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Sonja Bjordal (left) and Emily Michog high-five as they bike down the Lakewalk in Leif Erikson Park recently. The two are taking a circle tour of Lake Superior by bicycle. They are using the journey to raise money for Restart, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that helps people recovering from traumatic brain injuries. They’re also trying to get bicyclists to understand the importance of wearing helmets. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Two bicyclists take a long road for recovery

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Emily Michog’s work changed something about her recreation.

“Before I started working as a nurse, I would ride my bike everywhere without a helmet,” the 29-year-old bicycling enthusiast said. “Now, I wouldn’t go anywhere without it.”

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Michog, of Duluth, is a nurse in the brain injury unit at Essentia Health’s Miller-Dwan Rehabilitative Services. She sees brain-injury victims every day, she said, and witnesses the heartbreaking struggle to recover. It helped lead to her choice to always wear a helmet when she’s on her bike.

But now, Michog and her friend, Sonja Bjordal, 30, are taking their concern about brain injuries another giant step. They are using a long-dreamed-of bicycle ride around Lake Superior to raise money to help Minnesotans with brain injuries, while also seeking to call attention to bicycle safety.

The two began their 1,300-mile, three-week trek in Duluth early Monday, following a counterclockwise route starting on Wisconsin’s South Shore.

The women, who have biked and run together for a number of years, said they’ve never tried anything on this scale before. But the bicycle tour is no spur-of-the-moment enterprise.

“Bike touring has been on my mind for a long time,” said Bjordal, who works at Northern Waters Smokehaus and delivers sandwiches by bicycle two days a week. “Emily and I, a couple of years ago, thought the circle tour would be a great tour to start with because we live here.”

But the ride has taken on a deeper dimension. They hope to raise $10,000 in 20 days to support Restart, which provides residential homes for individuals with brain injuries and outpatient services for people with various disabilities, said Jesse Mathias, development associate for the Minneapolis-based nonprofit.

Mathias is a longtime friend of Bjordal, who grew up in the Twin Cities before moving to Duluth.

“When she and her friend Emily were going to do this ride, we talked about what a great opportunity it would be to bring some awareness as well to helmet safety … and just what Restart does for people with brain injuries,” Mathias said.

One of their messages is that many of those injuries can be avoided or diminished simply by wearing a helmet. Mathias noted that cycling is the leading cause of sports-related head injuries, and that 90,000 people suffer head injuries each year because of bicycle accidents. Ninety percent of those killed on bicycles weren’t wearing helmets.

A 1999 study led by Diane C. Thompson of the Child Health Institute in Seattle concluded that helmets provide a 63-88 percent reduction in the risk of head, brain and severe brain injury for all ages of bicyclists.

“I would just hope that … bikers buy a helmet,” Bjordal said. “That’s the least thing that you can do for yourself.”

But like Michog, Bjordal didn’t always follow that advice.

“You think you’re invincible,” Bjordal said. “And luckily, people get on your case and tell you that you’re being stupid.”

The women also will wear bright jerseys and reflective vests to enhance their visibility. They’ve been told that the road can be particularly dangerous around the northeastern shore of the lake in Canada, Bjordal said.

“If we see a car coming toward us, and there’s a semi behind us, we’ve heard: ‘Just try to get off the road completely,’ ” Bjordal said. “Because there’s just not a lot of room.”

The two women secured 21 days off from their respective jobs. Taking a couple of rest days into account, they figure they’ll have to average 75 miles per day to complete the journey before they run out of time.

Although they occasionally will stay with friends along the way or in places discovered through the bicycling website warmshowers.com, the two women will camp most nights. Their gear includes tools for basic repairs, a tent weighing 3 pounds, sleeping bags, a camp stove, rain gear, jackets, hats, gloves and thick socks.

Carrying all of that on bicycles occupied both women’s thoughts last week.

“You want to bring as little as possible with you, so I’m mostly taking out things,” Michog said.

Bjordal was going through the same process to determine what she absolutely had to bring in her two sets of panniers and the small backpack she’ll wear.

She was asked if she had weighed everything she planned to carry.

“Nuh-uh,” Bjordal responded.

You don’t want to know?

“Nuh-uh,” she repeated.

The women succeeded in a two-day trial run to Bayfield and back earlier this summer. Still, both admitted to a little nervousness about the longer journey.

“Physically, I feel good about it,” Michog said. “I think it’s more of a mental game when you’re waking up day after day to get back on the bike and ride eight or nine hours in just quietness.”

There will be, she said, “a lot of thinking time.”

To learn more To make a donation to Emily Michog and Sonja Bjordal’s “$10K in 20 Days” campaign, go to https://givemn.org/project/bikingforbrainscharityride. To follow Michog and Bjordal on their circle tour around Lake Superior, go to http://srbjordal.tumblr.com/

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