Lake Erie Loop motorcycle tour

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Lonely road: Ken Carlson disappears into the fog in the early morning hours of the loop.
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A few hours after braving the morning fog, Ken Carlson is deep in traffic, heading across the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit to Windsor, Canada.
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John McElfresh finished third in Class III on his Honda CB200T.
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Ernie Copper on his CB200-powered CB175.
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Dave Ritner and his Class I-winning Derbi.
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McElfresh’s CB200T and Bobb Todd’s Suzuki GT185.

For some people, the phrase “Lake Erie Loop” elicits memories of the dramatic August 2003 power shortage that was blamed on a complicated electrical power grid in the general vicinity of Lake Erie.

But for Bill Murar and his wife, Joyce — and a small but growing number of motorcycle enthusiasts — the Lake Erie Loop is something else entirely. For them, The Loop is an annual 650-mile race around the circumference of Lake Erie.

More rally than race, it’s still as much of a race as you can have on public roads with machines sporting sub-225cc engines. And the competing bikes’ relative lack of power is the only thing this Loop has in common with its power shortage namesake, helping to keep things sane as “Loopers” ride from the Clare-Mar Lakes Campground in New London, Ohio, through Michigan, across the border into Canada, back into New York, Pennsylvania and hopefully back to Clare-Mar Lakes the same day. There, they’ll sit around the campfire for a grand bench racing session following a spectacular adventure.

First Loop
The idea for the Lake Erie Loop came from founder Bill Murar’s 2003 “Four Corners” fund-raising adventure.

A career firefighter and paramedic, Bill has a passion for helping pediatric burn victims. Some years back, he combined that with his passion for diminutive, vintage motorcycles and organized a ride that would be completed, in theory, aboard his 106SS Sears Allstate to raise money for pediatric burn victims. His wife, Joyce, a registered nurse, agreed to follow along driving the support vehicle.

Bill’s ride was truly epic in its scope, as he battled one mechanical failure after another during the ride and suffered the loss of his father, Bill Sr. And yet, 12,000 miles and three motorcycles later, the couple finished what they started.

Appreciating that there must be an easier way to combine raising money for burn victims and small, two-wheeled motorized transit, in 2004 Bill organized the inaugural Lake Erie Loop, proving in the process that misery does indeed love company as nine riders joined in for the run.

Looper leanings
Loopers come in four varieties; three competition classes and a tourist class. Class I Loopers are the vintage 110cc and under crowd. Modern-era engines are also allowed in Class I, though they are limited to 50cc and must retain their stock bottom end. Class II are vintage up to 125cc. Class III, referred to jokingly as the “Big Bore” class, can be no more than 225cc for vintage bikes and 200cc for modern machines.

Participants in these three classes pay a $50 entry fee for a shot at fame, fortune and coveted trophies. In theory, there is a pay out for the first three places based on the number of entries, but everyone donates that back to the cause. Riders also collect donations leading up to the event for the Murar/Neelsen Pediatric Burn Fund.

Riders in the tourist class run for fun only and can ride any bike, and they also get the best $25 seat money can buy to observe the competition classes do their thing — along with all the “rites” and privileges of being associated with the Lake Erie Loop, which include abundant food, drink and hanging around riders who make you feel normal.

The riders
Typical Loopers are guys like John McElfresh, a 36-year-old Cleveland accountant. John won the Loop outright in 2006 — his first time out — aboard a 1974 Honda CB200. He bought his first bike, a Suzuki TS250, when he was 15 and now has eight bikes, including Hondas, a Yamaha and a Sears SR125. His wife, Peggy, and 5-month-old daughter, Piper, are supportive of his habit; they’re enablers, if you will.

John’s first-year success inspired him to a two-bike team for 2007 with friend and old college roommate Kevin Nixon of Vanson Leathers. Kevin was set to ride the team’s “B” bike, but as it turns out he beat John back to the campground for a respectable second place finish in 11 hours, 28 minutes. He was watching — no gloating — as John came in a solid but disappointing third, the victim of a wrong turn just a mile or so from the finish.

“Crazy” Ken Carlson, a mechanical engineer, is a member of the Lake Erie Loop Founders Club, one of nine who set out on the inaugural 2004 Loop. Ken led the inaugural event for about three-quarters of the race, which was run in unseasonably frigid and rainy conditions: Daytime temperatures around 40F and almost-all-day rain combined to suck the heat out of all riders.

Crazy Ken was riding unsupported; it was just him, his highly modified Honda S90, a yellow rain suit and some hand tools. He broke down about an hour or so from the finish, but came back for the second Loop only to succumb to electrical malfunctions.

For the casual observer, Ken’s 2004 and 2005 DNFs would suggest packing it in. But there is no “quit” in Crazy Ken, and by his third Loop he had a pit crew, a chase truck full
of spare parts — and a plan. For reasons known only to other engineers, Ken was the first Looper to attempt a counterclockwise run in 2006. His third attempt included a roadside engine change, yet Ken went on to a first place Class I finish.

For 2007, Ken once again fought off late race mechanical difficulties. A broken ring in his ailing bike resulted in numerous pit stops for oil during the last hour and an oil-slicked rear tire at the finish. Thirteen hours and 40 minutes was good enough for second place in Class I this year, just four minutes behind Dave Ritner, who won the class on his super cool two-stroke Derbi GPR50 (expanded out to 72cc) in 13 hours, 31 minutes.

Speaking of Two Smokes, how about Bruce “The Commish” Gordon? At age 54, The Commish, like Ken, is also an engineer with a passion for vintage bikes. At age 13, and with his father’s help, Bruce built a minibike and has been hooked on two wheels ever since. From Maico to Matchless, he’s had them all and currently counts a Harley plus a herd of Honda Dreams and Yamaha YL1 Twin Jets in his stable.

In his first Loop in 2006, Bruce rode an immaculately restored 1966 Twin Jet to a second place Class I finish. For 2007, he used that experience as a platform for building another two-stroke Yamaha, complete with frame-mounted fairing, a bigger gas tank and a more aggressive riding position. He also suckered his son-in law, Nate Janoviak, into campaigning a 1972 Honda CB175.

Unfortunately, Team Commish struggled. There was no beginner’s luck for Nate, whose truck, doubling as the team’s chase truck, broke a transfer case and was forced to go home on the hook. Not too much later, the ground strap on Bruce’s Honda’s battery broke, leaving him helpless on the roadside, the words “Wait ’til next year” poised on his lips.

Meanwhile, The Commish’s bike was plagued with a multitude of late race soft engine seizures, the only cure for which seemed to be waiting it out on the roadside — in the dark, with no support. One helpful member of the Yahoo Loop Group spotted The Commish and stopped to offer a lift, but The Commish toughed it out, limping back to the campground finish line at 1:38 a.m. to a third-place Class I finish of 19 hours, 38 minutes.

Bill Murar and his son both rode their touring bikes this year, along with several other tourers. To his credit, Bill has dumped the logistical duties of the Loop on Joyce and a host of wonderful volunteers in order to ride the Loop every year, his most successful effort being a tie for second overall in 2005 aboard a Honda CB125. A pizza delivery vehicle blocking the finish forced the tie. Bill could have ripped past the other competitor and around the pizza truck, but decided to set a good example — and keep peace with the campground owner.

The Scooter Contingent is well represented, too, largely due to the efforts of Phil Waters and Pride of Cleveland Scooters. Scooters are proving to be a very practical way to participate in the Loop, thanks to cavernous storage and modern technology. There are no Mods versus Rockers brawls at the Loop — yet.

A great awards breakfast and a “You can ride my bike if I can ride yours” session concluded the most successful Loop yet. The event raised $3,500, all of which will directly benefit the pediatric burn victims.

Looking forward, Bill is trying to incorporate the popular 250cc machines into this year’s event, which will be held June 6-8, starting and ending at the same place. If you have the drive, determination and lack of good judgment it takes to participate, you will be welcomed. MC

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