Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Lone Riders No More

Published Dec. 15 in January 2008 issue of Tucson Green Magazine

Every Tuesday evening, bikes begin to appear around the flag pole near Old Main on the University of Arizona. With the bikes come Tucson residents of all stripes, mingling, chatting, and creating a festive atmosphere drawing the friendly curiosity of passersby. They've come for the weekly community bike ride, and they continue to stream in until 300 bikes crowd the campus.

Among the cycling enthusiasts is Sandra Pope, manager of a local hair salon, who says she heard about the event through a friend and has been involved since late summer.

"I got into bike riding because it's the best workout a person can have," Pope says. "It's a huge stress reliever, too."

The fitness aspect of cycling is only one part of this event's appeal. While many participants in the bike ride express an interest in fitness and a desire to live an environmentally-friendly lifestyle, they are also seizing upon another aspect of the hobby: community building. In a time when many people isolate themselves inside their cars during commutes or inside their homes watching television, this Tuesday event offers a breath of fresh air, a social atmosphere, and the opportunity to meet like-minded people.

Like Pope, Seth Lamantia has been involved for several weeks, after finding a flyer for the event wedged between the spokes of his bike. "It's a cool thing to do on a Tuesday night," he says. "And you get to meet a lot of friendly people."

The bicycles assembling at Old Main are as diverse as the people who ride them. There are beach cruisers, dirt bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes--even a unicycle. A carnival atmosphere pervades, augmented by the organizers' decision to declare a different theme each week. In accordance with this week's theme, "dresses and crazy helmets," the crowd is peppered with women and men playfully donning dresses and creatively decorated helmets. One person wears a horned Viking helmet; another proudly sports a colander on his head. Previous themes have included "shorts and tank tops" and "crazy mustaches."

Every week, the group of friendly bicyclers follows a new route, exploring different parts of the city. This week, the crowd circles the UofA campus, the adjoining Sam Hughes neighborhood, and then pedals through downtown Tucson, inspiring sociable honks and cheers from numerous motorists. Along the way, organizers help ensure the safety of the riders by warning those farther back about obstacles or slowdowns up ahead. Once the bikers reach downtown, they pause and some members play bicycle games. Especially popular is "Foot Down," which draws cheers and suspense from the onlookers as players test their balance by riding slowly inside an increasingly smaller circle while trying to avoid putting their foot on the ground to stop their bike.

The idea of holding a community bike ride formed spontaneously among a group of 22 friends who decided, in June 2007, to get together and ride around the city. Some are involved with BICAS, a local nonprofit that promotes cycling and do-it-yourself bicycle maintenance. Nick Jett, one of the founders, is a Tucson native and political science senior at the University. Jett, a vegan and environmental activist, has been an avid bike rider all his life. "This is an effort to create something inclusive," he notes, "with the broad goal of uniting the cycling community, promoting awareness, and encouraging bicycle safety."

What began as a small, informal gathering has since expanded rapidly, mostly through word of mouth. The group's camaraderie is contagious, as the members congregate on campus and pedal along the city streets. Newcomers on bikes spontaneously join in along the way. Wherever they pass, the riders generate curiosity, and onlookers shout questions to the group and on how they can get involved. The more perplexed bystanders ask the riders, "What's your cause?" and "What are you riding for?"

The group's buoyant reply: "For fun!"

The community bike ride meets every Tuesday at 8 P.M. in front of Old Main at the University of Arizona. For more information, contact Karl Goranowski, one of the main organizers, at gm@kamp.arizona.edu.

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