then roughly trace US Rt 30 through Mansfield andthen wind SW to Dayton from there.

    • Joe
      April 2, 2013 at 10:51 am

      Mostly ran through Columbus to get to Cincinnati. I didn’t even envision stopping in Columbus. Though immediately after I uploaded this, I thought to reroute to go from Pittsburgh to Dayton. Besides its history, it also has the best bike system in Ohio.

  • Todd Nelson
    March 30, 2013 at 1:30 am

    I don’t think you really want to try to pull something of this scale off the first time around. Not the whole 2K+ miles as a be all to end all. If you had organizers in each of the 10 cities, you could break it down into segments, 10 separate tours, if you will, with the finish date of the first be the day or two before the start of the next and participants could sign up for as many or as few as they choose. Also, a tour like this should be self-supported, though organizers could make arrangements or set up group discounts at campgrounds, restaurants, churches, and such along the way to reduce cost and planning requirements for participants. Some civic groups could host rest stops and provide lunches. This should be a way to break it down and run it on a smaller scale. I don’t know if any other rides are organized this way.

    • Joe
      April 2, 2013 at 10:52 am

      Event planning isn’t my thing. So I leave that to anyone who happens to stumble across this and thinks, “Hey! I can plan that…” I just want to do the ride.