Our first full day in Alabama, we borrowed some bikes and joined a small group of folks on a 20-mile loop through the farmland outside of Montgomery. The overcast sky threatened rain and thunderstorms at any minute, and we passed old, crumbling farmsteads and small pre-Civil War cemeteries.
The traffic was nonexistent. I asked Jeff if it was because it was Sunday or if that was the normal traffic volume – and he smiled and said it’s normal to not see any cars out there. So far, so good.
We were in Alabama to speak at the first statewide bicycle summit, and to meet with a few communities interested in bicycle tourism. We were excited (after all, the South is the frontier for bike advocacy), but we truly had no idea what to expect from our week-long visit. Would it be a living stereotype? Would there be more to eat than fried chicken? Was it a joke to think that anyone might ride a bicycle there?
On our second day in Alabama, we drove to Selma. It turned out that we happened to be there on the same week as the voter rights march from Selma to Montgomery, 50 years ago. A large group was walking the route in honor of that historic event, and the visitor’s center was buzzing with activity. For me, it was surprising and humbling to find ourselves in the middle of something so significant.
In Selma, the blocks of empty downtown buildings met us with sadness and resignation. The tall brick buildings date back to the early 1800s, and you can almost envision what it must have been like when there was enough commerce to support them all.
The Montgomery Bicycle Club put on a ride to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the march. They expected only a handful of people – and had to cut off registration when it reached 350. They estimate an economic impact of $300,000. But they had to bus participants to the beginning in Selma, because there’s no lodging.
Could this really be a bicycle tourism destination? The history and culture are incredibly strong draws, but is that enough?
At Redemptive Cycles in Birmingham, a large and diverse group turned out for pizza and beer and talk about cycling. Here, there is a burgeoning bike culture, with tall bike jousting and an independent coffee roaster and a new bike share system which is slated to open in the fall.
Several hours to the South, we visited the town of Fairhope, along the Mobile Bay. Fairhope is a small community, literally built around utopian ideals. The downtown is exceedingly walkable, they’re starting to stripe bike lanes, and the whole town shows up along the beach each evening to watch the sun sink into the bay. It couldn’t have been more different from Selma.
In Fairhope, we were treated to a round-town bicycle tour so we could see the “castle” built by a local artist and a segment of the Eastern Shore Trail. We ate gumbo and jambalaya and far too many beignets.
And we learned about a new mountain bike park in the nearby community of Foley. One day, someone noticed that people were biking on the hiking trails through a nature area. Rather than kick them out, they worked with the local bike shop to design purpose-built mountain biking trails.
Back in Montgomery, there was an interview on Alabama Live, followed by a short bike ride with staff from the Mayor’s office and a pre-Summit happy hour. The manager at the restaurant suggested the First White House of the Confederacy, just around the corner, as the one thing we should see before leaving town.
Alabama is a surprisingly beautiful state, and a bit of a conundrum. Rolling hills in the North, the Gulf and Mobile Bay in the South. Trees and farms and the most biologically diverse waterways in the US. And, yet, outdoor recreation hasn’t really caught on.
The Summit, which initially drew us to Alabama, was the finale of our trip. After five days spent in various parts of the state, talking with folks about bikes and tourism, reading visitor brochures and trying to grasp the various experiences on offer, we joined 30 or so folks to talk about bicycling in Alabama. From DOT to tourism to Forest Service to advocates across the state, the most striking thing about the Summit was that it brought together people who had never before been in the same room. Maybe that’s what all Summits are about, but it felt remarkable in a place like Alabama, which seems like one of the last places to consider adopting cycling as a part of its culture.
Our week was spent digging in and questioning the possibility of cycling in Alabama. In many ways, bike tourism is already happening. There are pockets of opportunity for cycling and there are energetic, enthusiastic people who are working for safer, more comfortable riding experiences. And, yet, there’s no denying the incredible uphill battle that advocates are facing. What happens next is anyone’s guess. But we’ll definitely be watching, with our fingers crossed.
We need your help Iowa readers! We visited Iowa last year and got a small sampling of some of the riding possibilities in the state. RAGBRAI is synonymous with bicycling in Iowa, but we want to dig a little deeper and share what people are missing. What surprised us were the sheer number of rail-trails, as well the small businesses and bars that were targeting bicyclists. We’ll be returning in early June to highlight some of the best riding in the state and need your help finding out what we should ride.
Grinding some gravel outside Grinnell with Craig from Bikes to You. Will be glad to visit in the summer!
So if you’re from Iowa or have ridden in Iowa, what is your favorite ride? It can be anything from an epicurean multi-day tour on a rail trail; a scenic day ride on some of Iowa’s gravel roads; or some sort of ride that challenges the expectations people have about Iowa (what’s the hilliest ride in Iowa?). We’re also looking for rides that pass by some great food and beer of course : ) We’re completely open to suggestions. Leave a comment or email us!
Loved discovering lots of bike friendly businesses in Iowa.
We’re thrilled to announce that we’ll be presenting about bike tourism at this year’s Alabama Statewide Bicycle Summit. At first blush, Alabama might not seem like an obvious bike tourism destination – and that’s exciting for us, because bike tourism brings new people to the bicycling conversation.
We’re also excited because we have the opportunity to visit a few parts of the state before the Summit. We’ve never been to Alabama, so we’re looking forward to exploring a bit, as well as meeting with community leaders and bike advocates, and seeing what bike tourism can look like in Alabama.
If you’re local and want to join in the fun, we’d love to meet up! There are some events already planned or in the works, and hopefully there will be impromptu meet-ups along the way as well.
We’ll be in the following places on the following dates:
– Birmingham: Monday 3/23
– Fairhope: Tuesday 3/24 & Wednesday 3/25
– Montgomery: Thursday 3/26 & Friday 3/27 (the Summit is Friday)
If there’s anything we should see and do (or eat), we’re all ears!
We’re thrilled to start the pre-production for another Scenic Bikeway video shoot with Travel Oregon. In June, we’ll be filming the Cascading Rivers Scenic Bikeway, and we’re on the hunt for potential talent. If you’re local and interested, check out the details below and contact us for the full call-out.
Who: A couple + a dog (preferably a large breed, like a lab). Talent must provide their own bicycles and camping gear. Ideally, talent will provide their own trailer to carry their own dog, so that the dog is familiar with being on a bike.
When: 2 full days in mid-to-late June, to be scheduled with talent.
In case you’re not familiar with the series, check out the Madras Mountain View Scenic Bikeway video below…
Bend, OR is generally considered Central Oregon’s bicycle capital. It has a great cycling culture, plethora of bike shops, and easy access to both mountain bike trails and great road rides. However, this past weekend we explored a town not too far away from Bend that we feel has the bones to be the next adventure bike capital of Central Oregon – Prineville.
Prineville is already on the map, so to speak, for bicycling. It is directly on both the Adventure Cycling TransAM route as well as the Oregon Outback. It has a great local brewery, Solstice Brewing Company, and most recently a local bicycle shop again, The Good Bike Co. Several community members are aware of the potential of bicycle tourism in Prineville, as seen by a recent Ford Foundation leadership class choosing bike racks as their signature project. In Prineville, all the ingredients are finally coming together.
Riding the North Star
We’ve spent a little time in Prineville, but haven’t really delved deep into the cycling in the area until this weekend. We decided to ride one of the RideWithGPS Ambassador Routes in the area called the North Star that was mapped out by James at The Good Bike Co. It is a 45-mile loop starting and ending in downtown Prineville, and traversing fantastic country roads and mixed terrain in the local Ochoco Mountains. We were joined by Laura’s brother and sister-in-law, who are Bend residents and also curious about the riding possibilities out of Prineville.
We started at around 11am from Good Bike Co and rolled North on Main St, which eventually becomes McKay Rd (pronounced “mc-KAI” by the locals). Main St has an ample bike lane out of town, which we appreciated. After passing some businesses and residential areas, the land opens up considerably. You find yourself surrounded on either side by ranches and farms. By mile 5, you are on a gentle country road that looks as pastoral as anything you’ll ever see. The traffic was extremely light and the few cars that passed went out of their way to pass safely.
The fun starts at around mile 13 when you are on NF-33 and the pavement turns into dirt. The road surface on the ascent was pretty hard-packed and surprisingly smooth. Laura rode 28mm Panaracer Gravel Kings which have a fairly fine file tread pattern and didn’t have a problem. The only tricky part was near the summit where the road was wet from melting snow. It made for a tacky surface. If we had wetter conditions, it wouldn’t have been as pleasant, since we no doubt would have been slogging through a lot of mud. The climb was pleasantly shaded and ran alongside McKay Creek that was flowing with water. James told us that it is seasonal and generally dries up in the Summer, so its not a reliable source of water later in the year. You’ll also notice quite a number of primitive camping areas along the road (mental note for future bike tours in the area).
The descent was fun and fast. It is on the downhill that you finally get a few views of the surrounding mountains, so be sure to stop and take it in. Just before we hit pavement again we passed Wildcat campground, an established Forest Service campground with a vault toilet and supposedly drinking water (as per the Forest Service website), although we didn’t confirm it. As you make your way back to civilization, you’ll pass an impressive monolith of rock known as Steins Pillar that juts out above the treeline like a prehistoric skyscraper.
At about mile 31, you’re back on a paved country road that gently descends towards HWY 26. Once you hit the highway, it is a straight shot back into town. There is generally a pretty good shoulder the whole way. If it’s hot or if you are running low on drinking water, a stop at the reservoir is in order.
This was one of our first longer rides in the greater Prineville area and we were pretty impressed with how quickly you could get out into the wilderness on your bike. While Prineville isn’t the first bikey town that leaps into your head when you think of Central Oregon, we did see a handful of other cyclists on the road (we even spotted a group wearing some jerseys from a Bend bike shop). This route is great for beginner to intermediate riders. The elevation is gained pretty gradually except for a few stretches of 7-8% near the top. Once you are pass the summit, the route is generally trending downhill, giving your legs a rest. It’s the perfect length for a day ride in the area if you are passing through town.
The Good Bike Co.
While in Prineville, we got a chance to talk with James and Natalie, the owners of the The Good Bike Co. The shop is centrally located and the building used to be an old car service station. Because of this, there is a huge outdoor awning which provides shade for the outdoor seating. The Good Bike Co. is a next-wave bike shop, serving beer and coffee, in an unlikely place. They have a great outdoor patio where James envisions many a cross-country bike tourist or day rider will find themselves after a long ride.
Although the shop isn’t even a year old, James is finding himself busier than he thought he would be. Since he has opened, locals have been bringing their bikes to be repaired in droves (the unseasonably nice weather has jump-started the riding season). While he is focusing primarily on repairs and service, he has also found himself selling a lot of hard tail mountain bikes to local residents. The local mountain bike advocacy group, COTA, has been hard at work creating a new 3-mile mountain bike trail that you can easily access from town. Since this resource is so close to downtown and doesn’t require a long drive to get to, a lot of Prineville residents have either been dusting off their old mountain bikes or buying new ones.
James hopes to cater to touring cyclists on the TransAm as well as the growing adventure bike segment. He is carrying some pretty interesting products, from Bartender bags from Randy Jo to frame bags from Revelate. Out front, he has a few fat bikes and even a Surly Straggler for rent. He and Natalie are also looking to put on a 100-mile gravel race later in the year!
Beyond just operating the bike shop, James and Natalie are also looking at the bigger picture and the potential of bicycle tourism in Prineville. James actively attends the local chamber meetings, is part of a proponent group for a potential Scenic Bikeway, as well as working with other businesses to figure out ways to combine agritourism and bicycle tourism in the area.
Is Pedaling in Prineville’s Future?
We’ve always had a soft spot for Prineville. We had a great welcoming experience as bike tourists there when we were on the TransAm 3 years ago. Since then, we’ve passed through a few times and have always thought that there is great potential for the town to capitalize on bicycling. It seems as if, with the addition of a new bike shop and leadership excited about bicycling, this might be the time for Prineville to create a strong cycling identity and give that other bike/beer Central Oregon town a run for its money.