Observations on Cycling and Small Towns

I’m sitting here in my favorite coffee shop in Stow, Ohio – Mocha Joe’s (their website is still under construction.  It is in the same plaza as my favorite bicycle shop: Eddy’s Bike Shop.  I have typed about riding before.  Sometimes it relates to ED, sometimes not.  I have gotten out on my bike more this summer and not only does it feel great, it brings back that sense of adventure I felt with my buddies when we would ride our bikes from Mentor into Kirtland to ride up and down hills, stomp through the Chagrin River whiling away summer days.   We did this long before bike helmets, padded spandex/lycra and geared bikes that were far out of our (and our parents’) price range.  It was riding “in the country.”  There were no bike paths, just roads.  And my thoughts are rambling as much as they do when riding…so put on your bike helmet….

Today the State of Ohio has a fantastic network of bike/hike trails coursing from Cincinnati through Columbus, and Akron up to Cleveland.  Bike trails are well and good for exercise, riding to and from parks and trailheads; I use the ones in Stow, Peninsula, Hudson and points north and west often.  What I really like are roads.  I regress to elementary school age but I do so now with a faster bike, helmet, water bottles, energy drinks and other goodies.  And of course, I clip on my bike computer so I can see just how fast and far this overweight 50-something can still go.

The scenery of backroad rural Ohio is spectacular year round.  It is fascinating to watch fields be plowed, planted and harvested. I have done this in Northeast and Southern Ohio  On my rides I monitor the growth of corn and bean fields, periodically spotting deer, wild turkeys, hawks and every now and then, a bald eagle (usually in very specific areas) and every now and then an errant coyote.  The rural patchwork of farm fields eventually lead to a small town (and I am thinking of places less than 20,000 and even smaller).  Stand alone places. Distinct, yet similar, depending on the location.  For example, Lisbon, Ohio is far more Federal in it’s architecture than say, Geneva, Ohio.  Now, I am not an expert in architecture and I cannot distinguish Greek from Ionian…around here we refer more to Western Reserve architecture of homes.  Anyways, I continue to digress – but the loss and deterioration of small town downtown buildings is a loss of our American history.

Often times, economic development consultants concentrate their efforts, studies, writings and musings on suburban, first ring or metro cities.  Of course, that is where the money is.  But for me, small towns are “where it’s at” to use an old phrase.  Hospitality.  Charm.  Bucolic. Easy.  But they “don’t get” bikes like their larger counterparts. Their suburban counterparts are ensuring that bike lanes are part of road paving and reconstructions along main streets and bike racks are becoming part of the urban and suburban streetscapes. Not so much, if at all in small towns.  At some point the small towns are going to be faced with the need to accommodate cycle traffic.

Now, let’s be realistic for a moment, compared to cars on the road, there are few bicycles (as far as “adult” users are concerned).  Among those cyclists, there are fewer that commute or use them for shopping or errands.  What I am noticing is that where there is a bike shop there is increased traffic on the rural roads – more recreational and exercise riding.  For years, I have been riding by bike on what I call the “Portage Pounder” – a nice 50 mile jaunt with lots of hills from Kent, through Mantua to Hiram and around back to Kent.  A new bike shop Portage Cyclery has opened its doors (my 2nd favorite shop).  I am now noticing a lot more bikes on my route.  The owner of the shop sponsors rides, organizes weekend rides starting from his shop and encourages a lot of back road riding.

These types of rides are getting larger each year and more numerous each year.  Cyclists are willing to drive up to an hour to two hours for a ride, spend $20 plus for registration fees and sit on a not very cushioned narrow seat for a few hours – and we call it fun!  It is fun!  Recreational cycling is rapidly becoming big business.  The Richfield, Ohio Chamber of Commerce created the “Sweetcorn Challenge” which is also sponsored by Eddy’s Bike Shop.  The Sweet Corn Challenge features a series of rides (10, 25, 50, 75 and 1oo miles) to raise funds for the Chamber.  These funds are used to help incentivize businesses to locate in the City and Township of Richfield.

As I rode through Lisbon, Ohio I saw two bike shops — I was surprised.  One is downtown and the other is about a half mile out of downtown.  One is for mountain bikes, one sells recumbent trikes (they were sharp! Lisbon Rail to Trail).  Lisbon is not what I would have thought of as being a cycling town.  It is in fact, one end of the Little Beavercreek Trail that runs between Lisbon and Leetonia.  It is very a very compact town, with a population of 2,800 and two main routes going through it and a bike/hike trail just north of town and no mention of the bike trail until I got just north of the downtown – there was a very small green sign.  Downtown Lisbon has a beautiful Federal style downtown reflective of its New England roots.  I found the vehicle traffic to be very respectful (tolerant?) of bike traffic – especially the semi’s of which only three passed me.  Improved signage and promotion could very well facilitate Lisbon to be a destination for cyclists if Lisbon truly wanted to be.

And I guess that’s where this is going.  I rode my bike from Salem to the Ohio-Pennsylvania border on State Routes 45, 30 and Calcutta-Smith Ferry Road.  There are no bike routes in the area that I can discern (I differentiate between routes and paths).  Calcutta, Ohio is a just a few miles and uphill from the Ohio River (a 3.5 mile Cat4 and a few other hills in between).  The surrounding area is absolutely gorgeous – rolling hills of farms and orchards.  Farm houses with acres of corn, beans and wheat.  Houses tucked into forested areas.  A few tractor stores and machine shops located in metal and blocl buildings behind suburban looking houses. I rode through the edge of Calcutta, a city of about 9,000.  A block away were a series of strip centers that could have been anywhere.  Getting to the strip center area was confusing, as was getting back out of it! I was hoping to be close to their downtown and maybe find a place to grab a quick sandwich.  I still have no idea if and where their downtown might be.  The Chamber of Commerce website refers to a historic area but the website is under construction and limited in information. Oh well…I am looking forward to the information that will be displayed.

I was thrilled when I got to the bottom of Calcutta-Smith Ferry Road.  Thrilled because even riding easy I hit 43.5 mph going down that Cat4 hill.  Thrilled when I found  these historic markers – because being a geography major so long ago, the survey point referred to on the one sign was a real find.  And also because some of my ancestors surveyed what is now Mahoning, Columbiana and Trumbull counties in the days preceding and after Ohio’s statehood in 1803.

There are some nearby state parks/forests that are indeed tourist destinations, but I cannot seem to find a connection between these areas and Calcutta.  Of course, my point is that as cycling becomes more popular because of bike/hike trail and stores like Portage Cyclery and Lisbon Rail to Trail, bicycle traffic is going to continue to grow in rural areas and the small towns should embrace bicycle tourism as part of their overall economic development strategy.

And for me, I can’t wait to do this ride again.  I want to catch that guy who passed me by going back up Calcutta-Smith Ferry Road…

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4 Responses to Observations on Cycling and Small Towns

  1. Paul Feldman says:

    Now I know why Xenia became the bike hub. Great thoughts Charley. It inspired me to put in a few miles on the bike tonight. I will be taking the bike on vacation this fall and I need to get ready.

    Paul Feldman

  2. Mike Hunter says:

    Glad to see you are still using the ole bike, Charley. Keep it up. We are on our way this weekend to the WOR (Weekend of Racing) in Illinois small town Port Byron across the Mississippi from Davenport, Iowa. I have a 24-hour race – the first I have ever tried. I’ll see if this year’s 5000+ miles have gotten me into shape to survive.

    • 5,000!!!! WOW Mike! That is incredible. You make me look like a slacker! I’ve gotten out more this year, concentrating on going through small towns. I still have a goal of riding the perimeter of Ohio next year. One of these days we have to figure out a way to get together for a day ride.

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