Grand Rapids' inaugural Midwest Climate Ride cruises toward success

This is no casual bike-for-a-cause event. Next weekend, the Grand Rapids team riding in the Midwest Climate Ride will bike from Grand Rapids to Chicago. Along the way, they'll raise money for several local organizations who are working to combat climate change right here in West Michigan. Zinta Aistars finds out what makes this group spin.
Emily Loeks responded without thinking when a friend told her about Midwest Climate Ride: “That’s crazy!”

And it was. Wasn’t it? A bike ride of approximately 300 miles (that’s 60 to 80 miles per day), from September 6 to September 9, beginning in Grand Rapids and finishing in Chicago, Illinois, would bring innovators, entrepreneurs, and everyday people together to support more than 60 environmental and active transportation organizations, locally and nationally, working in the areas of sustainability, renewable energy, climate change, public health, and bicycle advocacy. Some 150 bicyclists had already signed up to participate.

Two nights later, after a bit of tossing and a bit of turning, Loeks woke with a revised thought: “That sounds awesome!”

Loeks, the director of community affairs for the chain of family-owned movie theatres known as Celebration Cinema, trotted down her basement steps to look for her old bike. It was down there somewhere …

“I’m going to be riding that same bike,” Loeks smiles. “It’s been in the basement for about ten years, but I turned 40 this year, and I thought, well, why not? I’d always enjoyed riding.”

The bike got dusted off and tuned up, odometer attached and new tires put on. Loeks hopped back on her bike, and her 6-year-old son, Joshua, was watching.

“Joshua rode his bike along with me, and on his first time, he took right off!” Loeks’ pride in her son shines through.

Her pride in the cause that inspired her to get back on her bike shines through, too. A Grand Rapids resident, Loeks loves her city and her community. She serves on the boards of two of the beneficiaries of the Midwest Climate Ride, and she has chosen to raise funds for four organizations: Local First, Well House, Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, and West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

Loeks says: “I care passionately about the place my children are growing up into. Climate change has become a hot button issue—but it seems obvious to me that climate is having an effect in our area. Science bears it out. We have to look to the long term.”

Looking to the long term is what Tom Tilma, executive director of Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, does best. Seven team members from GGRBC will be on the Midwest Climate Ride.

“We advocate with and advise local governments with the goal of building a bicycle-friendly infrastructure,” Tilma says. Participating in the Climate Ride, he says, “benefits our work in Grand Rapids, benefits the economy, the health and environment of our area, and it underscores our commitment to make Grand Rapids a more sustainable region.”

Yet another benefit of participating in the Climate Ride, Tilma says, is that the six team members from the Coalition include casual cyclists, daily commuters and competitive cyclists, building a camaraderie that is both personal and business.

“We’re building new networks,” Tilma says. “We know many out there share our goals, people looking for ways to change our planet. Our advocacy work provides a direct solution that people can easily rally around. Climate Ride is a well-regarded organization, and it’s very exciting for Grand Rapids to be chosen.”

“Days one and two of Climate Ride Midwest showcase some of the 1,300 miles of trails and bike paths that crisscross the state of Michigan,” says Tim Frick, Chicago-based Climate Ride board member and organizer. Bicyclists will enjoy serene forest preserves, protected marshlands, rivers and creeks, sand dunes and beaches. They will ride through blueberry farms and quaint artist villages, pass by craft breweries and wineries and cider houses, and earn the occasional stop to enjoy.

After day two, Frick says, riders will see more of why they are riding to raise awareness about the impact of climate change. Crossing the Kalamazoo River, bicyclists will ride by the largest and costliest tar sands oil spill in U.S. history, when an Enbridge pipeline burst into the river near the town of Marshall in 2010. Clean-up is yet to be completed.

Riders will pass nuclear power plants and coal-powered electrical plants. They will pass through areas of toxic spills, and they will ride from wilderness and small towns into industrial areas and big city skylines. The ride concludes in Grant Park in Chicago.

Along the ride, bicyclists will participate in curated evening programs that highlight ideas, advocacy, and social entrepreneurship, learning how they might make a difference in curbing the effects of climate change when they return home.

Jamie Barnes, a Wyoming resident, heard about the Midwest Climate Ride from a friend in Chicago. A recent graduate in marketing from Davenport University, Barnes browsed through the teams of riders who had signed up for the adventure and decided to join a team called B the Change, riding alongside Tim Frick.

“I’ve never participated in a long bike ride before,” Barnes says. She’s a runner more than a biker, regularly completing marathons. Raising awareness not only about climate change but also bicycle safety appealed to her.

“Anything we can do, we should do,” she says. “I enjoy being outside, taking advantage of good weather. It’s important to find an activity that you can be passionate about and get outdoors.”

From individuals like Barnes to nonprofit organizations like West Michigan’s Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), Midwest Climate Ride is signing up all kinds of riders, new as well as experienced.

WMEAC, a resource for environmental education and advocacy, is bringing four team members to the ride: Rachel Hood, executive director; Nicholas Occhipinti, policy and community activism director; Anne Marie Hertl, community activism manager; and Matt Bergevin, board member.

“Grand Rapids is on the leading edge for longtime commitment to sustainability,” says Hood. “Our participation in this ride is to raise funds and awareness, but all of us need to mobilize to reduce our individual impact on the climate.”

“This will be an opportunity to experience Michigan in a new way,” adds Hertl. “It will mean slowing down in an intentional way. I’ve been enjoying the quiet along the trails during training.”

Hertl bikes or walks to the office, and she admits that her favorite part of biking is breezing by cars in traffic jams. Hood echoes that pleasure, but admits to not riding often since becoming a mom. Joining the team has her re-committed to biking and passing along healthy habits, along with a healthier community, to her children.

“I’ve wanted to do a ride like this for a long time,” says Matt Bergevin. “It agrees with my social stance as an advocate of biking. My uncle was a biker—he was killed while riding a bike a couple years ago, so I’m a big proponent of bike safety.”

“I hadn’t heard of Climate Ride before,” Nick Occhipinti admits. “What an amazing opportunity to really see the area I love! You don’t usually see it this way from the highways.”

Each bicyclist has to raise a minimum of $2,800 to join the ride. The first $1,400 covers expenses, but all funds raised beyond that go to the beneficiary organizations. Sponsors are individuals as well as corporations.

“I’m buoyed in my work knowing that so many people care enough about climate change to do something like this,” says Hood. “We can’t deny the impact of climate change any longer.”
Climate Ride, a nonprofit charitable organization, produces charitable multi-day rides, hikes and a DIY program:  Climate Ride NYC-DC, Climate Ride California, Climate Ride Midwest, Climate Hike and Independent Challenges. Visit to learn more, to donate, or contact your favorite organization above directly.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and correspondent for WMUK 102.1 FM Arts and More program. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.
 Photography by Adam Bird
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