Four Days on The Crusher: An Off-Road Reunion on the U.P.

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Following a four-day group bikepacking trip across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Garrett Denney and Josh Rizzo share their story of getting 10 friends together to ride and reconnect. Find a written recap, short video, and map of their route here…

We recognize Indigenous Peoples as the traditional stewards of this land. Moreflag On Očhéthi Šakówiŋ and Anishinabewaki Land

Words by Garrett Denney, photos by Josh Rizzo

“Where’s Andrew?” someone yelled from behind me. Ten of us began the journey as a tight group but quickly strung out as we took on some serious hike-a-bike up a dry creek bed. “Dunno,” I replied. “Thought he was right behind us.”

A dense tree canopy blotted out the hot summer sun, giving cover for mosquitos to flourish. Four of us leaned our bikes against towering pine trees and started the search effort. We were only five miles into a four-day, 130-mile bikepacking trip that mostly followed The Crusher route in Upper Michigan but were already down a man. Not a great omen.

The Crusher Route

The first few miles were plush: hardpacked dirt on wide roads made for easy side-by-side conversations as we all caught up on each other’s lives. But a sharp turn about five miles in took us into thick woods and less certain terrain. Eventually, the trail evaporated, and we found ourselves standing at the base of a creek, staring at the climb ahead wondering if we’d taken a wrong turn. That first segment wasn’t Crusher territory, it was our own homebrewed start to get us from our parking spot to The Crusher. We couldn’t see this part of the trail from Google Earth, so the creek hike was a surprise, and we were paying for it in mosquito bites and screaming thighs.

  • The Crusher Route
  • The Crusher Route

One of the guys eventually found Andrew, who’d sustained a nasty gash on one leg after an unfortunate slip took his footing. Andrew had a medical kit in his frame bag—as did a few other guys—so he was patched and back on the bike in no time.

While every rider in the group had logged some serious time in the saddle over the years, most of it was from paved road rides or lighter trail riding. The Crusher was sending a clear signal that we were entering its domain and had best respect the trails we were taking on… or pay the price.

THE CALENDAR DANCE

Looking back on that first day’s ride, it’s no surprise Andrew slipped away so easily: early-trip adrenaline is real, and we were having a ball. Making it to Marquette, Michigan, was no small feat: all ten of us are grown men with jobs, almost all with kids. One of the guys even left newborn twins at home.

Every bikepacker is familiar with the calendar dance: endless texts sent back and forth with biking friends, trying to find a gap that lines up across everyone’s calendars so you can get out of town and seek wonder in the wild. Josh Rizzo is an absolute wizard at trip logistics and was the catalyst for locking in dates early and getting everyone committed. Thanks to Josh’s work, we’d been eyeing up this trip for the better part of six months, salivating over the GPX file and nerding out over our packing lists.

  • The Crusher Route
  • The Crusher Route

These summer trips have become an annual tradition for our friend group. The inaugural year took the group to northern Wisconsin, while last year’s ride was along the Straddle and Paddle route in Minnesota. Some of them are definitely worth revisiting but we try to rotate routes every year to keep it fresh and challenging. Josh suggested Marquette and it quickly stuck. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a wonderland of untouched old-growth forests and shining freshwater coastline. It was a natural fit.

The Crusher Route
  • The Crusher Route
  • The Crusher Route

“ENHANCED” GRAVEL

The Crusher’s full 225-mile course stands out, even in an era increasingly saturated by gravel-specific bikes and off-road courses. Winding through the backwoods of Michigan’s U.P., The Crusher is a tour de force of doubletrack, hardpacked dirt, sandpits that will make you wonder if you’re on Tatooine, and “barely-maintained logging roads.” That’s an actual quote from their website.

And while there is some wild trail, The Crusher’s charm is found in how it balances wicked sections with longer stretches of traditional gravel. The course actually reminds me of golf: a couple of moments that will make you consider selling your bikes along with a few glorious highs that will bring you pretty close to Nirvana. It’s an intoxicating cocktail of Type 1 and 2 fun.

The Crusher Route

But the journey doesn’t necessarily stop at the finish line. As if the original route wasn’t enough, The Crusher is part of a three-leg “triple crown,” including the Marji Gesick ultra bike and run, and the Polar Roll “ultra-enhanced” (?) winter adventure race. The three events are produced by the 906 Adventure Team, an area non-profit that has served more than 500 youth cyclists and donated more than $141,000 to local trail builders.

Tempted to try your hand at the Triple Crown? Good news, there’s a prize waiting at the end: induction into the Hall of Pain and an invitation to the annual “secret event,” which I’m sure is super casual and fun. To borrow a phrase from our Minnesotan neighbors: Uffda.

SAND MAGNETS

With Andrew back in the group, we vowed to keep a tighter pack as we climbed out of the creek bed and found solid ground. The hardest part of the trip and trail was behind us, but it wouldn’t be the only challenging segment.

Over the next three days, most of our riding would follow pretty standard gravel fare: doubletrack and logging roads. We even got a taste of fresh blacktop with a short detour onto a paved county road.

The Crusher Route

But I suppose it wouldn’t be named The Crusher if it were all leisurely trail riding. The most consistent thorn in our side was hidden sand troughs. Just when you found your rhythm and settled into the saddle, your tire was liable to find sand, sinking inches below the rim and halting all progress.

Sometimes the sand pits were short, and you could drop a few gears to muscle through it. But often the pits were long or—even worse—recurring one after another. The pits blended in perfectly with ridable sand next to it, creating a hidden trap that would suck you down into the dirt and almost buck you from your bike if you were going too fast.

The Crusher Route
  • The Crusher Route
  • The Crusher Route
  • The Crusher Route

Day two was a long ride that took us through logging territory that was being actively worked on as we rode past. One logging worker had to lean out the window of his tree harvester to ask, “Is that all of you?” before swinging the giant metal crane grip back across the trail.

After a long day in the saddle, we were all ready to hit camp early and find some food. But our final turn took us off gravel and onto a tiny, twisting backroad that might as well have been a beach. The sand was everywhere, and the trenches were too deep to ride through, even for the three guys who brought fat bikes.

There was a lot of hike-a-bike at the end of day two as we trudged onward looking for any sign of our campsite. It was tempting in that moment—as it has been for the past year—to spend more time contemplating our suffering than recognizing the gift of riding bikes in the woods with good friends. Another mile down the trail we found camp and settled into that beautiful pre-sleep haze where freeze-dried food tastes incredible and everyone’s jokes are hilarious. The Crusher hadn’t beaten us yet.

The Crusher Route

PANDEMIC PLANNING

Our most recent trips were obviously different than years past. COVID hit hard in 2020 and the group had several discussions about canceling in the face of the pandemic. I ended up backing out of last year’s route, opting to stay home after one of my kids was impacted by the virus. But despite the unknown of living through a once-in-a-generation pandemic, cycling became an even stronger bond. Some of our guys had health concerns, others had concerns at work. But we all had a collective goal to get on our bikes and do something we’d never done before.

By the time spring 2021 rolled around, we knew a lot more about the virus, and vaccines were rolling out to the U.S. Things were looking up. Beyond the obvious (and critical) health considerations, I think something deeper was subconsciously tugging at all of us: the need to reconnect. Sure, we’d all been active on our bikes over the previous year, whether on casual summer roads or slogging through winter fat bike rides.

  • The Crusher Route
  • The Crusher Route

But the pandemic took a toll. The isolation and worry built up like scars, almost in the background of our lives. Those things are weighty, and this summer’s ride started to look more and more like group therapy, a chance to turn off our cell phones, escape social media, and take a deep, healing breath in nature.

As the days and miles wore on, 18 months of pandemic scars started to flake off. We broke camp early on day three and hit the road for our final leg into Marquette. The sun was shining, and the temperature was in that upper 70s sweet spot. Three guys volunteered to do the final leg on day four to retrieve our cars so the rest of us could relax and enjoy downtown Marquette. After crushing (and being crushed by) The Crusher for three days, I jumped at the chance to do some espresso touring along the shore before heading home.

SURVIVING (part of) THE CRUSHER

This year’s trip was gnarly, but in the best way. There’s nothing like a little shared suffering to focus a group on a common goal. And somewhere in the middle of an unnamed logging road, I felt like I started to spend less time staring down at the trail and more time looking up at the sky, forest, and the friends I was sharing it with.

  • The Crusher Route
  • The Crusher Route

The past year has been wicked, but through it, I’ve found an even deeper connection to cycling. It’s more than exercise and race events. It’s a means to seek wellness, especially when shared with friends. We’re already planning our next group trip, and I hope you are too. If you’ve been putting it off, I encourage you to make time, do the calendar dance, and get out there. It’s well worth it.

Bikepacking the Forgotten Peninsula (Video)

For an alternate perspective on the group’s ride, check out this short video that Josh Rizzo put together using footage he shot along the way and narration about what the trip meant to him.

Follow The Group’s Route

The 125-mile route featured in this trip is a modified version of The Crusher, a 225-mile off-road route that traverses Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. As Josh describes it, “it was the craziest mix of terrain I’ve ever ridden on. Sleeping on the beach, hike-a-biking through sand and boulders, and the town of Marquette were all beautiful.”

Garrett Denney

About Garrett Denney

Garrett Denney is a former ski jumper and soccer player who got bit by the cycling bug in 2016 and never looked back. He spent a few years doing road rides with co-workers and friends before taking the plunge into gravel cycling, bikepacking, and fat-tire bikes. You can see more from him on Instagram @garrettdenney.

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