Life On Two Wheels
Local Cyclists Discuss Community Trends In Advance Of Bike Month
Posted: April 26, 2014
Growing up in the 1970s, Thomas Jenkins remembers riding his bike everywhere — to school, to swim club, wherever two wheels could take him.
“It was a total freedom,” he says, wistfulness clinging to his words.
That meant freedom not just for him, but also for his parents, a fact that he’s keenly aware of now as a father of two young boys.
“You turn 16 and get a driver’s license, and your bike collects dust,” he remembers. “When I was 18, I kind of rediscovered cycling again when I was in college.”
After speaking with others of his generation, Jenkins, 44, realized that their childhoods were marked by lots of time on two wheels, as well.
“Less and less are experiencing that at a young age,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think we’ve kind of lost that [freedom] a little. I’d like to get that back.”
Jenkins — co-owner of the Shenandoah Bicycle Company that’s been open in downtown Harrisonburg since 2000 — and many others in the community are trying to reinstate that love of cycling, a passion that many local biking enthusiasts say has been on the rise in recent years.
The idea behind National Bike Month, celebrated in May and sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists, is to get more people biking and to educate the community about safe cycling. Locally, the 700-member-strong Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition pushes the effort.
Recent growth in the local biking community is evident within the microcosm of Bike Month.
Roughly five years ago, local cycling enthusiasts started coordinating efforts for Bike Month — mainly, Bike to Work Day, a national initiative to encourage people to ride to their jobs.
“It didn’t go too much beyond Bike to Work Day,” said Carl Droms, a SVBC member who’s helping to organize Bike Month events this year.
That’s still the main event for Bike Month every year, said Droms, who knows about riding to work on two wheels. A 62-year-old retired James Madison University math professor, he used to ride to work every day after he moved to Harrisonburg in 2006. Even when he lived in Singers Glen before that, he’d make the 12-mile trek to work once a week on bike. Now, you’re still hard-pressed to find him without a helmet.
“It’s very doable in this town,” he said, noting that biking to work made him feel more awake and refreshed once he got there. “It’s not that difficult, once you get used to it.”
The coalition is growing Bike Month, with more than 10 events slated this year, including Bike to School Day, two ice cream rides, a kids’ rodeo and other cycling adventures.
Ebbs And Flows
The popularity of biking in Harrisonburg has ebbed and flowed over more than than just five years.
In the 70s, Mark Nissley opened his store, Mark’s Bike Shop, in the city, “right after one of the greatest bike booms in the country,” he says. “It was kind of like when America woke up to bicycles as a way to get around.”
The Baby Boomers were in college, and they charged the movement to use bikes as a fun alternative to cars, Nissley remembers.
Before the “big awakening” of the 70s, bikes were largely considered to be kids’ toys, he explained while opening up his shop of 39 years one recent morning.
But Americans started looking across the pond at the European 10-speeds — novel at the time, but uncomfortable and impractical compared with current models.
“Gradually, the bikes got more garage time,” he added. “And then, mountain bikes came out.”
Sure enough, a passion for mountain biking hit the nation in the 80s.
Now, about the same number of bike shops exist in the area as compared to the 70s, he pointed out; three of those stores from that decade went out of business after “the boom” fizzled out.
But things are different now, Nissley says.
“[Cycling] was kind of looked at in the 70s as sort of like a fad,” he said. “At this point, nobody’s looking at it as a fad. [It] clearly ... has a place in the transportation grid.”
Changing It Up
In Harrisonburg, several events in the last decade have ensured that cyclists are taken seriously.
SVBC was a product of a 2008 merger between the Shenandoah Valley Mountain Bike Club and the Shenandoah Valley Bike Club.
The former took shape in the 1996, while the latter got its start in the early 1982.
Usually, about 50 cyclists show up for the monthly social — held the second Monday of every month at Clementine — according to Kyle Lawrence, current president and leader of the group’s nine-member board. Anywhere from several to several hundred show up for events, and the rolls show roughly 700 members.
“I think merging the two clubs was really key to forming a broader coalition that aims to incorporate every type of cyclist,” Lawrence said. “In a lot of communities, the cycling groups become somewhat fragmented. We’re fortunate in this community to kind of be able to speak with one voice.”
That merger has been one benefit to the local cycling scene, he explained, but he and other local enthusiasts continually point to another boon to the scene’s growth and success: the city’s involvement.
Thanh Dang, who has been a Harrisonburg public works planner since 2006, is an inescapable name when you’re discussing any success stories with integrating bike-friendly paths and lanes into the city’s framework.
About half of her current workload is dedicated to transportation causes, she estimates.
Dang lists several milestones as the biggest successes for the biking community since assuming her position: the Rocktown Trails project at Hillandale Park, developing the city’s bicycle and pedestrian subcommittee and the Bluestone Trail, a paved path that will run about 1.1 miles from Port Republic Road through Purcell Park to Stone Spring Road.
That project will be completed by the year’s end, and plans are ongoing for the Northend Greenway, a proposed trail from Eastern Mennonite University to downtown Harrisonburg.
That’s not to mention trails constructed at Massanutten Resort, work done through the Virginia Safe Routes to School program, the establishment of nationally-renowned rides such as the Alpine Loop Gran Fondo, and other endeavors.
In addition, JMU should be finalizing its own bicycle and pedestrian plan within the next couple of months, Dang said, and Rockingham County’s plan should be done this fall.
“The single biggest news, at least from my perspective, in 40 years is that we actually have planning staff paid for by the city actively involved in putting in place systems of infrastructure,” Nissley said. “I think the population has been maybe a little frustrated that we’re not further ahead … but primarily really glad that it’s on a good track.”
To see bike trails, paths and lanes being worked into the city’s plans is “outrageously exciting” after years of stagnancy on that front, he added.
Looking to the future, the main goal for local cyclists is to get more people on bikes, Lawrence says, not just because of the gas savings, eco-friendliness or health benefits, though those reasons are always nice.
“At the end of the day, a walk-able, bike-able community is a more healthy, viable community,” he said. “It’s the kind of community we’re seeing more and more folks want to live in.”
‘Complete Bicycle Destination’
The Shenandoah Valley, and Harrisonburg in particular, has been a mountain and road biking destination for some time now, but locals are working to make the area a bike friendly community for everyone — “a complete bicycle destination,” Lawrence says — for all riders of varying expertise.
Seeing the average citizen out riding a bike through Harrisonburg’s streets is where local cycling enthusiasts report the most growth currently.
Nissley reports that he’s seen more and more everyday citizens on bikes — parents, grandparents, kids, entire families.
“Now, the popularity is much wider,” he said.
“It’s not near as narrow [of] a spectrum.”
Since Droms moved to the city in 2006, he’s definitely noticed an increase in the number of people on bikes.
He gives praise to the city for welcoming bicycles into the grid, while also pointing out that bike-riding has a circular effect: the more people who ride, the more people who want to ride.
“You see more people out on the road, then that makes you more tempted and willing to get out on your own bike.”
Plenty of people are feeling that temptation, it seems.
“The bicycle community’s grown … it’s almost grown in every facet,” said Jenkins. “I think the area that is probably one of the neatest areas where we’ve seen growth is just everyday folks in Harrisonburg wanting to ride bicycles.”
Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.