Rob Byers moved to Minneapolis from Washington, D.C., three years ago to take a job as a technical director at Minnesota Public Radio. He expected that there would be many cultural (and weather) shifts to get used to, but one thing took him by surprise: the vibrant biking community.
As an avid bike racer, Byers discovered numerous opportunities to get involved in the local racing scene, but he also appreciated the wealth of resources available to recreational and commuting bikers.
“It’s just phenomenally easy to bike here,” he says. “If you want to go for a four-hour ride only on trails, you can.” His racing team regularly does training rides from St. Paul to Stillwater without a problem, he notes, adding that the Cities are eager to boost ridership: “I live right on the [Midtown] Greenway, and they’ll plow that trail before they plow our street.”
Beyond the extensive trail system — which is formidable, given the LRT, the Greenway, and on-street bike lanes — Byers and other metro cyclists have found a thriving, supportive culture here that grows more robust every year. With the boom in programs like Nice Ride and an increasing number of classes like those offered by the Saint Paul Bicycle Racing Club, the bike community in the Twin Cities has never been stronger. And with the coming of spring at last, bicyclists here have a lot of new options to look forward to.
Nice Ride reaches out
Encouraging ridership has been a major goal for both metro areas, prompting initiatives like Nice Ride Minnesota. The nonprofit bike-sharing program formed in 2008, through the Twin Cities Bike Share Project, a group started by Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak and the City of Lakes Nordic Ski Foundation.
The vision, according to the group, is to foster a program that permanently changes the way people experience and perceive the city, and to demonstrate the many benefits of alternative transportation. Launched last June with 700 bikes in 65 stations, Nice Ride is about to take on a major expansion effort, with about 50 new stations expected within the next few months. Although station locations are still being worked out, there will are eight confirmed for North Minneapolis.
“We plan to just keep expanding from here,” notes group’s executive director, Bill Dosset. “When we started this last year, some people thought the stations would be vandalized, and other people told us this was socialism. Well, there’s been no vandalism, and the socialist talk died out once our system was accepted as a smart and healthy transportation choice.”
A new aspect of the program this year will be outreach to low-income riders, Dosset adds. Nice Ride representatives will visit churches and community groups to talk about the program, and build enthusiasm. He says, “We want bikes to be available to everybody, we want everyone to have the opportunity to ride.”
Biking: The new golf?
Another fresh approach comes from the newly created Velolet, an online system that allows bicycle owners to rent their bikes to individuals. (Read our story about the venture here.) Founder Dan Cleary thought of the idea while trying to find bikes while traveling. “Cycling is becoming the new golf,” he says. “It’s the thing to do. There’s such a positive, growing community here that it’s not hard to feel excited about being part of it all.”
New trails, new links, and dinner too
All those borrowed and rented bikes will have plenty of trails and events to hit soon, too. According to Tim Springer, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, riders can participate in the group’s progressive dinner — a “rolling meal” in which bicyclists ride from one course to another — and the popular “Tour de Fat” will be back for a third year as well. The Tour is organized and paid for by Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing, maker of Fat Tire beer, and features a bicycle art parade, carnival atmosphere, and of course, plenty of beer for sale.
Improvements to the Greenway are ongoing, Springer says, with plans for more entrance ramps, better connections, and bikeway links to other trails. He says, “This is a 50-year effort ahead of us, and we expect that even though it will take decades to realize the full vision of the Greenway, we’ll get there.”
The metro won’t have to wait that long for recognition of its bike-loving status, though. As we noted in a Buzz item last week, the city of Minneapolis was recognized as a top “bike-friendly business” by the League of American Bicyclists. Receiving a Gold Award, Minneapolis got the nod for offering biking classes, hosting special events for Bike Walk Week, and subsidizing city employee membership in Nice Ride.
Bike culture on a roll
Beyond being an excellent way to get around town — or around several towns, depending on the route — biking in the Twin Cities has become a culture all its own. Bike shops are thriving, notes Jake Helmbrecht, general manager at Freewheel Bike, a store with locations on the West Bank, in the Phillips neighborhood, and in Eden Prairie.
“There’s just been a waterfall of interest over the past five years,” he says. “The Twin Cities is so bike-friendly, with all its trails and on-street lanes. Also, when gas prices went up in 2008, a lot of people realized they could get around on bikes instead, and many of them kept incorporating biking into their lives even when gas prices went back down. In general, we just see more and more new faces every year.”
The combination of bike talk, repairs, and coffee is also an increasing trend, making South Minneapolis’ Angry Catfish Bicycle & Coffee Bar a popular hangout, joining One on One Bicycle Studio & Go Coffee in the Warehouse District. Soon to open is Cranky’s Bicycle Bar on East Lake Street in Minneapolis.
“Biking here is like a happy contagion,” says Helmbrecht. “It seems to be spreading everywhere, starting from the Cities and now going out into the suburbs, and people just want to be part of it all. It’s really fun.”
In terms of the biking community’s future, rising gas prices and more citywide efforts to increase ridership should keep the culture thriving. Helmbrecht notes that more and more people are trying winter biking, and that’s a trend he expects will pick up in the year ahead.
It’s possible that it won’t be long before there are more folks like Autumn Amadou-Blegen, who lives with her husband and children in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood. Nearing 40, she’s never had a driver’s license, and the family does bike commuting year-round. They even moved by bike once, using bicycle trailers to transport furniture the two miles from the old house to the new.
“The Twin Cities is great for riding,” she says, noting that the only challenge is occasional pushback from drivers, but she hopes that as ridership increases, the negative perceptions on both sides will dissipate. “I think it is a cyclical — no pun intended — process of learning to share the road. The way it will get better is if everyone knows the rules of the road, sticks to them, shares the road, and treats each other with empathy and humanity.”
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.