by Dwain Hebda
Americans may love their cars as a matter of principle but for a growing number of people, cycling is where it’s at for fun, competition and even making the daily commute.
“In the 30 years that I’ve ridden competitively, I’ve ridden all over the country competing and riding recreationally,” says Hunter East, former CEO of Pulaski Bank and Trust (sold to IberiaBank) and now partner with Forrest Park Partners. “Central Arkansas has to be one of the top three places in the country that I’ve ridden as far as the resources that are just right here in our backyard.
“We’ve got a system of trails and bridges that allow us to ride in a safe, cycling-friendly environment without traffic, right in the middle of the city. That is unusual.”
East, 56, is a poster child for the sport; if it has two wheels and requires a helmet, he’s pedaled it everywhere and fast. A five-time national champion on the road and one of the founders of CARVE, a local cycling group, he’s also ridden mountain bike trails all over The Natural State.
“I had always ridden mountain bikes recreationally. Then, I got into the sport of triathlon for a couple of years and the bike was my best event out of the three,” he says. “Did a [cycling road] race and was hooked ever since.”
But as East will tell you, cycling is about more than what he does on the weekends; the activity also helps him battle the stress of corporate life and connect with people despite the heavy demands of his career.
“There’s just absolutely no question that daily physical exercise is a stress reliever,” he says. “For those who are subjected to the regular everyday stresses of corporate life, it’s very important that you have that outlet. For a lot of people, cycling has represented that.
“Other forms of physical exercise, obviously, can accomplish that, but what I like about cycling is, it’s a very social sport. You can ride along and be talking to a group of like-minded individuals. It’s much more social than, say, swimming or even running. Runners generally speaking are running by themselves or maybe with one other person. It’s difficult to converse, more difficult at least than cycling.”
Cycling has steadily risen in popularity in countries worldwide but none of us, statistics show, can carry Denmark’s spandex onesie. A whopping 90 percent of Danes own a bike, 50 percent more than own a car, reports Bikemunk.com. Residents of Copenhagen alone ride two miles every day per person and collectively log enough miles to circle the globe 35 times daily. In Germany, 30 percent of the country cycles for a third of all trips on average, the site reports.
Here in the states, bicycle commuting is also on the rise, reports People Powered Movement, an organization of the Biking and Walking Alliance. Between 2000 and 2016, bicycle commuters grew 51 percent led by Davis, Calif., with 17 percent of residents biking to work or school. Nearby Berkeley and Boulder, Colorado, at around 10 percent each, tie for second.
Given the political and social attitudes of such places, the growth in cycling is probably no surprise. But when you consider car-crazy Detroit – the Motor City itself – has seen the number of cyclists increase 1,500 percent in five years, you know something’s up. Other traditional gas-guzzling enclaves St. Louis; Omaha; Wichita, Kansas, and Arlington, Texas, all posted triple-digit increases over that same period, too.
Sam Williamson, owner of The Community Bicyclist Bike Shop, bikes to work every day, weather permitting. He says topography is one of Little Rock’s largest barriers to the growth of commuter cycling, an activity that ranges from sparse to robust, depending on the neighborhood.
“Unfortunately, [commuters] are still a very small segment of the whole deal,” he says. “Little Rock, like so many American cities, is quite spread out. Look at places in the world where the bicycle is primarily used for transportation, they don’t have the sprawl. The cities are much more compact and concentrated. And, we’re also a hilly city; let’s face it, riding up and down hills, particularly up, is not easy for the average person.”
“Of course, downtown doesn’t have that problem. Everything that I said about the sprawl and the hills, if you’re self-contained downtown, none of that applies. You can get around on a bike very well downtown and every day that I ride a bike, I’ll almost always end up down there.”
Williamson, 57, lives about a mile from his shop and relies on a bike most days to get to work. He also goes out of his way to get home thereby logging some additional miles to end the workday.
“I average four out of five days that I’ll ride my bike to work,” he says. “The name of my business is The Community Bicyclist and the core of that is using the bicycle for transportation, utility, etc. So, it’s no coincidence that, when I opened this shop 12 years ago, I located it just a mile and a quarter from my house.
“I’m kind of famous for this long-way commute that I do on the way home at night. I go from the shop here in Tanglewood down through Hillcrest to downtown, [to the] Clinton Bridge, cross over to the north side of the River Trail and back to the Big Dam Bridge on the west end. Then crossover and come up over Overlook to drop down to my house. Which is like, 19 miles to get a mile and quarter.
“So, I am a bike commuter, but I wouldn’t be honest if I said I wasn’t combining the commute with the recreational aspect too.”
Little Rock is just one of the cities that is putting Arkansas firmly on the map for cyclists with Hot Springs and cities throughout Northwest Arkansas doing their part as well, says Greg Eberdt, executive director of Arkansas Senior Olympics and a longtime cycling enthusiast and competitor.
“Our numbers have increased, and we’ve also opened up some new categories,” he says of his organization. “That’s put on a whole new spin, having additional cyclists participate. It’s not only road bikers, its recumbents. We’re looking to add mountain biking events to that, too. It’s a great thing.”
Eberdt, 53, says the growth of cycling isn’t limited to one particular demographic and that improved access to riding areas is increasing numbers across the board. Today, cyclists in Arkansas enjoy their pastime over a much wider area and under much safer conditions than ever before.
“I think the popularity of cycling has definitely increased over the years,” he says. “I’m from here and I’ve been riding long before the Big Dam Bridge and the River Trail were built. Back then, a group of us would go down to Rebsamen Park Road and that was about the only place we could ride safely, so we’d just ride back and forth.
“Now, the addition of the Two Rivers Bridge and Big Dam Bridge has certainly opened up many channels for us to ride safely. So, it’s tenfold the number of people and it’s always increasing, not only the younger people but for people riding at an older age.”