TRAVERSE CITY — It took Ty Schmidt and Bob Otwell only about an hour of hard work to clear a few inches of powdery snow from about seven miles of sidewalks and pathways.
They did it as a favor to neighbors and strangers alike.
Both men live along Washington Street and have watched while the number of homeowners who clear their sidewalks has dwindled. They’ve also watched the number of people who are outside running, walking or riding a bike during the winter rise.
“We almost did seven miles of sidewalks in an hour today,” Schmidt said Monday. “I was drenched in sweat when I got home.”
It was a pretty good pace considering the men had nothing but their own legs pumping bicycle pedals to propel their small plows. And they got plenty of odd looks along the way.
“We get a lot of smiles,” Schmidt said. “I think it builds community.”
The two cyclists sat on the tip of a response to poorly cleared sidewalks in Traverse City. They joined forces with Tom Auer, a board member for TART Trails, who began making bicycle plow prototypes last year, and began organizing a group of year-round riders who are willing to devote some of their time in the saddle to dragging small two-foot-wide plows.
The group has decided to set aside gripes about snowy sidewalks and replace lip service with leg work.
“I think part of this bike clearing is to respond to less ability of the city to clear sidewalks,” Otwell said. “It is a step in the right direction.”
Otwell, a former executive director for TART, moved to downtown Traverse City more than 20 years ago. And he began riding his bike to work everyday before it was popular to ride during the winter.
“Back then, I think the city kind of spoiled us,” he said. “In the winter, we used to know everybody who rode a bike.”
He’s watched rates of sidewalk clearing slowly slump during the years as the city’s budget has dwindled. And homeowner shoveling hasn’t really taken its place, he said.
Otwell has ridden his bike in almost every condition imaginable and doesn’t hesitate to get outside and ride during the snowy season in northern Michigan. But sidewalks clear of snow certainly make commuting easier.
Schmidt doesn’t mind the snow either, he said.
“I think if you’re going to be riding your bike, you might as well be doing something,” he said.
Schmidt made a commitment to ride his bike to school with his son, Carter, 9, every day this school year snow, rain or shine. It’s a commitment made easier by the plow he drags behind his bike.
“We’re trying to keep the streak alive today,” Schmidt said Tuesday. “He (Carter) is sitting right behind me on this plowed path. We’ve been doing it for several weeks.”
The plows the men pull are built on two pretty simple design variations, one with wheels and two plastic plow blades, the other built out of a pair of push-broom heads shaped into a large V.
They typically clear a path about 24 inches wide and throw snow well away from the sidewalk while being pulled by a quick rider. The plows easily clear several inches of snow, revealing clean pavement. They have difficulty when trying to clean areas where snow has been packed into ice, but even mechanized plows have difficulty in those areas, Schmidt said.
The designs are pretty simple and cost between $60 and $100 to make. To help the fledgling effort along, McLain Cycle and Fitness loaned Schmidt a fat bike — a mountain bike adapted to carry wide tires that float over snow and sand better than traditional mountain bikes.
The group hopes to expand on its fleet of five plows to build a base of a few dozen riders to share the work of cutting paths along neglected sections of city sidewalks and pathways.
“There’s a lot of cyclists in town that I think would be into it,” Schmidt said.
“You could pay nothing and be helping the community and get pretty good exercise all within an hour of home,” Otwell said.
If you’d like to lend your pedal power to the plowing effort, go to www.elgruponorte.com for more information.