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Bicyclists to retrace historic slave route to its Canadian end

About 90 bicyclists from around North America were today headed from Buffalo to Owen Sound, Ont., on a parallel journey to discover both the freedom of the open road and one of the many roads to freedom traveled by black slaves over 150 years ago.

The four-day trek is being billed as a celebration of America's newest historic bicycle trail, arranged by Adventure Cycling Association, a 30-year-old nonprofit organization that creates bike routes that allow people to explore both the landscape and history of America.

"Our mission is to have [people] explore America for fun, fitness and self-discovery," said Virginia Sullivan, new routes coordinator for Adventure Cycling Association.

After touring the Michigan Street Baptist Church and Broderick Park, two local historic stops along the metaphorical Underground Railroad, the cyclists Monday met on the grounds of the Nichols School for an orientation and welcome by local officials, including Kevin Cottrell of Motherland Connextions and Bishop William Henderson of Michigan Street Baptist.

The riders today were scheduled to depart Buffalo, traveling over the Peace Bridge and across the Niagara Trail to the Whirlpool Bridge on their 290-mile journey to Owen Sound on Georgian Bay -- about 100 miles northwest of Toronto -- to take part in an annual emancipation day celebration.

Owen Sound and Canada, in general, became the final destination for many escaped slaves, particularly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

"Owen Sound has been honoring . . . the Canadian emancipation for 145 years," said Sullivan. "The town of Owen Sound . . . much of it was settled by black freedom seekers and so they are also celebrating their 150th year as being a township. That's why we chose to take this final leg of the Underground Railroad as our inaugural celebration tour," she added.

The tour from Buffalo to Owen Sound actually is the last leg of a much longer route from Mobile, Ala., to Owen Sound that was mapped out by the Adventure Cycling Association.

Mario Browne, project director for the Center for Minority Health at the University of Pittsburgh, was one of dozens of cyclists who traveled that 2,000-mile route over 48 days in April and May.

Browne's primary responsibility at the Center for Minority Health is to promote wellness and disease prevention in the black community. The Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, he said, provided an ideal vehicle for promoting his message and mixing black history.

"What better way to try to get people involved in [a healthy] activity than to show them the historical significance of the activity?" Browne said.

"The Underground Railroad is symbolic. It represents a network and a movement," he added.

Along on the tour are designated leaders and guides, such as Chuck Harmon of Ohio and Blue Hannon of Buffalo. They possess local knowledge on where to take the route to get the most scenic and safe roads, as well as where to take in as much history as possible on a bike route, said Sullivan.
This week's trek, Browne said, will not require as much endurance as the tour he took from Alabama to Canada last spring, the experience of which had to pale in comparison to what escaped slaves endured along the same routes generations ago.

e-mail: hmcneil@buffnews.com

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