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Monday, August 9, 2010

Reflections from Iowa

When you ride your bicycle for 7 days and 450 miles, you end up with lots of time to reflect on walking and bicycling. I just returned from a vacation to ride RAGBRAI, which is essentially a bike ride across the state of Iowa. This is no “normal” seven day ride. More than ten thousand people ride, riders from across the country and around the world, all ages, men, women, economic brackets. And when you get to the top of a hill, you can look back and all you see is a solid river of bicycles. The experience inspires me to make several comparisons between the states of Tennessee, Iowa and other states.

This guy rode 450 miles.
The Iowa ride shows that bicyclists come in every size, shape, age and color. Bicyclists riding road bikes, mountain bikes, Penny Farthings, unicycles, antique bikes with wooden wheels. Some people I saw created the initial thought – can they really be riding for the entire week on that bike? Yes, they can. I believe that too many Tennesseans automatically decide that they can't walk or bicycle that far for a variety of reasons. I'm too old. I'm too fat. Well, the oldest Iowa rider was over 80. Did he decide one day he was going to ride, jump on his bicycle, and take off across Iowa? No. But he did have to make the decision to try.

Iowa road conditions are terrible. The freeze thaw cycles create horrible cracks that run perpendicular to the road and in the same direction of travel. The first is quite uncomfortable and the later is extremely dangerous. Many Tennessee roads have hard rideable shoulders, while most Iowa shoulders that I witnessed were loose gravel. Tennessee was ranked 3rd in the country for the quality of our roads. Most cycling hazards are either gravel or debris in the roads - not dangerous cracks. To support the comparison, riding in Little Rock, Arkansas and feedback from friends in other parts of the country reveal similar crummy roads.

Tennessee has mild weather. Do you think Iowans train for that ride in the winter?  Probably not.  Only a few months a year do we have weather that's too hot or too cold for the casual riders.   To reinforce that weather has nothing to do with bicycle friendly, Bicycling Magazine ranked Minneapolis, MN #1 this year.  We have long shoulder seasons for amazing bicycling. But would a cross-state ride in Tennessee draw 10,000 riders? Probably not, at least not right now.

Iowans have miles and miles of corn and soybeans for scenery.  Almost all the roads intersect at right angles. The wind blows unobstructed across the flat terrain so in one direction there's a good chance you'll have strong wind in your face.  Tennessee has amazing scenery and curvy roads. Our rolling hills, variety of trees, rivers, rocks and terrain make for beautiful bicycling.  As the seasons rotate, we get a changing landscape as well.  I give the advantage again to Tennessee.

So, why is Tennessee ranked 49th by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, and 46th by the League of American Bicyclists up until this year?  Why did we tie Alabama for 2nd place in obesity?  We have wonderful assets and weather that Tennesseans should be out enjoying.  We don't have many good excuses.

Dust off that old bike.  Take that walk to the store.  In the process, meet those neighbors you haven't met yet. You're not too old.  You're not too fat.  Your bike isn't too old.  Start slow and you'll find much joy in making that step towards an active lifestyle that includes walking and biking.

Pat Clements

1 comment:

  1. Pat,
    Having ridden in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, every Southestern State, England and Scotland I find Tennessee to have the best overall conditions for cycle touring. Getting in and out of our cities can be a problem but even that is being addressed.
    We have not had a cycling cultue. Several years ago I by chance rode with a group of cyclists who were forming the Harpeth Bike Club. During introductions I was struck by the fact that I was the only native Southerner in the group of about ten riders.

    On the plus side, we have a clean slate with which to work.