On a Roll: The Cycling Community is Alive and Well in the Magic City

Every time he braked for a group of cyclists, the pastor would pound on his steering wheel.

This is dumb--you're in the way! Why are you on the road?

He would hover behind the last rider in line, fuming until he could pass. Then he'd stomp on the gas and roar by the riders, inches from bare elbows. If they cringed, too bad. It served them right. They didn't belong on the road.

Then last March, Jason Williams began a journey to the other side of the windshield. There, somewhere along the edge of the asphalt, the youth pastor discovered, to his own surprise, that bikes do in fact belong. It just took a few miles on two thin wheels to figure out how, and why.
It had nothing to do with cycling.

It had everything to do with change.

"I was inspired by a young man who I mentored," says Williams, who founded Aspire, a mentoring program for kids. His inspiration, 11-year-old Xavier Taylor, was overweight and out of shape. "I wanted to tell him he needed to eat healthy, work out and take care of himself."

But the mirror showed a 36-year-old mentor who was also overweight and out of shape. Kids will learn more from us modeling than telling them what to do, the pastor told himself. So he started walking. Walking progressed into jogging. Then running. Then cycling, to give his knees a break.

A year later, Williams found himself fitter, healthier and 110 pounds lighter.

He had discovered a new community. He had met new friends on nearly every ride. He had rediscovered on the bike a childlike joy, and he chased it 75 miles a week. The wide-open view framed by handlebars was so different from the one through the windshield.

"You get a brand-new perspective on a bike," Williams says. "You take in a lot more things."

Williams shared what he learned with Xavier, who started eating a little differently and moving a little more. Last November, the pair learned to mountain bike. Xavier struggled up the hills. Williams encouraged him. And somewhere along the 2.4-mile trail, the pastor rediscovered the bike once again: this time as a tool for ministry, a vehicle for life's lessons.

A vehicle for change
Stories like this play out every day across Alabama. On the road and on the trail, on cruisers and hybrids, kids and adults are rediscovering something nearly lost for a generation. Their stories illustrate why bikes matter, even in a state where riding a bike is still miles away from mainstream.

Alabama is ranked No. 49 among bicycle-friendly states, with scarce infrastructure, dismal funding and few legal rights for cyclists. The state's drivers include kind and courteous people unaccustomed to seeing bike on the road, and who sometimes drive -- intentionally or not -- in ways that put them in danger. Which is why Alabama is the fourth-deadliest state for pedestrians and cyclists. And why we're ranked dead last in the nation for walking and biking to work. Nearly two dozen states require cars to give cyclists 3 feet when they pass, including Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. Alabama has yet to pass the 3-foot law.

You could look at these numbers and see hopelessness. But cyclists lean towards the sunny side of the street (blame the endorphins), and a lot of them see opportunity. Alabama is ranked No. 42 in inactivity and No. 46 for obesity, with 33 percent of the population considered overweight. And the bike is one of the most accessible, affordable and practical tools we have to change that.

"Biking is a sport that you can easily do into your 70s, and it is also a great family activity," says Doug Brown, a retired corporate insurance broker working to get more kids on bikes. "There are now several organizations that refurbish and recycle old bikes, and everyone should be able to afford one."

Despite considerable obstacles -- few protected paths, non-existent bike lanes and roads with little or no shoulder -- the local cycling community is thriving in spite of its challenges. The Birmingham Bicycle Club counts 230 members. More than 750 women have joined Magic City Cycle Chix, a nonprofit group that hosts women's rides and clinics. Dan "Dirtdog" Watson's weekly cycling dispatch has 1,000 email subscribers. You can join a group ride any day of the week, and in it you will meet the broad spectrum of people who make up this friendly community. They are doctors, mechanics, artists, students, scientists, teachers, pastors and more.

"It's a community of diverse people with diverse occupations," says Sonja Rieger, 61, an art professor at UAB. "You can start a ride with a person you've never met, and by the time you finish, you've made a new friend."

One of the most surprising advocates in the state is Bo Jackson. After hip surgery ended his professional career, Jackson discovered cycling as a low-impact way to stay in shape.

"It's a very social exercise," says Jackson. "I've been riding bicycles since I was 4 or 5 years old. I have really gotten into cycling in the past [few] years from the standpoint of physical fitness, because I don't run any more. It's another way to keep my legs and back strong."

When Jackson created an event to raise money for Alabama tornado relief, he could have centered it around football or baseball. Instead he chose cycling, one of the few sports at which he is not off-the-charts exceptional.

Bo Bikes Bama drew nearly 800 riders from 24 states and raised $700,000 in 2012 and 2013. It gave everyday athletes the chance to ride shoulder to shoulder with ESPN's Greatest Athlete of All Time, who struggles up hills just like the rest of us, joking breathlessly, "Bo and hills do not get along."

This is one of the signs across Alabama that the bike is emerging not only as a means of health and fitness, but also a mode of transportation, a social vehicle and a source of tourism and economic development. From scenic country roads to rails-to-trails paths to an expanding network of mountain-bike trails, the nation's second unfriendliest bike state (on paper, at least) is becoming a surprisingly popular place to pedal.

"I have ridden in 35 states, I don't find our state any less friendly than any other state," says Stan Palla, 58, executive director of AlaBike, an advocacy group. "I ride 5,000 miles a year, and I don't have that many issues with drivers. We are starting a new campaign that Alabama is bicycle friendly."

Trails to dollars
On any given Saturday, the dirt trails at Anniston's Coldwater Mountain are buzzing with bikers from several states. Some of them have driven a few hundred miles for a taste of the Alabama singletrack -- dirt trails just wide enough for a bike -- that's drawing national attention in publications like Bike magazine, DirtRag and Bicycling.com. A short pedal from downtown, Coldwater's 4,000 rolling acres were acquired by the Forever Wild land trust specifically to build a mountain-bike park. With 25 miles of purpose-built trails that ride like roller coasters of dirt -- and plans for 50 more -- it is a key piece of Anniston's blueprint to become "the Southeast's most bicycle-friendly community."

Between the topography of the Appalachian foothills and the mild winters of our Southern clime, Anniston has the makings of a four-season biking destination -- something even the Whistlers and Park Cities of the world can't claim. To get there, Anniston is investing in ways to make getting around by bike convenient and enjoyable: adding bike lanes, connecting Coldwater trails to downtown and completing the last stretch of the Chief Ladiga trail, a former railway converted into a flat, paved path. It links with Georgia's Silver Comet trail, which stretches all the way to Atlanta.

The potential payoff is multifold: enhanced lifestyle amenities for residents, a quality-of-life differentiator for companies looking to relocate, and an economic boost for local businesses. The city already reaps great benefits from its annual cycling events. The 100-mile Cheaha Challenge ride draws 500 to 600 participants, and the Sunny King Criterion race attracts downtown crowds as big as 7,000. Those visitors spend money at local restaurants, shops and hotels. That's a big deal to a town of 25,000.

"We compare it to a ski mountain -- downtown would be the ski village," says Mike Poe, a financial advisor who is a driving force in the city's bike events. "The demographic of mountain bikers is similar to skiers -- educated, affluent, like to travel. But you don't have the overhead of the lifts, personnel, having to groom the slopes. And it's year-round."

Coldwater is the latest blue-chip in Alabama's singletrack portfolio, which includes several state parks: Oak Mountain, Tannehill, Monte Sano, Ft. DeSoto, Guntersville and Chewacla. You'll also find great riding in Syacauga, Trussville and Tuscaloosa. This embarrassment of riches could be the making of a "trail of trails" that is the mountain-bike equivalent of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. "We are passionate about partnering with the biking community to create the next generation of state park customers and advocates," says Greg Lein, Alabama State Parks director.

One such partnership is to thank for the crown jewel of Alabama mountain biking. The world-class trails at Oak Mountain State Park are the result of a public-private partnership between Shelby County and the Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers, a nonprofit club devoted to building and maintaining trails. Together, BUMP and Shelby County have won more than $400,000 in trail-building grants over the past five years and built nearly 30 miles of trails of all flavors and levels, including a pump track and a downhill flow trail. As a result, Oak Mountain has joined Whistler and Moab on a short list of the world's best trails. It is one of 54 spots around the globe awarded "Epic Ride" status by the International Mountain Bike Association.

On weekends, Oak Mountain's South Trailhead is a sea of roof racks and bikes. During events, the park brims with athletes who come from as far as California to race on nationally renowned trails. The Xterra off-road triathlon pros call Oak Mountain "the best bike course on the circuit" and return every May for the Southeast Championships. On May 31 and June 1, the BUMP 'n' Grind mountain bike race will draw 500 competitors. Team Magic hosts three multi-sport events in the park throughout the summer, all favorites of triathletes from here and around the region.

"The beauty of those events is, people visit the hotels, the restaurants, get gas and sometimes come in a few days ahead of time to practice," says Shelby County events planner Chris Hershey. "I wouldn't be surprised if they brought in over $1 million collectively."

While hard numbers on the economic impact of cycling in Alabama are difficult to come by, other areas have research that shows the vast potential. One study calculated the economic impact of bike recreation and tourism in Wisconsin to be more than $924 million in 2006. Jackson Hole, Wyo., found that its trail system generated $18 million of economic activity in 2010.

Urban riding Every Tuesday at 6 p.m., a motley peloton of riders gathers in front of the Silvertron Café in Forest Park. It's the meet-up point for Le Tour de Ham, a 10-mile social cruise that invites riders of all backgrounds and abilities for a taste of city riding. This is one ride where you won't find a peloton, or pack, of skin-tight shorts and funny shoes. Street clothes are the norm, and any old bike will do (as long as you have a helmet).

"People who have not ridden in years actually get a bike to join our tour because they do not get intimidated like they do with all the other 'geared up' rides," says co-ride-leader Veronique "Vero" Vanblaere, 42. The artist and gallerista at Naked Art Gallery leads the ride with Palla of Alabike. "No Spandex allowed. Slowest rider sets the pace. No one is ever left behind," Vanblaere says.

The ride, which draws as many as 80 riders in the summertime, shows new riders how it is possible to get around by bike in a city without much bike infrastructure. It's a glimmer of encouragement, along with programs like CommuteSmart, which offers incentives (as much as $1 a ride) to use a bike as transportation.

"I ride my bike to work and back every day, saving over $35 per week in gas alone for the 14-mile commute," says Brian Toone, a computer science professor at Samford University and a 37-year-old father of two who rides 450 miles a week. "Yes, there are dangerous elements to riding with so much traffic in the Birmingham area, but most of the drivers I encounter are courteous."

For many would-be commuters, it all comes down to safety. And while the law gives cyclists the same rights and restrictions as cars, many riders would feel safer on protected bike paths physically separated from traffic.

That's the promise of the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, a network of interconnected bike and pedestrian paths that, after years of planning, is becoming a reality. Ryan Parker of the Freshwater Land Trust says there will be 29 miles of trails and bike lanes completed by the end of 2014, and within five years there should be 50 miles. The trail system emphasizes connectivity, linking parks and green spaces -- including Railroad Park and Red Mountain Park -- with communities across Birmingham.

This is a huge step in making the city bike-friendly, a change that will benefit people from all walks of life, neighborhoods and socioeconomic backgrounds. For someone who cannot afford a car, the bike can open up job opportunities farther than walking distance from home.

To that end, Bici Bicycle Cooperative is a non-profit community bike shop dedicated to providing affordable bikes, maintenance and education to everyone. Its Highland Park shop, open Monday and Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m., provides volunteer mechanics who help riders fix their bikes for a suggested donation of $5 an hour and accepts donations of used bikes and parts that they redistribute to the community. Bikes sell for $75, but purchasers must put in work with the mechanics to get their "new" bikes rideable. Redemptive Cycles, another community shop in downtown Birmingham, has an earn-a-bike program for those who can't afford to buy one.

"Each year we get busier and busier," says Bici Coop co-founder Anna Carrigan, "which I think is a great representation of how cycling is growing as an activity in Birmingham."

The future, on wheels
About two Saturdays a month, a van with 10- to 14-year-old kids pulls into a field at Oak Mountain. The kids spill out and run, hooting, to a fleet of mountain bikes laid out in the grass by their host group, Trips for Kids. A national non-profit with a 1-year-old Birmingham chapter, Trips for Kids partners with youth-development programs such as Boys & Girls Clubs and the YMCA to reward at-risk kids for good grades and behavior by taking them on a joy ride.

"Many of the children we serve rarely have the opportunity to go biking at a state park," says Todd Love, 51, director of public housing for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Alabama. "Many would probably never set foot on a bike if it were not for programs like Trips for Kids."

After being fitted with helmets and matched with a bike, the kids get a lesson in basic skills like braking and shifting by trained coaches. Then they embark on a short but transformative journey along some of the prettiest trails in the state.

Programs like this aim to revive the childhood experience of riding a bike, with all the freedom and joy it entails. Bikes may have gotten fancier in the last few decades, but the joy of the ride never changes.

"They always leave these events in awe," Love says. "It's like they can't believe this world (park, bikes, kind people) really exists. Inevitably the first question I get asked when we leave is, 'When can we come back?'"

Doug Brown, the executive director of the Birmingham chapter of Trips for Kids, hopes to expand the program to include a bike re-cyclery and earn-a-bike program so kids who fall in love with bikes have a way to move forward. He also hopes the program can feed the ranks of a new high school mountain-bike program launching soon in Alabama.

The National Interscholastic Cycle League announced in April that Alabama is the next official league, slated to launch a statewide high school mountain bike program in the spring of 2015. With an estimated 4,000 kids racing in 13 states, NICA unveiled a Tennessee league last spring and will launch a Georgia league this fall.

"We think of this as a youth development program," says Eddie Freyer, 42, director of the Alabama NICA league. "We're helping them
develop a strong mind, body and character through a sport they can enjoy their entire lives."

Life lessons
"Life is like riding a bicycle," Albert Einstein told his son in a letter. "To keep your balance, you have to keep moving."

The bike has wonderful lessons to teach.

They have nothing to do with cycling.

The boy named Xavier pedaled along in the back of the pack, behind kids who seemed to float up the hills like butterflies. Xavier struggled up every rise, feeling miserable and breathless and hot and unsure he could finish. His mentor, Pastor Williams, told him he believed he could. Xavier kept pedaling and kept breathing. He finished.

At the end of the trail, having sandwiches under the shady pines, the pastor and the boy talked about their journey. It was only 2.3 miles long. But it carried them much farther.

"This is just a metaphor for how life is gonna be," the pastor says. "There are times we want to give up and quit. But you finished the ride. You didn't think you could do it. How does that feel?"

Xavier smiled.

"I'm tired."

Join a club

Birmingham Bicycle Club

Magic City Cycle Chix

Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers

Get a bike

Cahaba Cycles
(Homewood, Vestavia, Pelham,

Bob's Bikes (Homewood)

Bike Link (Hoover)

Birmingham Bicycle Co. (Crestline Park)

Edgewood Cycles (Homewood)

Brick Alley Bikes (Hoover)

Bici Bicycle Cooperative (Southside)

Redemptive Cycles (Downtown)

Alabama cycling, by the numbers.

No. 49 Bicycle friendly states (League of American Bicyclists)
(Source: ASTHO and United Health Foundation)

No. 42 Inactivity; 27.2 percent
(Source: ASTHO and UHF)

No. 50 Biking and walking to work
(Alliance for Biking and Walking)

No. 47 Fatality rates for cyclists and pedestrians (AB&W)

Need to know

• Bicyclists are legally allowed on the road. Considered non-motorized vehicles, they have the same rights and obligations as cars.

• Cyclists have the right to ride two abreast.

• Giving a cyclist a 3-foot berth when passing is not yet law, but cyclists (and their families)
appreciate it.

Need to know

• Bikes have the same obligations as cars. Which means running a stop sign, or a red light, is break ing the law and can earn you a ticket.

• Alabama law requires cyclist riding at night or before dawn to have a red rear reflector visible from 500 feet when headlights shine upon it. A blinkie may not legally qualify unless it also has a reflector.

• Alabama is one of two states with a contributory negligence law. That means if you are 1 percent at fault, and that 1 percent contributes to a crash, the vehicle may not be legally responsible.

By Kim Cross via Birmingham Magazine