Midwestern Tuscany: 3T On Old Mission Peninsula

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As the cycling world’s eye hits Italy for the Giro, we’ve been making the most of the rolling hills and vineyards a little closer to home. 

The Giro d’Italia is known for its incredibly tough stages and unpredictability. It’s arguably the most exciting of the Grand Tours and, in my humble opinion, the race with the most romanticism left. It’s a race with its soul still intact; imperfect, very much biased to its native sons, and spectacular. 

While the roads of Milan, Tuscany, and the Apennines are slightly out of our normal riding range, northern Michigan has its answer on Old Mission Peninsula. Vineyards? Sure. Sprawling, ancient orchards? Yep. Water, elevation, and enough gravel to keep you on your toes? We’ve got that, too. 

Of course, like any bike ride, the best way to start is with coffee. Traverse City is lucky to have retained its charm with a tidy three-block downtown. Many of the buildings predate the 1856 incorporation of the city, including the City Opera House, which has served as an anchor for over 150 years. Located in the same building is a coffee shop called Brew which, much to the delight of thirsty cyclists, offers both espresso and craft beer. In the summer months, locals and tourists alike crowd the open patio out front, bikes leaned against the cast iron fencing, watching the world wake up over a cup of something piping hot. 

It’s just a few miles to Old Mission Peninsula, a 17-mile finger that juts due north to split Grand Traverse Bay into two fingers, West Bay and East Bay. The peninsula itself is essentially a spine, with rolling hills at an elevation of a few hundred feet above the shoreline; if you’re going north and south along the water, it’s flat, but whenever the road points east-west, you’re going up. OMP 3

The face and feel of the peninsula still remain heavily agricultural even with a seismic shift in its production over the past two decades. For over a century, the peninsula was home to acre upon acre of cherry orchards, a major factor in Traverse City’s claim to being the Cherry Capital of the World. Due to a number of economic factors, including a jump in cherry imports from Turkey and elsewhere, growers ripped out the orchards and planted vines. Today, the wineries dot almost every road on the peninsula, specializing in Rieslings and dry whites. 

Located atop a hill just past the halfway point, Chateau Chantal offers cyclists and visitors one of the few spots where both bays are clearly visible. For riders, the 250-foot climb from the road to the tasting room is well-rewarded with panoramic views of vines, row upon row, seemingly growing down to the shore. It’s also one of the several wineries to produce cherry wine. While anathema to some purists, the real problem with cherry wine is that it’s delicious; even the most snobbish in the winery admit that they’ll happily pair it with a bowl of ice cream or a pint of freshly-picked cherries while relaxing in the break room. OMP 2

Maybe the best part of riding on Old Mission is the variety. Because of the terrain, it’s easy to make a route as flat or as hilly as you’d like. The weekly Tuesday Night Ride, an event that has seen forty-plus cyclists all summer for more than twenty years, is a 41-mile drag race that sees just over 1,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s also easy to rack up twice that amount of climbing in 30 miles or less, without having to ever retrace your route.

And it wouldn’t be a Midwestern Tuscany without a little gravel, either. Several miles of gravel and two-track farm lanes have survived the paving crews, especially on the peninsula’s tip. One of the best is actually just north of the small village of Old Missions, the eponymous community that once served as the ‘major’ population center in the area. Its post office is older than Traverse City’s, and the village used to contribute to the maintenance of the Lighthouse located just a few miles further north. By a neat trick of glacial chance, when this part of the world thawed out, it left the tip of the peninsula at 45 degrees of latitude, neatly halfway between the equator and the North Pole.

Riding 28mm tires and throwing the old Exploro over the white (and admittedly sandy) roads of Old Mission with vineyards flashing by in their rows in my periphery vision is as close as I’ll come to racing the Giro, and likely as close as I’ll get to riding in Italy. But, for now, I’ll take that connection and that passion, as well as the very appreciative feeling that we have this quality riding right in my backyard.