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Following in the Bicycle Corps’ Tire Tracks

A Chat with Mike Brown

When Mike Brown’s friend Bill Gray approached him about a cross-country bike ride, Brown initially wasn’t sure. “My friend Bill has been talking about this for years. I just thought it was a pipe dream,” Brown said. “I really didn’t have an interest in it.”

Brown is a year two Rad Norte Business Champion with Burdco Incorporated. Brown has served as owner and president of Burdco since 1999 and his involvement with several community partners.

A self-proclaimed history buff, he found inspiration from a couple of patriotic sources to convince him. Firstly, Gray lent him a copy of a favorite book — Old Man on a Bicycle by former State Department official Don Petterson. With no substantial cycling experience, Petterson decided to set off from his New Hampshire home to reach the Golden Gate Bridge at seventy years old.

Reading Petterson’s account made a cross-country effort seem more feasible to Brown. “When I read that book, it made me realize that physically, you can do something like that,” Brown said. “It’s just one day at a time. It’s more about time, commitment, and just being willing to be uncomfortable for a time. That’s when I started considering [the cross-country ride].”

Secondly, the proposed route would closely follow the expedition ride of the all-Black members of the 25th Infantry Regiment — led by Lt. James A. Moss to deduce whether the bicycle could be a substitute for horses in warfare. 

The 25th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Bicycle Corps,” rode nearly 2,000 miles in 1897, setting off from Ft. Missoula in Montana for a 41-day ride to St. Louis, Missouri. Adventure Cycling magazine featured their route and story in its May 2011 issue. “Our trip was already well into the works, but once we saw this, we said, ‘Wow, this would be a neat way to commemorate them,’” Brown said. Brown was intrigued as he read of the challenges and triumphs they faced along the way.

“These guys were camping and carrying all their stuff. The bikes were high quality for that period, but there was no suspension or anything,” Brown said. “They went through the Missoula area mud and some real difficulties, but they kept at it and were persistent.”

To learn more about the Bicycle Corps, Brown suggests resources from Upworthy and HistoryNet. Montana PBS also produced a 2000 documentary, The Bicycle Corps: America’s Black Army on Wheels, available to stream for free.

With this inspiration in mind, Brown considered himself sold on the idea of a cross-country ride in February of 2020. The impending COVID-19 pandemic did not derail his and Gray’s plans. 

Brown suggested they first undertake a six-day trial run, which they completed last summer. Additionally, they have continued to train with rides on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas. Brown said that the prospect of the ride in the future kept him motivated in his training.

“I’m more of an event athlete — I need to have something that I can put in front of me, like this, to work towards,” Brown said. “I knew this would be in two years, so it really helped me step up my commitment to being a senior athlete.”

On Saturday, August 14th, the crew began following Adventure Cycling magazine’s Northern Tier route — approximately 2,100 miles in all. They expect to ride around 33 days, allowing time for sightseeing and rest as needed.

Brown has unique plans before they embark from Anacortes, Washington. “Friday, we’re going to do the goofy thing where we dip our bikes in the ocean. Then, we’ll begin our serious ride.”

Taking a cue from Petterson’s book, Brown has also thought of the ride as a way to push his limits. “[Bill] is 71; I’m 66. I’d say, philosophically, this is about putting another log on the fire. Trying to do something else in life that you haven’t done, and seeing if you can do it,” Brown said.

At Norte, we’re grateful for Mike Brown’s support of a vision for a healthier community. He adds his support of Norte to a long resume of community involvement. Brown serves on the boards of Goodwill Northern Michigan, the Discovery Center, the Grand Traverse YMCA, and Traverse Connect. He is also a 25-year member of the Traverse City Optimist Club and former Optimist of the Year.

We’re wishing happy trails to Mike, Bill, and all who will be undertaking this ride — interested in getting updates? You can follow Mike on Strava.