It started with a hashtag and a tweet, five years ago.
Patrick Stephenson was a shy 27-year-old copywriter for a downtown Minneapolis advertising agency whose only post-work exercise regimen was to play video games until he fell asleep and got up the next day to do it all over again. But he’d always loved bicycling; in fact, his first memory is of a bike crash as a kid that left a scar on his leg.
Then, in the summer of 2009, Stephenson’s “Call of Duty” addiction came face-to-face with his friend Zach Schaap’s passion for biking.
“Biking was his lifestyle, and he was sort of my mentor into becoming a full-time biker,” said Stephenson Wednesday morning over his regular pre-dawn coffee at the One On One bike/coffee/art shop near his home in the warehouse district of downtown Minneapolis. “He biked to work, and that was the ultimate: ‘I bike to work.’ And thanks to him, I started biking from St. Paul to Minneapolis, and I just fell in love.
“I was slowly finding my way into this lifestyle: The proper way to dress, the proper paths, and here was this guy who was like, ‘It’s easy. I do it every day, it’s my life. You should try it, too. Of course you can do it.’ I had never made this jump in mindset that I could actually bike to work, I was more of a busser.
“I started working out with a personal trainer, and all this weight started melting off. I started to get more confident in myself. I was really shy; I would spend all this time inside playing video games and then all of a sudden I was going to all these social events and part of this bicycling scene. It was this huge explosion of confidence for me; like, all of a sudden I loved going dancing because I was confident in my body. It was really transformative.”
When the winter of 2009-2010 descended, Schaap schooled Stephenson in the hushed thrills of winter biking. Stephenson needed a hashtag to catalog his cold-weather biking thoughts and adventures, and #winterbiking was born. When spring came he needed another hashtag to frame his budding obsession and, inspired by another friend’s 30 days of yoga project, he rocketed #30daysofbiking into the Twitterverse.
“It was instant,” he said. “April 1st was coming up, and Zach and I started promoting it, and we were like, ‘Who wants to join us?’ Somebody bought a domain name for us and I started making a list of people who said they wanted to do it, and it was 300 right away. It was a crazy explosion, all of a sudden people were drawn to this idea, and it was worldwide. We had a kick-off ride of 50 people, and it was just this crazy thing that happened that first year.”
Now in its fifth year, 30 Days of Biking (motto: “a community of joyful cyclists”) encourages people to bike every day in April, and has caught on in every continent on the planet, with thousands of participants. Stephenson now leads a 15-member Minneapolis-based team, which organizes more than 1,000 annual events under the 30 Days of Biking umbrella.
It’s easy to see why it’ caught on: Bicycling is a mostly solitary exercise, but people like to feel part of something.
“I think it’s a natural human desire to be part of something bigger,” agreed Stephenson. “A lot of these rides you do are solo, like I was last night, just chilling. But when you know that you have this community that’s supporting you and sharing their adventures, it’s kind of cool. So it’s solo endeavor, but at the same time you’re sharing what you’re doing with thousands of other people who are excited about it.”
During April the hashtag #30daysofbiking pops up almost hourly in the Twin Cities and from all corners of the globe. A woman in Nebraska has biked every day since #30daysofbiking first launched; a man with Parkinson’s disease is taking up the challenge on his recumbent bike and stationary bike this year. Even Tour de France winner Greg LeMond tweeted, “Great idea out of Minneapolis 30daysofbiking.com,” and the feeling-good stories just keep rolling in.
As for Stephenson, he’s now a copywriter at Minnesota Public Radio, the downtown St. Paul offices of which he bikes to every day, and where he plays the “enthusiast/everyday biker kind of guy” on “Pedal Hub,” the Chris Roberts-produced MPR bicycling podcast.
“A lot of people who participate already bike every day; that’s their primary transportation, and I think it gets them to bike more than they would, just because there’s this excitement around it,” said Stephenson. “Then there’s people who have had their bikes away all winter who are learning how to make the bike a lifestyle form of transportation. I saw one tweet from a guy who said, ‘I didn’t realize how close the supermarket was.’ It’s like it changes your perception of distance between things.
“We’re not anti-car, and that’s an important distinction. That’s too divisive, and I find that attitude kind of regressive and doesn’t help the cause of biking. We’re not ‘30 days of biking without your car,’ we just want you to get on your bike once a day, even if it’s just riding it around the block. If you need to use your car as a tool, do it, but the biking is paramount during this month.”