When Richmond hosted the UCI Road World Championships in 2015, fans came from far and near to cheer on cycling teams from around the globe. Crystal Trent, a special education teacher from Glen Allen, and her 14-year-old daughter, Emily (above), were among them. Inspired by Emily’s dad, who had been biking regularly, the teen was first on the bike several years ago, but mom Crystal soon joined her. The energy and passion that rolled into town with the UCI bike races inspired mother and daughter to take it up a notch.
Crystal and Emily were along the Richmond course with thousands of spectators, both local and international. For Emily, going to the Women’s Elite Road Circuit (and scoring a spot near the start/finish line) was a highlight. Crystal volunteered for the Women’s Junior Road Circuit event and says the experience was fascinating. “The riders moved so fast, even around the corners, and I could even hear the sound of whirring wheels as the cyclists zoomed past. Not to mention how quickly they can change a tire, or even switch bikes.”
Crystal and Emily also attended the opening ceremonies on Brown’s Island, where Governor McAuliffe and other notable dignitaries addressed more than 12,000 cycling fans. “It felt like a mini-Olympics opening ceremony. And we also saw a medal ceremony for the Women’s Team Time Trial at FanFest,” says Crystal, adding that it was enthralling to watch winners ride their bikes through the Richmond Convention Center on their way to the podium.
There’s no doubt that the nine days of UCI racing was an exciting time, as our community pulled together to volunteer, host cycling teams, and show the world the best version of Richmond. For families like mine, rookies to cycling, there was new nomenclature to master such as gradient, peloton, and drafting. We uttered a collective gasp when cyclists went down, and encouraged them as they continued their ride. From Church Hill to Mechanicsville, we cheered on cycling teams practicing on our newly paved roadways. While running errands or driving to soccer practice, we talked about different countries as we identified team colors and nations with our kids. If you were lucky enough to see a team stopped at a traffic light, perhaps a cyclist gave an appreciative smile and a wave back.
In addition to the pro race, Crystal and Emily said another popular biking event has helped lay the groundwork for their biking enthusiasm. The Anthem Moonlight Ride, presented annually by Sports Backers, is a family-friendly event in Richmond for all ages and abilities. Emily says there are challenging parts of the course (it’s the rider’s choice of eight or fifteen miles through Richmond’s blocked-off streets at night), but she says those challenges helped her and her mom improve their skills from one year to the next while having fun. Says Crystal, “It’s like a big family party on bikes.” Emily adds, “It’s awesome! Everyone decorates their bikes with glow sticks and lights.”
Through the fun and hard work of riding bikes around Richmond, Crystal and Emily have gradually improved their fitness and stamina. Emily says that on an average ride, she bikes at about thirteen miles per hour according to her bike computer, but on a race day, she can push herself up a few ticks depending on course conditions. When the eighth-grader bikes with her father, there is a particularly large incline on their regular route. “I call it ‘my hill’ because it took me several rides to get all the way up the hill.” Emily explained, “When I finally did it, I was so excited, because when I coasted down, I went thirty [miles per hour]. It was the fastest I have ever been on the bike. After you pedal up, on the way down, you are just there for the ride.”
With a smile, the teen also recounts a ride when her tire went flat. Fortunately, someone stopped to help. Crystal adds, “Wherever you are, everyone is very helpful. The biking circle is a very tight-knit community.” These days, the mother-and-daughter duo has a hand pump on board at all times and they know how to change a flat. Reflecting on her bike experience in general, Emily says she treasures the peace and quiet of biking and the opportunity it allows for quality family time with both her mom and her dad, who co-parent from different households.
For Emily, Crystal, and my family, too, the excitement and impact of UCI cycling has remained in Richmond long after the course has been dismantled. While avid bicyclists have “conquered the cobbles” on renowned Libby Hill, I’ve seen a significant increase in bike traffic in our hilly neighborhood – from people who are decked out in racing gear, to families just starting out, or novices back on bikes, perhaps for the first time since their own childhoods. I still smile thinking about my sons, ten and eight, conducting their own time trials, flying down the steep terrain at a local park, and holding up both hands as they crossed the finish line, simulating the finish line at UCI in September.
Although biking may be a new venture for many of us, for some Richmonders, it is a long-established practice. Edward Mollen, MD, doesn’t consider himself a cyclist, although he bikes almost daily. Dr. Mollen says that’s just the way he travels. “I have an old car and only put about 3,000 miles per year on it. When we go on trips, my wife drives, and I read a book. She enjoys driving. I don’t.”
Dr. Mollen started biking regularly in medical school, commuting from The Fan to what was then known as the Medical College of Virginia. That was more than forty years ago, and he is still commuting by bike to and from work. These days, he bikes approximately forty miles per week, though in his peak, it was closer to 120 miles. The father of four and grandfather of two says biking was a big part of family time when his kids were growing up. “We used to go on family bike rides on the weekends. As a treat, we would go to McDonalds afterwards and get a pancake or two,” he says with a smile. “I took my boys to watch races twenty years ago at Libby Hill. Libby Hill is a bear.”
Despite his appreciation for traveling by bike in Richmond, Dr. Mollen has experienced several bike crashes. Eight years ago this month, what he calls “the big one” happened. “A driver didn’t see me and turned left in front of me. I crashed into the car, broke the windshield, dented the side of the car, and was thrown off my bike. I was dazed, but not knocked out,” says Dr. Mollen. He broke a few bones and was hospitalized overnight, but he was fine. Like many bike riders, he has also been “doored.” That’s when a person in a parked car on the street opens the door at the pivotal moment when the bike passes, so that the bike rider crashes into the car door. “In all of these accidents, drivers all say the same thing, ‘I didn’t see you,’” Dr. Mollen said.
He said his crash history and the prospect of getting back on the bike worries his wife more than it does him. “There are car accidents every day. Most of the people who are in these [car] accidents drive again. It is no different for me. Biking is just the way I travel.”
Dr. Mollen emphasizes safety, and stresses the need for wearing a helmet that fits properly, having lights on the front and back of the bicycle, as well as practicing defensive riding. “Sometimes I see a family biking and the kids are wearing helmets, but the parents are not. I am not sure what kind of message that sends, but everyone should wear safety gear, including a helmet. Daytime, nighttime – it does not matter,” said Dr. Mollen. He adds that bicyclists must be aware of their surroundings at all times and conscious of the fact that the driver of a vehicle does not always see the bike rider.
In addition to recreational family time, biking yields many benefits for physical and mental health. “There is no question most of us are living a sedentary life, with busy schedules,” explains Dr. Mollen. “For me, I consider biking my primary cardiac exercise, a sort of free exercise. It is pretty easy to talk yourself out of going to the gym. There are many ways to get out of your planned scheduled exercise. But if you bike to get from place to place, it is already a part of your day. Like most exercise, when you do it regularly, it feels good when you are finished.”
Gwendolyn Vela, an artist and writer who blogs at Diary of a Mad Bike Woman, knows that riding regularly bolsters her mental health. “Many people turn to substance abuse as a way to alleviate the pain and frustration they feel inside from mental illness. I figured out that I had been self-medicating, but through biking. Biking is how I get rid of the extra energy that would otherwise build up in my brain as negative thought cycles, which is my disorder’s primary way of manifesting itself. There is a lot of free head space when you’re on a bike for two-plus hours,” says Gwendolyn. “Biking provides a sense of accomplishment and produces wonderful batches of endorphins, life’s natural depression fighters.”
Biking sounds like a perfect and practical fitness solution for many individuals, but how can families get their whole gang moving on bikes?
Max Hepp-Buchanan is the director of Bike Walk RVA, a Sports Backers initiative committed to transforming greater Richmond into the most physically active community in the nation.
He says research shows communities built to encourage walking and biking are significantly more physically active than those that lack sidewalks, bike lanes, and trails. Bike Walk RVA is on a mission to empower residents to become leaders in their communities to support more comfortable and connected places to bike and walk.
The Richmond community is fortunate that there have been improvements that make it easier to bike as a family. However, Max says, “Although these changes have been successful, we have a long way to go. Currently, most roadways are designed for cars. Bike Walk RVA recognizes the need for improved infrastructure geared toward bike and foot traffic. The easiest way to start being more active is to bike or walk wherever it is you need to go – typical errands, going to the store, work, and school.”
For people just starting out, Max says, “You can’t go straight from the couch to a hundred miles. Start slowly by making short trips by bike. Nearly 40 percent of all trips we make for any reason are within three miles of home. So start by replacing some of these car trips with walking and biking trips. Eventually, you will want to take the long way home and increase your mileage.”
Bike Walk RVA, in conjunction with the City of Richmond, tracks growth over time by performing bike and pedestrian counts at specific locations throughout the city. “Hearing about bike crashes on city streets creates a lot of fear in people,” Max says. “In Richmond, 60 percent of the population is interested in biking, but there is concern about street safety. That is a very large percentage, so we need to move forward with making streets more bike-friendly.”
Biking is a way of life for Max and his family, as he takes his 3-year-old son to preschool on the back of his bike. With another baby boy on the way, it is important to Max that his sons consider it the norm to start the day with fresh air and bike-riding.
It is evident that there are many direct benefits of riding bikes, including physical health, mental health, and the reduction of pollution through the use of this alternative mode of transportation. Indirectly, family time is a huge factor, as several of the biking enthusiasts I spoke with reminisced about how their childhood biking experiences shaped them.
My family lives within walking distance of a county park with more than three miles of paved trails. Although we frequent the park regularly, it is time for all of us to get moving and explore everything this park has to offer. Now that my boys are older, we are ready to take on some unfamiliar trails, and we’ve scoped out some nearby stores that we can bike to and from safely. We hope to take advantage of the longer days of summer to build up our bike legs and perhaps tackle some longer routes in the area.
Crystal and Emily regularly ride in the Mountain Road area in Glen Allen and head toward Ashland. Crystal says, “It is out in the country – quiet and peaceful.” Because their riding is more exercise-focused now, they will transport their bikes, versus riding to and from a destination. “On a really nice day, we might load up the bikes to go somewhere else further from home.”
The Virginia Capital Trail is a dedicated, paved rails-to-trails pedestrian and bicycle route, connecting the past and present capitals of Virginia – Jamestown and Richmond. “We like the Capital Trail because it goes out Route 5, but you are safely off the road. It is a beautiful ride past farms, in and out of shade. Emily likes stopping to read the historical markers,” Crystal says . As a family, Crystal, Emily, and Emily’s dad have participated in the Cap2Cap Ride twice. Crystal says they have also taken their bikes to High Bridge Trail State Park in Farmville. With a chuckle, Crystal adds, “I had to walk that one first before I’d commit to biking. I wanted to see just how high that bridge really was!”
I feel privileged to live in the Richmond area where enhancements for the biking community have already begun. The UCI Road World Championships were a boon to our city and the RVA biking scene, but the best is yet to come for families. Whether you’re biking for exercise or transportation, looking for peace and quiet, or a new social circle, you’ll find what you need on the streets and trails in and around Richmond.
RVA Dads are Building a Better Kids’ Bike
About three years ago, Shane Cusick, a Richmond father of two, visited a local shop to buy his preschooler a bike. “The bike weighed twenty-three pounds, and my son weighed forty,” says Shane. “It was a lot to manage for a little guy.”
Biking has been a passion of Shane’s his entire life, and he wanted his son to feel comfortable on a bike from the get-go. That’s why he set out to see what it would take to make a high-quality, lightweight, aluminum bike designed especially for kids.
After extensive, independent research, Shane met Chris Peel, another avid cyclist and father, and Richmond-based Pello Bikes was born. The word pello is Latin for “set in motion,” the perfect phrase to explain the mission of Pello Bikes. Shane explains, “We’re setting out to give kids the joy and freedom of biking by providing bicycles that are high-quality, lightweight, safe, and engineered specifically for children.” Shane says it’s key for bikes to be lightweight so kids can move, carry, and take care of their own bikes. “With these integral design and manufacturing changes, the result is a bike that handles well and is easier to ride. It is important for kids to start right when learning to ride a bike safely, so that a lifelong love of biking is sparked.”
Because Pello Bikes were designed from the ground up for kids, the unique geometry enables children to ride with confidence and without the awkwardness that comes from some more traditional designs. “Geometry is all the measurements of the parts of the bike. How long the tubes are, how far apart they are spaced, and their respective angles,” says Shane.
Formerly a landscape architect and currently the event manager with Bike Virginia, an advocacy group based in Richmond, Shane built several custom bikes before launching Pello Bikes. Your child can test-ride a Pello Bike at the company’s Richmond headquarters, and you can pre-order a Pello Bike at pellobikes.com for delivery later this spring.
Photos: Jesse Pters/Sports Backers