Ever since our experience on the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand, where we saw first hand how a trail can re-vitalize a rural region, we’ve been looking for a similar stories in the US. A few weeks ago, we had a whirlwind trip traveling from Iowa to Ontario, Canada to San Diego. We were in Iowa for a week and explored some of the numerous trails the state has to offer. Unbeknownst to us, there is a pretty robust trail system in the state. Many of them passing through small towns and are slowly being recognized as tourism attractions.
Perhaps the most significant trail that everyone was talking about was the High Trestle Trail, so named because of an architecturally stunning bridge that spans the Des Moines River. The bridge’s design pays homage to the mining in the area. Looking straight down the trail, you get the visual illusion of looking down a mine shaft. Since the opening of the bridge, it has become the darling of the region attracting visitors from all over the US. It has become a new tradition to ride through the bridge, especially at night when it is illuminated. More significantly, the 25 mile trail is beginning to make serious economic impact to the towns it traverses.
We interviewed Scott Olson, co-owner of the Flat Tire Lounge, that literally sits right next to the trail in the town of Madrid, Iowa (pronounced “MAD-rid”). It was fascinating to hear how their sleepy town was being rediscovered because of the trail and particularly about the new businesses that were opening in town because of the trail.
We have to admit, when we first heard about bikeshare, we were a bit skeptical. The real cause of low ridership, we thought, wasn’t a lack of bikes, but a lack of safe places to ride. Bikeshare has since rolled out in many cities and we’ve had a chance to ride multiple systems over the last year.
We first tried them out of curiosity during a business trip, to see what the big deal was. When we threw a leg over, we weren’t that impressed. The bikes were heavy, awkward, and had the grace of pushing around a loaded shopping cart. But after a few minutes, we got used to the lumbering beast of a bike, and actually started to have fun, despite ourselves.
When we were in Austin, TX (which has a fairly robust system), we were surprised at the range of people using the bikes. They weren’t “bikey” people, but casual riders running errands or curious tourists giving them a try. In Fort Worth, TX, we saw parents on bikeshare bikes riding the Trinity Trails with their kids, and tourists riding them to the different pop-up restaurants along the river trail.
That was our “ah ha” moment, because it was a completely different use than we had expected. The bikes weren’t used as a strictly utilitarian transportation device, but as a tourism asset for visitors to more efficiently explore and enjoy waterfronts, restaurants, and retail districts. We were sold.
During our current trip through the Midwest, we’ve used bikeshare systems in both Omaha, Nebraska and Des Moines, Iowa. We are on a pretty grueling schedule of speaking, presentations, and conferences, without too many chances to get some exercise. As an alternative to spinning away in the stuffy and sweaty fitness rooms of various hotels, we’ve taken out bikeshare bikes at every opportunity. In this context, the heaviness of the bike just adds to the workout. Not only do we get to stretch the legs but we get to do some sightseeing as well. Speaking with a person from the chamber in Des Moines, she said that they were also finding visitors among the highest users of bikeshare.
This makes a lot of sense. Bikeshare bikes are relatively inexpensive compared to a bike rental, and they are often placed near popular civic spaces (parks, waterfronts, bike trails, business districts). This combination of affordability and accessibility, in desirable locations, make them a great mode for pedaling tourists. As “business travelers” during the last few weeks, they have been a blessed alternative to hotel fitness rooms.
While we were skeptical at first, we’ve turned the corner and have become fans. When/if Portland does get its own bikeshare system, we probably won’t use them, since we already have a stable of bikes at our disposal. But when we travel without bikes to other cities, we’ll probably ditch the cab whenever we can and throw a leg over these odd lumbering beasts.
For the last two years we’ve been following the fascinating story of TREO Ranches, a bird hunting lodge owned by Phil Carlson and his wife Cathy. They had been looking for a way to create a second income during the hunting off-season to keep their staff employed and through a serious of fortuitous encounters, decided to cater to cyclists. A few months ago, we finally got the chance to make a visit and interview him about his TREO Bike Tours.
Phil is not your typical bicycle business entrepreneur (he freely admits to not riding a bicycle), but his ranch is situated in a veritable bicyclists playground in Eastern Oregon with hundreds of miles of empty paved and gravel roads. While he doesn’t ride a bike himself, he sees the potential value in bicycle tourism. Phil is not the sort of person to take half measures. He has invested heavily into making the bicycling portion of his ranch a success, both with time and money. He took the week long bicycle mechanic course at UBI, he was a common site at Sunday Parkways in Portland this year and he has purchased and outfitted a full service bus and trailer to run his bicycle tours.
Phil is also important in that he provides a rural voice that is supportive of bicycling. He can speak about the positives and potential problems with bicycle tourism. He talked at length (though not included in the final edit) about how being bike-friendly is a two way street and that bicyclists have to be farm-friendly as well. There are signs in his lodge instructing bicyclists to share the road and respect the property rights of the local farmers.
We are pretty excited to share this video since we feel it provides a great rural perspective on bicycling that is lost in our current dialog. Bicycling on the national level focuses primarily on the urban story, often forgetting that a lot of the country is rural. The problem with that is that if we can’t make the case for bicycling in rural America, we are disregarding and ignoring a lot of potential supporters. Sit back and enjoy!
A few months ago we took a little sojourn out to Eastern Oregon to capture some interesting bicycle tourism stories out there. We visited with Kim and his wife Anita, who use to own Mountain Works bike shop in La Grande, Oregon (their daughter and son-in-law run it now) and are now embarking on a new venture during their “retirement.” They are running one of the few pedal rail cars in the US!
What started out as a whim has become a pretty serious business for them and came about through some rather fortuitous circumstances. Unlike most rail in the US that is owned by a railroad company, the stretch of unused rail they are operating on is owned by the county. Through lots of meetings, conversations and perseverance they were able to get their pedal powered excursion machines up and running. One of the toughest obstacles was finding insurance, since there are virtually no other operations like it in the US. The insurance had lots of safety stipulations, so riders are required to wear a helmet and a seat belt.
Safety accoutrements aside, the rail riders are a blast! The current route goes from Joseph to Enterprise and back and takes about two hours depending on your pedaling speed. There are plans to offer a longer day route in the future. We crashed a large party that rented nearly all the cars for a family event. Everyone we spoke to were extremely excited about it and were all having a great time. The Joseph Branch Rail Riders is seasonal and doesn’t operate during the winter, but start planning your Spring and Summer trips now!
Bicycle tours, bike touring, bicycle tourism….the terms all sound similar but they mean different things. To clear up some terminology, we made a little video that gives a definition of bicycle tourism and what sort of behaviors it captures. Sit back and enjoy!
We’ve only just begun to catch up on rest from our shoot in El Paso, TX and Las Cruces and we’re already planning the next month of travel! In a few weeks we are going on a speaking tour of sorts, presenting about bike tourism at various conferences. We’ll be in Iowa, Ontario and San Diego spreading what we’ve learned about bicycles as economic development. Bicycle tourism manifests itself in many forms and one of the most visible ways is the multi day supported bike tour. Perhaps the mother of all event rides is RAGBRAI which is the country’s largest multi day event ride. Bicycling tourism is a big deal in Iowa and generates $365 million dollars a year in economic impact anually.
A few years ago we had the opportunity to film Cycle Oregon, a RAGBRAI inspired tour in Oregon. Cycle Oregon from its very beginning was conceived as a way to bring people from urban areas to ride in the rural areas that were getting hit hard by the decline of the timber industry. The first Cycle Oregon is riddled with stories of riders going hungry from not enough food and small towns overwhelmed and surprised by a thousand lycra clad visitors. 25 years later, Cycle Oregon has matured into a well oiled machine both logistically and philanthropically. Not only does Cycle Oregon create a huge economic impact during the event, but it also offers grants to host communities. Perhaps more interestingly, many riders that have a good experience in a town during Cycle Oregon will often return to visit again.
We made a half hour documentary on Cycle Oregon’s 25th anniversary ride a few years ago. Here is an edit that gets to the spirit of the ride and the possibilities of bikes as economic development.
Back in 2008, when we were first getting into bike touring, I ordered Laura a pair of Ortlieb Bike-packers for her birthday. They were going to take a few days to arrive and, not wanting to be empty-handed on the special day, I printed out a photo of two small panniers and put them in an envelope. The Ortliebs eventually showed up and we did several short tours around California. Little did we know that the next year we would end up selling or giving away most of what we owned to travel by bike for three years. We’ve used Ortliebs for a long time and, while we’ve also used bags from different makers and manufacturers, they will always have a special place in our heart.
When we got an email from a long time acquaintance at OrtliebUSA about the possibility to shoot images for their next catalog, we leaped at the chance. This was a brand that we had used and loved for many years and now we had the chance to help with their new marketing. Heck yeah! The funny thing is that, when we were on the road traveling, I had mused about how it would be a “dream gig” to shoot for Ortlieb.
Sometimes you get what you ask for, it just takes a couple of years. And in hindsight, I’m glad it did take a couple of years to come together. It took the knowledge of shooting and logistics that we’ve learned over the last few years to pull it all together. If it weren’t for our experience with filming the Oregon Scenic Bikeways and learning how to scout locations, plan shoot days, work with talent, and make the impromptu creative decisions that brings some magic to an image, we probably never would have been able to pull it off.
The weeks leading up to the shoot, we rode bikes all over Portland looking for places we could stage vignettes; we spent three days on the coast looking for JUST the right spot where we could shoot, capture the rocky coast AND be away from traffic; and I did test after test of different angles to figure out how best to shoot the bags. In all the pre-production, we even dug out Laura’s blue panniers to better visualize. Of course, they’ve seen better days. The color has faded, a few of the buckles have snapped, but to their credit, they are still waterproof and work just fine.
When the first of seven days of shooting came around, I was nervous. Two people from Germany had flown into town to art direct and guide the shoot. We had discussed the new look they were trying to achieve, looked at samples their graphic designer sent, and talked about what they liked and what they didn’t like. When the talent and U-Haul full of product and bikes showed up the first morning, it was more or less full-tilt from the second we opened the cargo door to when we shut it at 8pm that evening.
The amount of product we had to shoot (from bike bags to hiking backpacks to kayak gear) was overwhelming to think about all at once. The most I could do was concentrate on the products at the moment. We did shots with motion blur, shots that were perfectly crisp, that showed details, that told a story, etc. I shot wide, then medium, then close-up. I was juggling two Nikons and four lenses, carefully pacing the amount of memory cards we had. There were some shots that we tried over and over to get and some that we got on the first try. Some vignettes were pre-planned, some we discovered along the course of the day. The whole week, there was a constant tension of following the schedule but also being able to try something on a whim. It was chaotic, stressful, challenging, and fun, all at once.
Throughout the whirlwind, we found a renewed respect and appreciation for Ortlieb as a company. Living in the Pacific Northwest, it’s easy to think of them as an enormous corporation, since their products are simply everywhere. But we learned that they are actually a relatively small company, all based in one location, where they design, build, and distribute their products. When they first started, no one was making waterproof panniers like they wanted, so they made their own machines! We learned that it wasn’t uncommon for people to work 15 or 20 years (or more) with the company. We also learned why their products can cost so much – they want to keep everything German-made and pay their employees a living wage. And we learned that, every year at Christmas, they buy cookies from a bakery in the town where they’re based, and ship them to their distributors as a sign of thanks.
By the end of the shoot, we had photographed in Portland, in the Columbia River Gorge, along the Deschutes River, and on the Oregon Coast. It was a whirlwind shoot and, when it was over, we were all pretty spent. We saw Rolf and Kristin off at the airport, on their way back to Germany (where they had to quickly prepare for Eurobike), and there were hugs all around. The shoot was hard, no doubt, but we were happy with the images we captured and are looking forward to seeing them in their marketing materials in the next year. For me, it was a “dream gig” that eventually came true. But perhaps more interesting was meeting the people behind the company and learning the human side of those little paper panniers I had cut out years ago.
We are headed to El Paso, TX and Las Cruces, NM from October 1st to 6th to do filming about bicycling in the area. We want to know what the best local ride is and why you like riding there. If you’re a cyclist in either town (or points in between) and would like to be part of the project send us an email! We are looking for all types of cyclists to be part of the video. We’ll need some people to do a short 10 minute interview about their favorite ride and some b-roll riding and hanging out around town.
If you’re interested and love cycling in the area and want to help us out, contact us today!
Over the last two years, we’ve been exploring how bicycling can help small towns. It was a simple idea that we saw manifested in myriad ways when we were on the road. Fortunately, we’ve been involved in some really amazing projects that are institutionalizing the idea, like Oregon’s Scenic Bikeways and statewide Bike Friendly Business program. All of these projects have the goal to boost, revitalize, and enrich the rural communities in Oregon by bringing people through on bicycle. We’ve had the opportunity to work with some of Oregon’s great rural bike advocates to see how bike tourism manifests itself in reality.
Recently, we had a gap between some projects, so we decided to hit the road on a bike tourism study tour, and interview some rural bike advocates to hear about their challenges, successes, and lessons learned during this grand experiment. These were our biggest insights from the interviews:
#1 Bike Tourism is Outdoor Recreation.
Kim and Anita Metlin live in La Grande, OR and are the proponents of the Grande Tour Scenic Bikeway. When we asked them what they had learned over the last few years, Kim put it best when he said, “No one is going to drive out to the middle of nowhere to do a two-hour bike ride.” For an area to be a successful bike tourism draw, it has to offer a wide range of experiences – everything from road riding, mountain biking, gravel grinding, etc. But beyond just biking assets, an area has to also promote other related-but-non-cycling activities in tandem (camping, hiking, rafting, fishing, arts, beer, etc.). We often think of bicyclists in a vacuum, but bicyclists don’t ride bikes 100% of the time – they have other interests as well. People who ride bikes are active travelers and it makes perfect sense to market a region’s other outdoor recreation activities to them as well.
Kim and Anita’s recent venture is a pedal-powered rail car that runs on unused county-owned railroad. Currently, they operate during the summer months, Friday to Sunday, and offer three guided departure times. They built 10 rail riders and have a capacity to take groups as large as 20 people at one time. The ride takes you from Joseph to Enterprise (with a beer stop at Terminal Gravity for adult guests). What was initially meant to be a way to whimsically enjoy retirement has become quite the busy operation.
When we visited, they had all-but-one pedal rail car booked for a family reunion! We chatted with people from Seattle and Bend and Texas who made the trip out to try their wacky contraption. This brought to light something else about bike tourism – activities for all ages and abilities. They’ve had kids as young as four and adults in their 90s on the rail riders. It might be the case that only one or two in a party identify as cycling enthusiasts, but something like the pedal rail car allows other members of the party to enjoy the area as well.
#2 It’s about the Journey AND the Destination.
Bike tourism is unique in that the journey is an integral part of the experience. We’ve driven on roads and through towns in a car that we also biked through and the difference was startling. From behind a windshield, small towns are less memorable as they pass by in the blink of an eye. On a bike, you feel like you get a more intimate understanding of a place and notice all the little details. That said, there is something to be said about the importance of building and marketing a destination that is welcoming of cyclists, particularly in remote rural areas.
We interviewed Phil Carlson who launched Treo Bike Tours a few years ago as an offshoot of his successful bird hunting business. He was looking for a way to generate income when hunting wasn’t in season and he saw opportunity in bicycling. Phil’s property is down a four-mile gravel road from the ghost town of Hardman, Oregon. His lodge is an island unto itself which he is fashioning as a cycling destination. While he initially marketed the road riding opportunities, he discovered he was surrounded by another great asset – gravel roads. There are literally days worth of gravel (and pavement) riding to be done around his lodge. Phil’s bike tourism model is to create an all-inclusive bicycling destination. His lodge is outfitted with several cozy rooms, a common area with a pool table and fireplace, craft beers on tap (an IPA and a dark IPA when we were there), a hot tub, and even a pistol and rifle range. Not too far from the lodge is a saloon made for late nights of playing cards by candle light and drinking beer. When you book a tour, all meals, snacks, and ride support are included. For visitors flying into Portland (or Portland area residents), he offers direct pickup from the city (no need to drive!) in his fully outfitted shuttle bus and trailer. As soon as you get out to the country, you can start riding and enjoying some of Oregon’s great rural roads.
While Phil’s focus is on building his business as a destination, small towns and communities can employ similar techniques on a macro scale. Phil’s ranch maintains its rustic personality and character (there are stuffed birds and photographs of hunters on the wall), but he has also incorporated bicycling photos and cycling caps to help cyclists feel at home. Similarly, rural communities don’t have to re-invent themselves into mini-Portlands to entice cyclists, they just have to extend the same sense of welcome as they would to their other guests (though a craft beer or two on tap doesn’t hurt :). In the end, as Phil told us, his business is all about “customer service,” whether it is hunters or bicyclists.
#3 Catalog your bicycle assets. Then share them ONLINE.
On this road trip we ventured outside Oregon, into Washington, and worked our way from Walla Walla, through Ellensburg, and into Wenatchee, where we met with local bike advocates and a chamber representative over beers to talk about bike tourism. There was a lot of interest in the group about promoting Wenatchee as a cycling hotspot. We asked them why and they gave us a great list, from favorite area rides like the Fruit Loop, to local hill climbs, to great country roads that connect to interesting towns like Leavenworth, and the fact that it’s sunny there when it’s winter on the “wet side” of the state. We asked them where a visitor could find this information and they mentioned a few websites of local cycling clubs, but none of them were visitor-facing websites. You had to already know where to look or be a part of the local cycling scene. We suggested that they catalog all of the great riding opportunities and create a purpose-built visitor-facing website for cyclists. It also doesn’t hurt to post routes across several area websites – the more the merrier. We spoke about the pluses and minuses of paper maps. As bike travelers, we love paper maps. They never run out of batteries! BUT, the reality is that people now do most of their vacation planning online. Paper maps are also expensive to do well, and the map occupies a specific temporal/physical space. What are the chances that someone who is bike-curious will check in to the right accommodations with the right person on staff who will think to direct them to the map? In terms of ROI, and for the sake of getting things done quicker, online maps, routes, and trip suggestions spread over multiple sites will yield better results.
By the end of our bike tourism study tour we were both encouraged by what we saw, and we also learned more about the real challenges facing these rural bike advocates. In many ways, people who advocate for rural cycling are pioneers operating with little support from the larger nationwide bicycle advocacy organizations (who are primarily focused on cities). Despite this, they are innovating and coming up with unique solutions to making bicycling work in their small towns.
(If you are a bike advocacy organization or a destination marketing organization and would like to hear us speak about bike tourism, contact us here. We are available to give presentations about the potential of this emergent field of tourism.)
We shot this earlier in the summer but it has finally been released. Like many, we have been guilty of just passing through Madras on our way to Bend. After the filming, we’ve discovered that there are little gems of roads with spectacular views. Also not to mention some surprisingly good food in both Madras and the tiny town of Culver!