At first, I was rather proud of myself.
There I sat, on a bicycle for the first time in a dozen years or so, middle-aged and weighing a lot of pounds, getting exercise as I zipped around quiet streets in the heart of Amherst.
As it turns out, going downhill is much easier than uphill, and Park Avenue is far less nerve-wracking than Rt. 58.
You may have passed me — I was the fat man wobbling uncomfortably and huffing hard as I pedaled, trying to keep pace with cyclist in far better shape.
In the lead was Catherine Girves, director of Yay Bikes!, a Columbus-based advocacy group, who laughed that she usually rides around her city in a dress and high heels.
Behind me was Amherst Steele High School health teacher Kim Haney, who didn’t break a sweat because she’s used to triathlons.
At the back of the pack was Nelson Shogren, whose retirement gift from Sprint was a bike that changed his life — he now works with Yay Bikes! and heads a similar group called Richland Moves! in Mansfield.
They’re all pushing for better bike trail connectivity and hoping Amherst will buy into the riding sensation for any number of reasons such as physical fitness, economics, cleaner air, and social equity.
Across Ohio, preferences are shifting in favor of cycling. About 60 percent of the population is interested in using bikes for trips they’re already making by car or other means, Girves said.
You might think just millennials are behind for the change. You’re wrong; the AARP is among the groups actively pushing for cycling to be embraced.
So are health departments. Lorain County Public Health is on the Yay Bikes! bandwagon, in large part because Ohio has such a big problem with chronic health conditions related to being physically inactive.
Which, truth be told, is where I come into the story.
ALL AROUND TOWN
Years hunched over a work computer and a love for fatty foods have made me more round than I’d prefer. So in a very direct way, Girves and company were making a pretty personal pitch as we rode five grueling miles around town.
Together we traversed every kind of road surface Amherst has to offer, from smooth to bumpy, placid to stressful, past parks, around construction zones, and straight up the city’s busiest commercial corridor.
Along the way, Girves and Shogren talked about the culture of cycling, bike laws, best riding practices, and dangers to watch for.
Case in point: We had a close pass from a large vehicle hauling a trailer on North Main Street near the Rt. 2 bridge. The driver honked angrily as he passed, giving our bikes barely two feet of clearance.
Another driver flipped the bird at me on Rt. 58 as I struggled uphill in the 40 mph zone.
The fact is that those areas are just as fair game for bicycles as they are for cars, though there’s a certain confidence and knowledge level needed to brave them.
In honesty, I was extremely uncomfortable, don’t plan to hit high-traffic routes again, and would never let my kids out on those roads — not now and not when they’re teenagers, either.
Haney said she understands the need to cycle safely because she’s nearly been hit several times. Girves is far more used to riding in heavily-trafficked areas and didn’t mind sharing the road at all. Riding, she said, is about “feeling confident, actually being confident, and having a comfortable experience, not a white-knuckle experience.”
Most interactions along our ride were friendly — drivers tended to “flow around us like water,” as Girves put it.
She argues that motorists are generally OK with slow-moving bike enthusiasts sharing the road as long as riders obey the rules and travel predictably instead of zipping back and forth across the pavement.
When we stopped for a break in the driveway of Amherst Church of the Nazarene on Cooper Foster Park Road, landscapers offered drinks and restrooms. Girves and Shogren said that’s how most people treat bikers.
But it’s not always the case for people who “don’t look like cyclists,” they said.
Many folks expect “legitimate” riders to look like Shogren — white, male, and extremely lean — and can treat people of color, women, older riders, and larger people much differently.
Girves condemned those stereotypes, saying people of all demographics need to be active and get to appointments. And there are some who don’t have the option of driving to work: “You have people in your community who can’t afford a car,” she said.
THE CASE FOR BIKES
There are incentives to be accepting of bikers. Cycling is good tourism; pedal-pushers tend to spend good money at local shops and restaurants.
Bicycle riders spend about $83 billion on “trip-related” sales and generate $97 billion in retail spending each year, according to a 2017 study by the Outdoor Industry Association. Haney sees a future where Amherst retailers advertise themselves as “bicycle friendly” and promote local trails in hopes of bringing those dollars to town.
She said Main Street Amherst has shown interest in promoting cycling as a way to showcase downtown shops and eateries, which may mean you see more bicycle racks in the next few years.
Walkable, bikable communities also have lower crime rates than others, which Girves chalks up to a feeling of neighborliness. Students and workers who bike are also more productive and call off sick less, she said.
That’s an aspect that interests Haney.
Seven years ago, her students did a walking audit to gauge the condition of Amherst’s streets. Since then, it’s always been a goal to do the same kind of assessment to determine just how connected and bikable the city is.
Last fall, her students started creating a five-mile cycling course that links Amherst parks and historical sites. Eventually, each stop will have a QR code that can be scanned to unlock videos about local history.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.