Wheelhouse Detroit tours expand learning cycles

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

With more than 70 guided educational bicycle tours planned for this summer, Kelli Kavanaugh has come a long way from the single Detroit architecture tour she offered when she opened Wheelhouse Detroit in 2008.

The downtown Detroit shop’s 2016 offerings include 19 tour topics, including the original architecture tour, a route spotlighting Detroit’s Underground Railroad stops, music and auto heritage tours, and an October “Haunted Detroit” tour. Kavanaugh says demand for the tours has increased steadily, but she capped the annual number of presentations at about 70 a couple of years ago.

“I could probably sell out more tours, but we’re at an amount that feels comfortable and that I feel like I can maintain quality with,” she says.

Kavanaugh says the tours seem intriguing for varying reasons. More cyclists are becoming interested in riding on Detroit streets, so the tours’ emphasis on the rules of the road offers them a way to learn to do so safely. But most participants are seeking to discover Detroit’s culture and history.

Kavanaugh says she comes from a background of “extreme nerdism and research” as a former journalist, so she’s developed a basic log of information for many of the tour guides to follow. But each individual guide brings his or her own insight to the table, as well. Reg McGhee, who grew up in Detroit and now lives downtown, leads Wheelhouse’s Eastern Market and Belle Isle tours. He says he’s augmented the basic tour plan with his own research, including poring through history books.

“I’m able to paint a broader picture and I think people enjoy that,” McGhee says. “It’s not just a bike ride around to see what things look like. I help people to understand how it got to be that way.”

Many guides base their tours on personal experience. Lifelong Detroiter Henry Ford II (no relation) notes that he’s “seen Belle Isle in several phases” in his lifetime, and he works that knowledge into his version of the island tour.

Kavanaugh has transformed a particular passion into this season’s newest tour. The “Sports Heritage” tour will include stops at Hamtramck Stadium, home of Negro League baseball teams including the Detroit Wolverines and Detroit Stars; the former sites of Olympia Stadium and Tiger Stadium, and modern standbys like Comerica Park and Joe Louis Arena.

“I’m a huge Tigers fan, not so much the Lions,” she says. “But Detroit’s heritage as a sports city is pretty unparalleled.”

Kavanaugh says the tours regularly attract international visitors and those from around the United States, as well as curious local residents.

“You get people who say they’ve lived in Detroit their whole lives, but they’ve never really been to southwest Detroit orHamtramck,” she says. “It’s a way for people to gain insight into communities that they might not really know about.”

The experience can be eye-opening, even for Wheelhouse tour guides themselves.

“I still learn stuff on some particular tours, even though I’ve been living here all my life,” Ford says. “I think that’s definitely one thing that anyone and everyone can experience.”

Although Wheelhouse’s Detroit-based tours are unlikely to expand more in the near future, Kavanaugh will introduce a host of new offerings in a different location before the end of this year. Wheelhouse’s Hamtramck shop, set to open this summer, will offer tours of the New Center, North End, Milwaukee Junction and Boston-Edison neighborhoods.

And, Kavanaugh assures, “A couple others are percolating.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.


Detroit bike tours

Running through Oct. 30

1340 E. Atwater, Detroit

9401 Jos. Campau, Hamtramck (opening this summer)

Tickets: $25-$45

(313) 656-2453