By Stephen Proffitt | Photos by James Chung and Matt Schmachtenberg
Two wheels, a chain, some grease and, of course, a helmet. Cycling is simplicity. It’s flourishing throughout Harrisonburg and beyond due to some hard-working individuals and open-minded students.
According to the Regional Data Center for Virginia’s Central Shenandoah Valley, 52,127 people live in the 17.4 square miles of Harrisonburg. This creates horrendous traffic jams on major roads, lengthening commute time and expanding migraine pressure.
A simple solution: Travel by bike.
“In a practical sense, it [my bike] means a lot for me specifically because I don’t own a car, or I can’t afford one, rather,” says senior media arts and design major Tom Park. “So it’s been my main mode of transportation.”
For Park, his bike is also a part of his identity.
“It gave value to me in the sense that other people associated me with bikes,” he says.
For others it could be a toy, a weekend hobby or simply a fun thing to do. Somewhere, amid of all that, lies senior justice studies major Nate Smith.
“Bikes are really cool,” he says. “I’m not obsessed with them. I don’t consider them the defining part of my life or what makes me who I am.”
So there needs to be someone to cater to all these levels of cycling.
Business of bikes
Shenandoah Bicycle Company, nestled back off South Main Street adjacent to the old Dave’s Taverna location, has been providing customers with bikes, accessories and service since May 2000.
At that time, SBC founders Tim Richardson and Thomas Jenkins had been working at other shops in town, including Mark’s Bike Shop and the now-closed Blue Ridge Cycle Works. They both had the same vision and took a chance.
In between college and SBC, Richardson and Jenkins spent time exploring their love for bikes across the country.
“I used to live in Portland when I graduated from JMU,” Richardson says. “[I] rode cross country and never thought of myself as a city person, and pretty much still don’t. But it’s such a cycling-literate part of the world. I enjoyed something that I didn’t think I would because you can access everything by bike.”
So how important is a bike to someone who lives their life by them?
“It’s interesting how bikes, over the course of four decades, [have] touched my life in many different ways,” Jenkins says. “Now having kids, it’s adding a whole new dimension, which for me, makes the bike that much more special. No matter where you are at your life, it can have a positive influence.”
Now for almost 14 years, the friends have been molding their store into an essential element of Harrisonburg bike culture.
Jenkins says there always has been a bike scene in Harrisonburg.
“It’s always kind of changed and it’s always kind of [depended] on how much energy is there.”
There is a lot of energy in the scene right now. A city surrounded by mountains attracts a variety of bikers. It’s a topographic advantage that distinguishes Harrisonburg from other places.
Bikes really are more complex than your bare components. The two wheels can contribute to the social well being of a community. As the chain and cassette power the bikes, it powers the mind too.
“It facilitates social processes,” Park says. “It’s a stupid, cheesy metaphor for freedom and that stuff.”
Degrease; truth behind the culture
It gets you from point A to point B, it can shape the way you live your life and facilitates social processes? Since its birth, around 1865, the bicycle, as a concept has become intricate. And with complexity and a social movement, a culture is conceived; a community becomes invigorated with possibilities of less carbon emissions, yet more endorphin peaks.
Smith says the culture is defined by its participants: the movers and the shakers.
“It also depends a lot on how willing a city is to support alternative forms of transportation,” he says.
For Richardson, it’s about carrying out a concept.
“If a person rides a bike out of the middle of nowhere, to me, that’s cycling culture,” he says. “They’re choosing to move themselves by human power on two wheels.”
In a list put out by bicycling.com, Minneapolis and Portland were ranked as two of the top cities for biking in America. Richardson loved his time in Portland and believes people could take note of the steps the city has taken to improve coexistence between motorists and cyclists.
“It’s got an amazing infrastructure for cycling,” Richardson says. “Bike lanes everywhere. Every new road that gets redone gets a bike lane, covered parking in crucial areas.”
Jenkins, who has spent time in Davis, Calif., another bike-friendly city according to him, notes progression in the Valley.
“Twenty years ago, bikes were … not even thought about as part of the community,” he says. “Now, there’s been a generational shift within city staff.”
With a generational shift, he said there is a lot more support of cycling from the city now as well as the community. With baby boomers moving into retirement, a younger group of people are taking over key government positions. They are more aware of the current issues that interest constituents, such as the environment and alternative transportation.
“More cyclists you get on the road, the more people get used to seeing cyclists,” Jenkins says. “We’re all sharing the same space. The biggest thing is just providing more safe places for people to ride bikes. Seems like that’s the No. 1 reason when people come in and say ‘I would ride, but …’”
Harrisonburg may never reach Portland’s status of self-proclaimed “America’s Bicycle Capital,” but that might not be a bad thing.
“You want to learn from those [cities], but you want Harrisonburg to be Harrisonburg,” Jenkins says.
Park, who has spent the last four years biking around JMU and Harrisonburg, notices the changes. In the past few years, the university has implemented the well-known gates across campus to help increase foot and bike traffic on campus. On top of that, bike lanes are popping up on many roads surrounding campus.
“I’m just happy to see [bikes] become more embraced,” Park says.
A bike-friendly city is not the only challenge a bike shop owner faces. The treacherous winters in Harrisonburg means a long biking offseason for SBC customers. In addition, having to combat an intimidation factor that can create a gender barrier.
Torque down; intimidation, a bike shops worst nightmare
“That’s plagued the bike industry,” Jenkins says. “The bike industry has shot itself in the foot by most shops not being an inviting place for non-cyclists or new cyclists.”
SBC also has a side business aimed at diluting male gender domination of bike shop culture. Pulp, Organic Acai Bowls and Smoothies is located next door to SBC and serves smoothies and bowls blended with organic non-daily milks, apple juice and a variety of organic fruits.
“We’re always stressing with everyone who works here is one, everyone is a cyclist,” Jenkins says. “Whether they’re riding a cheap department store bike or a super high end bike.”
Adjust tension: Pedal through JMU and beyond
Cycleshare was a grassroots movement on JMU’s campus that helped encourage people to ride bikes by lending its allotment of 20 out for two-week periods. Some SBC staff was on site on rental days to offer advice and maintenance.
Park and Smith, along with other students, helped run the program, which began in the spring of 2012. It had previously been a part of the EARTH Club.
This year, the program has now been taken over by UREC. One caveat to the new program: it costs the user seven dollars per week to rent from UREC’s Adventure Program. The fee funds the maintenance of each bike.
To SBC, its periodic involvement on campus helps get its name out.
“It helps to exemplify what good service is and what it isn’t,” Richardson says. “We try to go out of our way to make sure every level of cyclist is serviced to the point they feel comfortable, confident and empowered to cycle more.”
Jenkins said the sales of bikes and accessories bring in more revenue than the service department, but it’s not always about the green.
“Service is how you can really define and separate yourself,” he says. “It’s the best way to give good customer service is just by good, consistent repair.”
Fresh tires: Hope for a better tomorrow
The Harrisonburg bike scene is growing even outside the SBC. The Northend Greenway is a citizen-proposed 2.5-mile bike route through Harrisonburg, which, according to its website, will “connect diverse communities with each other, with community resources, with local businesses and with public green space.”
“I’m a huge fan of what Northend Greenway has brought to our community in terms of stating the obvious, which is ‘Hey we need separate bicycle facilities from the road,’” Jenkins says.
The main goal of the Greenway is to act as three things: a path, a park and a prototype. It’s a bike highway, in simple terms. It would allow people to safely travel by bike to work and all points in between, including downtown Harrisonburg. The first committee relating to the project was developed back in September 2010.
A 19-person advisory board, which Jenkins is
on, brings together an array of people representing many forms of development in Harrisonburg.
David Ehrenpreis, an art history professor at JMU, is a member of the eight-person volunteer Steering Committee.
“[The organization] works on mission of goals, works on fundraising and promotion,” Ehrenpreis says. “A lot of this work is collaborative and you cannot have a bicycle pedestrian path without working closely with the Department of Public Works — with the city in general — because they’re actually going to be responsible for the path.”
Meetings are held every two weeks and Ehrenpreis believes ground will be broken within the next year.
“There’s a huge biking community in Harrisonburg and it’s just getting bigger,” Ehrenpreis says. “The Greenway was one of the catalysts that got people thinking about what was possible.”
This project adds to the vibrant energy present within the scene at this time.
“When city council voted a large substantive portion of the funds to support the Greenway, in some ways it was a turning point,” Ehrenpreis says. “It meant that rather than just thinking it was nice we had a bike culture, the city was actively working to support the bike culture.”
Secure helmet: safety and weather
Nothing beats the warm summer sun glowing down on your forearms as you cruise the streets on a bicycle. Ah, the crisp air pushing through luscious locks of hair: the fair-weather biker.
Now, imagine slamming down on your pedals when it’s five degrees outside with a wind chill in the negative. Not so fun, eh? Someone’s got to do it.
“The only people who ride bikes in the cold are people who have to ride bikes in the cold,” Park says. “Riding bikes in the cold sucks.”
As a commuter, he has no choice but to bear the frigid temperatures.
“Layers, layers, layers!” Park says.
Compression shirt, windbreaker, beanie, face mask: just a few items of clothing one may find on Park during the winter months.
In conjunction with the elements, 2,000 pounds of steel also threaten cyclists daily, in the form of cars.
According to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, 618 people died in 2010 from bicycle/motor vehicle accidents. That number is significantly down from the 721 reported in 2001.
Safety has become a lost art. It’s gotten to the point where one knows who a serious biker is by seeing if they own a helmet.
“You always have to be very aware of all your surroundings,” Park says. “Safety is No. 1. You’re on a mission to get there and not die by a car.”
Park says it frustrates him to see bikers not abiding by the written and unwritten rules of the culture.
“Riding on the wrong side of the bike line and riding on the sidewalk,” Park says. “I see that more than I should.”
Re-assemble and grease it all up
“Biking in Harrisonburg is looked at as a tremendous asset to the community,” Ehrenpreis says. “It’s something that we have built on and have the reputation for; I don’t think that it will change.”
Harrisonburg’s bike riders are doing their part to push and expand the city’s biking culture as far as it can go. And as long as there is fresh air to breathe and open road ahead, the scene will continue to thrive, regardless of what lies in the future.
“The bicycle is the simple solution to some of the world’s greatest problems,” Jenkins said in a video published on SBC’s website.
No gas, no problem. You are the motor. Enjoy the ride.