As Wes is fond of saying, “We are not riding IN traffic, we ARE traffic.” BikeFest is this Saturday.
Eight year old Chase Wilson probably said it best. “It’s fun to ride through the red lights!” he cheered as about 85 bicyclists escorted by Norfolk Police cruised under the red light at 4th View and Ocean View Avenue in front of the Thirsty Camel.
“Keep your eyes looking forward,” I called to him, motioning for him pay attention to the bikes around him.
A few minutes later, I was snapping photos of Councilwoman Theresa Whibley, who rode comfortably at the front of the “peloton,” or flock of cyclists. “Be careful!” She called to me, motioning for me to keep both hands on the handlebars. I smiled at how a village so readily forms amongst people who barely know each other. I had met both Terry and Chase less than an hour prior, and already we were checking each other’s behavior. Fun stuff.
May is bike month, and the City of Norfolk has fully embraced the tradition with five bicycle rides that take us over familiar city streets under police escort. The “rolling enclosure” of lead police Harley-Davidsons, a sweep police community pick-up truck and scattered bike patrols insulate riders from traffic, if only for a short time. I had dropped into the first event, a 6-mile ride held on Willoughby Spit on May 7, where I found the cycling village inside the rolling enclosure teaming with stories.
Like Scott Butler, born and raised in Ocean View, who was on his first bike ride of the year. He told me the event was a motivator to get him out “because you’re with friends.” Friends like James and Rebecca Harrison. The couple comes from a motocross family and sported well maintained beach cruisers with five-year-old Keith securely strapped into a child carrier behind James. James said he has created routes using a combination of bike lanes, sidewalks and back roads that provide a safe recreation for his family. Our chat shifted to city improvements, and though James feels that the newly paved bike lane on Willoughby is an improvement, he’d like to see more support for projects like Bay Oaks Park in East Ocean View. “Less homes, more parks” is his longstanding mantra.
Chase’s father Matt Wilson seeks out “quiet bike rides” where Chase is not exposed to traffic. The Suffolk residents had recently journeyed to the Dismal Swamp Canal enclosed bike trail in Chesapeake, and they came out for the Willoughby ride after Matt saw it advertised online. “I don’t want to put Chase on the busy streets yet,” he said. South Hampton Roads communities have scattered bike lanes and multiuse paths that he commented are “so mixed up” that it can be difficult to chart an enjoyable safe course. Matt echoed a common experience that anyone who ventures out on a bike here understands.
I met Martha, a grandmother who lives near Military Circle. We chatted about group rides in her area and next thing I knew she introduced me to her daughter. I asked if this was an outing to celebrate Mother’s Day, but Martha indicated their riding was routine enough not to be celebrated as a special occasion. She told me they are farm people from Southampton County, and being outside on bikes was a way to remain connected to the outdoors. It made me happy to hear Martha talk, like I was participating in an oral farm tradition that was restructuring itself into an oral bike tradition—right there on Ocean View Avenue was history being made.
I met a trio of women who live in Chesapeake. Then another trio from Larchmont. People’s names were beginning to blur. I thought about Todd, a father of two who lives in Larchmont and takes his children to school on bikes on what he calls a “two man one woman mission” to travel safely. He recently told me that “riding in a swarm makes you feel safe. For once you’re the SUV on the road.” I hoped his family was somewhere in our swarm as 85 riders rounded the U-turn at the end of Willoughby Spit. Three miles down, three left to go.
I sailed to the back of the peloton after the U-turn to talk with my old friend, cycling activist Wes Cheney, who was riding alongside Norfolk Parks and Recreation management analyst Paul Forehand. Paul’s staff has organized the events, and he seemed to be reflecting on their work from the back. Wes and I knew that our usual conversations with Paul about what the city “should” be doing were unfitting during a ride so well choreographed by his staff. We pedaled slowly, proudly, groping for light conversation, enjoying a perfect day.
Ending the ride at Ocean View Park provided little closure. The police escorts peeled away, yet everyone looked revived and ready for six more miles. The sweep truck passed us, and I waved to Chase who was being “sagged,” or brought back to the start with his bike in the back. “He got tired!” Matt shrugged as he passed me.
I figured the only way to reconnect with our dispersed village was to return on May 15 for the East Beach ride. This time, 65 cyclists navigated a 12-mile loop through East Ocean View over a well-planned course that smoothly connected a series of secondary roads. Terry was back, this time with her husband Rod. We talked about her daily three-mile commute to work. I waved to Martha’s daughter who told me Martha had family obligation that day. I saw Rebecca and James, this time accompanied by their two adult children, all sporting American flags on the backs of their beach cruisers. I searched for Matt and Chase who must have been on some other adventure because I never spotted them. Maybe next time.
For all its symbolic power to raise awareness, to improve accessibility and safety on the roads, Bike Month is a simple espresso shot for the average cyclist, albeit a welcomed one. We all go back to our lives of planning safe routes and connecting with other bike riders in hopes of forming groups that make us more visible in traffic. As Wes is fond of saying, “We are not riding IN traffic, we ARE traffic.”
Want to participate in Norfolk Bike Month? Visit the website for events! http://www.norfolkbikemonth.com/