Tour de Chautauqua: A two-wheeled pilgrimage between sister communities

Leah Harrison | Staff Writer

While professional cyclists across the world make last-minute preparations for the Tour de France beginning later this week, several men and women finish pedaling the first Tour de Chautauqua today.

Fourteen cyclists rode from Lakeside Chautauqua on Lake Erie to the Chautauqua Institution, tracing the 220-mile leg of the Chautauqua Trail. The group began last Friday, riding between 40 and 60 miles each day.

George Fretz learned about the Chautauqua Trail — a cultural heritage circuit made up of 14 North American Chautauqua communities — while visiting Lakeside Chautauqua, something he and his wife have done for years. Having recently read an article on European pilgrimages, such as the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Fretz formed the idea to create a Chautauqua pilgrimage.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we had a pilgrim trail between the two Chautauquas in this area?’” Fretz said.

A year ago, Fretz heard of a group that regularly makes five-day cycling tours and gave them a call. The group — the Pedaling Parsons from the East Ohio United Methodist Conference — agreed that the Tour de Chautauqua would fit their goal to raise funds for Methodist missions.

The Pedaling Parsons consist of clergy and laypeople who combine cycling with Christian mission work. During the past 26 years, they raised approximately $850,000 for their missions.

This year, the money they raise goes to the Camphor Mission Station in Liberia. A team will travel to Liberia in January 2013 to establish friendships with and assist Liberian pastors. Some of the money they raise will buy bikes for the pastors to travel to their churches, cutting down what could be a seven-hour walk to a two-hour bike ride.

“This is a way for us to put our faith into action. It takes our faith in Christ outside of the walls of our church,” said Rev. Don Richards, leader of the Pedaling Parsons and minister at Grace United Methodist Church in North Canton, Ohio. “It’s a way to take something that we enjoy doing and add a purpose to that.”

Fretz, his wife Margot and the Pedaling Parsons will arrive between 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. today at Sherman High School. Institution cyclists are invited to meet the group there and ride the last 10 miles of the journey. The group will also assemble at 3 p.m. at the Turner Community Center to ride through the gate with other Chautauquans. They will ride to a meet-and-greet at the Miller Bell Tower. Hurlbut Church will provide box lunches for the group.

Chris Anderson, an avid cyclist from Cleveland, Ohio, who regularly spends her summers at Chautauqua, plans to join the group at Sherman High School. She’s thrilled to get back in the saddle in her favorite place to ride.

“I don’t even keep a bike in Cleveland because I’m so spoiled by cycling in Chautauqua — it’s truly cycling Nirvana,” Anderson said. “The motorists are so polite and kind, and there are these gorgeous country roads to ride on.”

Only a few of the cyclists have been to the Institution before. Fretz and his wife came as newlyweds almost 40 years ago.

Fretz’s vision was for the Chautauqua Trail to encourage relationships among those invested in Chautauquan values. The vision could be considered a success already, as this will be Richards’ first trip to the Institution.

Through interest in religion, education, recreation, the arts and cycling, Chautauquans remain connected.