Interest in Island cycling highlighted at Cycling Advocates’AGM

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MINDEMOYA – Last year may have been a quiet one for Manitoulin Island Cycling Advocates (MICA) because of COVID-19, but interest in cycling saw a not-so-surprising increase, said Maja Mielonen, MICA president. 

Many people took up cycling during the pandemic as a way to stay active and enjoy the outdoors last summer. “A cycle is used for so many things,” Ms. Mielonen said. “To commute, to travel, to stay healthy.” Guest speaker Sarah Quackenbush of Breakaway Sports and Cycle said many Saturdays there is already a line of cyclists when she arrives to open the store. Breakaway Sports has been delivering bikes across the province and MICA has responded to 165 requests for Manitoulin cycling maps so far this year from across Ontario, Quebec and even Alberta. 

MICA’s annual general meeting was held July 12 at Maja’s Garden Bistro, postponed from an earlier date in May because of COVID-19. “MICA has done some really great work and we have a wonderful board,” Ms. Mielonen told attendees. “Some board members have moved on and become volunteers. We’re really grateful for that.” She highlighted some of the successful projects MICA has undertaken since its beginnings in 2010, including lobbying for paved shoulders on three of four highways on Manitoulin. MICA continues to advocate for paved shoulders on Highway 542. “When you ride it from here east, you can make a milkshake in your stomach on some parts,” she said. “It’s really narrow and scary out there.” Laughter and nodding heads showed most cyclists in attendance were in agreement.

Ms. Mielonen acknowledged some of MICA’s new business members, including SUP Adventures Manitoulin at Providence Bay, the new Garden Gate restaurant owners and Breakaway Sports and Cycle. “It’s exciting,” she said. “Things always change. Businesses close and new ones open.” Ms. Quackenbush, co-owner of Breakaway Sports, was introduced as guest speaker. As previously reported in The Expositor, Sarah and husband Dr. Ben Quackenbush took over as new owners in February and undertook massive renovations. The store now includes a bike shop, a bike repair shop, bike sales as well as camping, canoeing, kayaking and adventure gear on multiple levels.

The Quackenbush’s saw a need for a local bike shop. There hadn’t been a bike shop on the Island in five years, since Lightfoot in Manitowaning closed and their own garage was becoming the local bike shop, at least in their circle. Ms. Quackenbush has ties to cycling going back to her childhood. Her father is Dale Scott, an avid cyclist. Mr. Scott encouraged her as a teenager and as a young adult to start cycling with the Meldrum Bay ride but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that the Quackenbush’s became more involved in adventure racing and mountain biking. 

“Eventually we realized that mountain bike trails on the Island were a little bit farther away from home than was convenient,” she said. “We grabbed some road bikes and really just enjoyed the community Little Current and around the Island. Previous to owning Breakaway Sports, Ben took his mountain bike instructors course. We were running mountain bike courses for kids out at McLean’s Park in Manitowaning which was a great success and we would have loved to continue that last year but of course, COVID put a stop to that. We are hoping to continue that this year and we are working with the municipality of Assiginack to see what that could mean possibly as things start opening up a little bit more.”

“We’ve seen the work of MICA first hand,” Ms. Quackenbush said. “There are a lot of cyclists on the Island. Oftentimes on a Saturday morning at 9 o’clock when we come to open the shop there’s a line of cyclists there with their bicycles lined up and they’re waiting to come in. They’re getting up much earlier and getting on the road and arriving much earlier than we do.” 

They’ve served a woman who was biking from Quebec to Vancouver. “The quick release on her front wheel was broken and she was wondering how she was going to continue this journey. She said, ‘I just Googled and there was a repair shop where I needed it to be.’ We got her up and running today and she’s on her way,” Ms. Quackenbush said.

Another young female cyclist on a big adventure stopped at the store for a light, an essential piece of equipment she had forgotten. “It’s just a great feeling to not only serve our local community but also to serve the travellers and tourists that are going through,” she added. “Every single day since we started bike repairs back in April we have had a full day. It’s been busy, busy, busy.” Interestingly enough, many Islanders are bringing in bikes they purchased 15 years ago from Chris and Justin Tilson. They are quality bikes and bike mechanic Bill Slaght loves fixing those up. “They just need a little bit of reviving and off on the road they are again.”

Thanks to the work Dr. Quackenbush did in the fall to get bikes, Breakaway Sports is not experiencing an extreme shortage right now. “Ben did a tremendous job in the fall to knock on every single bike dealer’s door and we were able to get quite a few in comparison to other areas,” Ms. Quackenbush said. They have delivered bicycles to Ottawa, St. Catharines, Toronto, Hamilton, Sault Ste. Marie and Alberta. “It’s great to provide that service, and we have a fully functioning mechanic shop with the parts and tires and a wonderful mechanic. We’re really thankful that Bill came along and agreed to be our mechanic.”

Mentoring young people is an important part of their business model as well and they are currently mentoring a high school student, said Ms. Quackenbush. “He’s starting to know how to do some of the basic tune-ups under the supervision of Bill,” she said. Incorporating young people and training them not only provides youth with skills in the future, but also ensures they will have mechanics.

Ms. Quackenbush thanked MICA for all the foundational work that they’ve doing promoting the Island as a destination and getting the infrastructure in place. “Hopefully it’s a good collaboration between Breakaway Sports and MICA, that we can help each other out and encourage one another and move each other forward as we are enthusiastic about cycling and enthusiastic about sharing our Island.” 

Ms. Mielonen provided an update on another recent project on behalf of Mary Dantouze, who was unable to attend the meeting. A year or two ago, MICA was contacted by a health unit from Espanola about some bikes they wanted to get rid of. MICA paid a repairman to fix the bikes and Ms. Dantouze distributed the 20 plus bikes into four different First Nations communities. “We’re very proud of that,” said Ms. Mielonen. “We were able to help to make cycling everywhere.”

New board member Matthew Redmond provided a digital update. The last month has seen 10 percent growth in Facebook followers. Using a promoted post to expand MICA’s alvar cycle tours helped reach an estimated 5,600 different people with almost 10 percent of those following through with the promotion. In the last 30 days there were 709 unique visitors to MICA’s website, manitoulincycling.com. The cycling map page is the most popular. “People appreciate being able to access that,” he said. 

The cycling maps are also available as printed copies. Volunteer Gary Fuhrman manages distribution for those orders. Despite 2020 being a pandemic year, there were 183 map requests. About two-thirds went to southern Ontario with the rest going to eastern Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island. This year, 165 have been sent out so far. 

The maps are updated every two years. They contain 14 different routes as well as accommodation members, restaurants and distances. MICA has printed over 16,000 maps to date. They intend to do another update this winter that will include locations of ebike charging stations and information on ebike rentals. “The most exciting thing we’ve done during COVID is write a big grant proposal and find funders” for the purchase of 20 ebikes and installation of charging stations in several Island communities, Ms. Mielonen said.

There wasn’t much income in 2020, said Pam Jackson when reviewing financial statements. “We started the year at the International Bike Show in Toronto and that’s when COVID hit. Everything shut down right after that.” The year may have ended with a loss but MICA is still in a good financial position, she said. “MICA has always been self-supporting throughout its years and we’ll weather this year with no problem.”

Elections were held before the meeting was adjourned. Maja Mielonen and Peter Ford were re-elected. Matthew Redmond’s position was ratified, as he had joined earlier in the year. New director Michelle Campbell joined Linda Belton and Mary Dantouze, whose terms were not up this year.