Before Columbus had sidewalks, steel or even electricity, it had bicycles.
The bicycle’s history in Columbus dates back to 1867, just one year after the first bicycle patent was filed when local blacksmith R.M. Jackson made bicycles with wooden wheels, iron spokes, and tires made of rope, according to Michael Whitworth, Columbike.com founder and administrator.
Using old newspapers and phone directories, Whitworth has unearthed hidden facets of Columbus’ cycling history.
The early bikes were expensive and dangerous, Whitworth said. The first bicycle clubs started in 1885, and were male-dominated as women would not risk riding the Penny Farthing bikes, which featured a giant front wheel and much smaller rear wheel.
The safety bicycle was introduced in 1888, making biking itself easier and liberating Columbus women from their homes, allowing them to visit friends and hunt for pawpaws and persimmons. Soon Columbus residents were biking all the way to Louisville and Chicago.
“It caused a change in how people felt about life in Columbus,” Whitworth said.
Ultimately, the automobile replaced the demand for bicycles. But Columbus, along with the rest of the country, experienced the second bike boom that started in the 1960s.
These days, biking has many facets, including BMX, urban cycling, recreational cycling, touring and racing.
With a flat city terrain, the easy-to-navigate People Trails and easy accessibility to dramatically different landscapes, Columbus seems ideal for cycling.
“Columbus can be a perfect cycling community,” said Loran Bohall, one of the Bicycle Co-op founders.
Roughly seven years ago, after volunteering in the Bloomington Bike Project, Bohall, along with Baylee Pruitt and Justin Meier, brought an idea to Columbus. Together they opened the Columbus Bicycle Co-op, a non-profit community bike garage that now operates out of the United Way building’s basement. If Columbus’ bicycle community were a wheel, the Co-op would be the hub.
Bohall has watched the Columbus biking culture overcome negative perceptions and stigmas to become a flourishing community that’s supported by initiatives such as Reach Healthy Communities.
Working with other players, including Parks and Recreation and the Parks Foundation — which are responsible for the People Trails — the schools of Columbus and the Bicycle Co-op, Reach works to remove barriers to active transportation, including biking, said Beth Morris of the Healthy Communities Initiative.
“We want a community where it’s feasible for people to use their bike to go to the library or grocery store or visit friends or get to work — and not be quite so car-centric,” Morris said.
In an effort to remove language barriers, Bicycle Co-op volunteer Miguel Aranda started Latino Nights every other Tuesday at the Co-op. During Latino Nights, Spanish-speaking Co-op customers can come in, participate in the Earn-A-Bike program and repair their existing bikes.
“There’s people that will ride a bike, no matter what,” Aranda said. “And there’s people that you won’t make ride a bike, no matter what. My vision is to get some kids interested so that, as they get older, they will think of bikes rather than cars.”
One day in April, as she pedaled her bike down 22nd Street, Marissa Pherson saw the first male goldfinch of the season fly in front of her.
Pherson rides her bike to work and almost everywhere in between. Having moved from Minnesota in 2010, Pherson has been immersed in the biking community in Columbus.
She works at the Bicycle Station, serves as treasurer of the Bicycle Co-op’s board, and organizes the The Columbus Women’s Ride.
“I’m not sure what it is,” she said. “Being outside in fresh air, the self-sufficiency of getting around by bike, the rhythm of pedaling, or the endorphins from gentle exercise, but it’s a great way to spend time.”
Others are recognizing that, too.
Columbus Cycling and Fitness owner Joe Kahlenbeck said bicycle sales are up over the last year.
“People are being a little more health conscious,” Kahlenbeck said. “If everybody rode, I’d be tickled to death. It’s more about trying to make everybody healthier.”
Columbus Bicycle Co-op president Ken Lanteigne has biked to work since the 1980s. Every day he makes his way to his job as an engineer at Cummins on two wheels rather than four. Columbus’ landscape is flat, relatively compact, Lanteigne said, with traffic that isn’t too bad for cyclists to navigate.
Freelance web developer Jon Earley learned to bike — on gravel — when he was six years old.
“I feel a much greater sense of freedom by riding a bike than driving,” Earley said. “I like cutting through neighborhoods. It saves money on gas. And also, it saves me from having to go to the gym sometimes.”
Earley helps the Bicycle Co-op, and built the organization’s website. He also did promotion work for the Columbus Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, and will soon roll out CAMPO’s website on transportation safety.
The (New) Boom
Around the Bicycle Co-op, neatly hanging from the walls or propped on kickstands are bikes that embody the decade in which they were designed. Outfitted with loopy script and intriguing design flourishes, these bikes hail from the boom that began in the 1960s and lasted until roughly 1975. As he pulled a J.C. Penney bike from the wall, Lanteigne pointed out the Bike Boom design elements, a time around the nation’s bicentennial when there was an explosion in biking.
In some ways, the early part of the 21st century has mirrored the results of the 1973 oil crisis. As gas prices rose, many turned to bicycles for their transportation needs. Some estimates put transportation costs at 20 percent of Americans’ incomes.
With the recent rise in the biking, the question can be asked: Is the nation — and Columbus — in the midst of another bike boom?
“We might be,” Lanteigne said. “You have a generation of people who are connected online. I think that’s just a reality of today: Your car is not your connection with the world anymore.”
For Pherson, cycling is about exercise and endorphin release, indeed — but more importantly, it’s about fun.
“Have you ever seen Daniel Tosh’s stand-up routine, where he’s talking about riding a wave-runner? He says, ‘Have you ever seen someone look sad on a wave runner?’ (Biking) is like that,” Pherson said. “It’s hard to have a bad day if you get out and move around and bike.”
UPCOMING BIKING EVENTS
Trail Run & Ride at CYC
11 a.m. today. Participate in a 5K trail run at Columbus Youth Camp, followed by open biking on the bike trails at 1 p.m. Live music, food vendors and prizes. For more information, visit foundationforyouth.com or call Matt Battin at 379-9005.
Pedal For Pub Grub at The Columbus Bar
Ride your bike to the Columbus Bar from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. any Monday in May and get 10 percent off your food purchase (excluding specials). For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bike to Salute!
5 p.m. May 23: Avoid parking woes by riding your bikes to Salute! Free valet bike parking is available in the front lawn of The Republic. For more information, contact Marc Rape at email@example.com.
Bike Maintenance and Repair Classes
“Wheels: Truing & Bearing Overhaul,” 6 to 8 p.m. May 28. Bicycle Co-Op, 1531 13th St. Suggested $10 donation. For information: bikeco-op.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fixed Gear Friday
5:15 p.m. May 30: Meet at the Bicycle Station, 1201 Washington St. for a casual ride featuring a Park & Pub Crawl. Helmets are required. For more information, call Matt Battin at 379-9005 or visit thebicyclestation.com.
The 6th Annual Girlfriend Ride
June 14 at the Columbus Learning Center. The women-only bicycle tour benefits Turning Point Domestic Violence Services. For more information or to register, call 812-603-0466 visit girlfriendride.org.
Panting Deer Enduro Challenge
This three-part Enduro series kicks off July 26, with additional events Aug. 17 and Sept. 27. For more information or to register, visit pantingdeer.com.
Columbus Challenge Triathalon at Tipton Lakes
8 a.m. Aug. 9: This challenge combines swimming, biking and running. For information or to register, visit foundationforyouth.com/triathlon.html.
Save the date, Sept. 20, for this nationally known ride through Hope. Information for 2014 has not been released, but standard highlights include: Mennonite homesteads, historic churches, Simmons’ Winery, Red Dog’s Petting Zoo, Anderson Falls Park, old iron bridges, Flat Rock River, windmills, old barns, Possum Glory, Hope’s bandstand, the Yellow Trail Museum, Simmons’ One-Room Schoolhouse, Hartsville, and the Rural Letter Carriers Museum.
Compiled from Reach Healthy Communities’ Bike Month Calendar, Columbike.com, Thebicyclestation.com and Bikeco-op.org