Mid-Mitten Cycling Hilly Rides

Kensington Road

Kensington Hill from below
The hill on Kensington Rd., viewed from the bottom

My heart beat faster when I saw the elevation profile for Kensington Road on MapMyRide. This hill east of Brighton has a 160-foot climb in half a mile, making it one of the steepest I’d discovered in mid-Michigan so far. And my heart beat faster again when I actually rode this route, but for entirely the wrong reason: all the huge gravel trucks zooming by, combined with the narrow road with crumbling pavement at the edge, were jacking my adrenaline more than the climb itself.

I hesitated to include the climb here, but I did see a couple of other cyclists out doing the hill on the Friday I was there. shows that the climb has been attempted over 700 times by 220 people, so it’s a popular route. And calls to both Hayes Sand and Gravel and Ashley Land Development Co. revealed that no gravel trucks run on Sundays. So I will recommend this as a great area for a hill workout, but only on Sundays and only for cyclists comfortable with narrow, winding roads with some traffic.

Highridge Dr. in Kensington Metropark, just east of the Kensington Rd. exit off I-96, is a great place to park if you don’t mind paying seven dollars or you already have a Huron-Clinton MetroParks pass. The parking lot just beyond the golf course has restrooms, drinking fountains and soda machines. You can get a good warmup on the bike path around Kent Lake or by doing an out-and-back on Highridge Dr. If you’d rather avoid the fee, there’s a poorly marked park-and-ride on Grand River Ave. east of Kensington Rd. and south of I-96.

A barn along Kensington Rd.

Wherever you park, head north on Kensington Rd. to begin the climbing. North of Highridge Dr., Kensington climbs for a bit, then descends into a scenic valley with barns and large homes. The paved shoulder is a decent width here, so any passing traffic shouldn’t be a problem.

The real climbing begins at McNeil Ct., 1.5 miles north of Highridge Dr. This is also where the pavement deteriorates and the shoulder vanishes. The hill is also blind, meaning any vehicles approaching from behind don’t really have room to pass. Now, there are two well-known schools of thought in situations like this. One, the “vehicular cycling” approach, says to take the lane, riding in the middle of the lane to force drivers to either pass in the opposite lane if safe to do so, or wait behind you if it’s not. In this case, passing is not safe, and according to the vehicular driving approach, the car or massive gravel truck behind you will follow politely until it’s safe to pass.

But in reality, cyclists can’t force drivers to do anything. I would say about one in ten Michigan drivers, and more than that in this suburbanized part of the state, will either pass too close or move into the oncoming lane even when it’s not safe, no matter what the cyclist is doing. And if drivers who have crossed the line suddenly encounter a vehicle coming the other way, what are they going to do? Swerve to the right, into the cyclist in the middle of the lane. This is the reason for the other approach to cycling, which doesn’t really have a name, but is probably followed by most cyclists: just ride to the right and be aware of your surroundings. I would guess that there are few cyclists willing to get in front of a gravel truck and slow it down to ten miles an hour up a steep, blind hill.

For myself, I can see logic in both approaches, but I was just thankful that no trucks passed me while I huffed and puffed my way up the 160-foot ascent. That’s when I began to doubt the wisdom of using Kensington Rd. as a workout route. Then at the top I encountered a cyclist coming up the other way. We gave each other grim, knowing nods, like two battle-weary veterans.

The obvious solution to dangerous spots like this one is to simply pave the road wider. Maybe the League of Michigan Bicyclists will begin a #paveitwider campaign, to get Michigan road departments to add some width while they’re repairing our winter-damaged roads. This is especially important on blind curves and hills and on routes frequented by cyclists. With enough room for cars and bikes to share, the debates between “vehicular cyclists” and “ride-to-the-right cyclists” tend to evaporate. And in this spot, it would make life a lot easier for the truck drivers, too.

Turnaround point on Hickory Ridge Rd.
Turnaround point on Hickory Ridge Rd.

Debates over the proper way to ride and to maintain the roads aside, you’re in for a nice descent on Kensington as it curves west to a traffic circle. You could use the circle to turn around and do a few more hill repeats on the hill you just climbed. But for variety, our route continues on Kensington as it goes north (right) from the traffic circle.

Kensington continues descending for half a mile, then the road curves right to become Stobart Rd. Continuing east on Stobart, the road rolls along past the entrances to the GM Proving Grounds on the north and the gravel quarry to the south. Just beyond, you’ll pass the ironically named Serenity Farms as you begin a 100-foot climb. From the top, you’ll lose all the elevation you’ve just gained, and more, as the road descends and curves to the north, now named Hickory Ridge Rd.

I don’t know if it’s the presence of the proving grounds, but most drivers I encountered on Stobart and Hickory Ridge treated the curving road as a high-speed highway. The lack of a paved shoulder persisted in this stretch, but perhaps the lanes are a bit wider here, because on a couple of occasions cars would pass me in both directions at once (known as the “Texas pass”). Not once did a car slow down behind me until it was safe to pass, as is common on rural roads around Lansing. I can only hope that drivers are a little more relaxed on Sundays.

The intersection with Canyon Oaks Trail makes a convenient turnaround spot, partly because the pavement is wider here. Continue back the way you came on Hickory Ridge, Stobart, and Kensington (encountering some very potholed pavement on the latter) to the traffic circle. We’re still not done with the climbing. Turn right (west) at the circle to descend on Jacoby Rd. (carefully: the craters here are the biggest so far) to Pleasant Valley Rd. Turn around at the stop sign here and head back up Jacoby Rd., continuing straight ahead onto Kensington, which then curves south as it climbs back up to the first big summit of the day. Now you’ll have a thrilling descent down those eight- to nine-percent grades you climbed earlier.

Kensington Hill top
The top of the hill on Kensington Rd. It’s all downhill from here (unless you choose to do hill repeats).

If you call it a day here and continue straight back to your starting point, you’ll have done about 700 feet of climbing in around 13 miles. If the narrow roads and bad pavement have stressed you out, you could take a relaxing and scenic eight-mile ride on the bike path around Kent Lake, beginning at the parking area on Highridge Dr. Or, if you’re a glutton for punishment, you could make a U-turn at Spencer just beyond the bottom of the big hill on Kensington. Throwing in another lap on Kensington, Stobart, Hickory Ridge, Jacoby and back to Spencer would give you another 600 feet in 10 miles.

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