Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bicycles pedal culture change -

By Dan Casey
The Roanoke Times
Sunday, April 26, 2009

It wasn't that long ago in the humble Roanoke Valley that bicyclists fell into two categories: spandex-clad weirdos who were Not To Be Taken Seriously, or the homeless, who were mostly ignored.

Angry, car-addicted jerks used to write damning letters to the editor of this newspaper about how they'd like to shoot cyclists out on Bradshaw Road in Roanoke County, and all manner of other nasty things.

Lately that attitude has changed in a profound way. Suddenly, bicycling is hip and cool and Roanoke is developing a much more diverse bike culture. (Actually, it's a collection of many different subcultures).

The evidence for such a conclusion is everywhere:

Take a look at the packed calendar of activities in the valley being planned for Bike Month in May. There are cycling/art events, a Clean Commute Day, a Spanish-language cycling clinic, workshops for business people interested in attaining the designation "Bicycle Friendly Business," and discounts at select restaurants for people who show up on bikes. (And more: you can find the full list of events at

The city has a new bike boutique shop, Keirin Culture, which moved from Richmond to Southwest Roanoke's blighted West End neighborhood last fall. Owner Stratton Delany sells his own brand of designed-in-Roanoke imported bikes and wheels. He also sponsors pro and college bicycle racing teams.

Business is booming at more established valley bike shops. "There's no recession in the bike industry," said Scott Leweke, who has owned and operated Cardinal Bicycle on Orange Avenue since 1977. Right now Leweke has a two- to three-week backlog of bike repairs. Saleswise, 2008 was his best year ever, and the first quarter 2009 beat out the same period in 2008, he said.

Zany librarian-cyclist River Laker, aka "The Carless Brit," has captured the imagination of Roanokers young and old with his six-month vow to forsake the stinky automobile. Laker hit the three-month mark April 14, and scores of people squeezed into the downtown library for a party to celebrate with him.

Visit the Roanoke River Greenway any nice weekend, or warm evening. You will marvel at the numbers of older folks, younger people and all ages in between who are tooling alongside the river on their bikes with smiles on their faces and bits of perspiration on their brows.

The list above merely scratches the surface. I could go on and on about people to credit and bike places and happenings, but there simply isn't enough room in this newspaper. However, you get the picture.

While bicycle fiends like me take great satisfaction in this stuff, the growth of a larger bike culture may be a signal of bigger and better things that transcend two humble wheels.

Cities known as strong bicycling communities have a bunch of things in common. First, they seem to be places on the rise. Boulder, Colo.; Portland, Ore.; and Davis, Calif., are merely three.

Visit those towns as I have and you'll feel a youthful energy, or buzz. The arts are alive, something you can already see here. Sidewalks bustle and streets appear cleaner.

Upscale coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques are common, and empty downtown storefronts are rare. These places become destinations rather than mere stopovers. And then some of the visitors decide they like it so much they want to move there.

As much as I'd like to believe it, bicycles can't be the cause of all that. But even if they're only a symptom of greater forces at play, I see it happening here -- and I'm not alone.

"What we may be seeing is a snowballing," said Jeremy Holmes, transportation alternatives coordinator for the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission.

Last year, Holmes worked on the Bike Month committee. It was composed of nine people from three organizations: the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club, BikeWalk Virginia and the regional commission.

"Now we've got twice as many people creating or leading events, from other types of organizations," he said. There is an artists group, the folks from the city library who support "The Carless Brit," some downtown restaurateurs and others.

Meanwhile, the city of Roanoke is seeking the prestigious "Bicycle Friendly City" designation from the League of American Bicyclists. In Virginia, only Alexandria and Charlottesville can claim that now.

One of this year's first "Bike Month" events is 10 a.m. Saturday in Wasena Park. Mayor David Bowers will lead a two-and-a-half-mile bike ride to Elmwood Park for the Mayor's Bike Ride. Riders will roll along the Roanoke River and Mill Mountain greenways.

All ages, speeds and sizes are welcome. Bring your own bike.

Be there, and observe Roanoke's emerging "bike culture" for yourself.

Dan Casey's column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.