I'm trying to remember the moment I went from that guy who "owns a bicycle" to an actual "cyclist."
Maybe it's the time when my low-end, eight-year-old bike spent more time on the pavement than it did perched from the wall of my garage. Maybe it was the moment I finally gave into the peer pressure and put on my first pair of lycra cycling shorts, officially becoming "that guy" in the spandex. Maybe it was the moment when I ignorantly yet courageously signed up for my first ever cycling event, a 102 mile ride across the windy plains of Wichita Falls in the August heat known as the "Hotter 'N Hell Hundred."
Somewhere around mile 75 when my pain threshold had been reached, intense feelings of regret and despair were sinking in, and my core body temperature was at a dangerously high level, I thought to myself, "now I'm a cyclist."
The reality is that none of that stuff necessarily made me a cyclist. You can be a commuter, a recreational rider, a weekender, a Riversider, or a lycra-wearing, "your bike is worth more than my car" and "I can take up this entire lane" cyclist. All or any of the above makes you a cyclist in my book. In fact, ask people why they ride, and you'll find a variety of responses.
Over the past few years there has been a rising trend in the so-called "hipster" cycling community that values a simple, no technology approach to cycling because they believe cycling is just the right thing to do. Ask someone on their technologically advanced carbon-fiber bike wearing their team-sponsored cycling jersey and they'll tell you it's about the competition and fitness. Ask someone on their cruiser headed down Riverside, and cycling is an opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy time with friends or family. So who are the real cyclists? The answer is YES!
This is what makes the cycling scene in Tulsa so great. It's not so much about what, where, when, or how as much as it is about grabbing your bike and taking advantage of the opportunities that our city has to offer. There really is something for everyone and regardless of your preferences or motives, you can find something in this city that fuels your passion.
So, where do I start?
Talk to people around Tulsa and you'll probably hear the phrase "cycling community" thrown around a few times. Why? Because it's more than just hopping on your bike and heading out. It's about the networks, the relationships and the people involved. If you really want to get involved in cycling, then join a group ride, find some cyclist friends, attend a workshop or sign up for an event where you gain exposure to other cyclists who share your interest.
Find an event
As a cyclist in Tulsa, I'm always amazed to hear about a new group ride, a family biking event, a training workshop or biking initiative that is gaining momentum. Part of the problem is that many of these events don't have websites or gain a great deal of attention through widespread marketing campaigns. It's being connected to a local bike shop or a group of cyclists that connects you to all the great stuff our city has to offer. The reality is that the opportunities in Tulsa are endless if you get out there and look.
So, what if you're one of those people who has been thinking of taking something recreational to another level? Should you get a new bike? Should you sign up for a race? Maybe start riding your bike to work? If you're not a regular cyclist, then even thinking about rides of 10, 15, or 20 miles can seem overwhelming. The reality is that many people don't know where to start or how to train to break through these barriers. For the past 40 years, the Tulsa Bicycle Club (tulsabicycleclub.com) has created opportunities for riders of all levels. Each spring they offer "Spring Training Rides" that start off at a distance of 5 miles and slowly help build endurance to higher levels in a few months.
River Parks: the heart of Tulsa cycling
Few cities are as fortunate to have what we have: a central cycling hub that acts as a bridge across much of the city of Tulsa. Today the Tulsa River Parks Authority offers more than 26 miles of asphalt-paved trails that have become the center point for cycling enthusiasts across the city. River Parks also includes activities such as disc golf, rowing, fishing and dual trails for both pedestrians and cyclists.
It's possible that the crown jewel of the River Parks system is Turkey Mountain, which contains more than 45 miles of dirt trails directly adjacent to the Arkansas River perfect for hiking and mountain biking. Turkey Mountain has been called an "urban wilderness area" because although it's located in the heart of the city, it makes you feel like you're miles from the nearest building or traffic light. While people in other cities are forced to drive long distances to find high quality hiking/mountain biking trails, Tulsans are privileged to have one of the premiere areas in the entire Midwest located in their backyard.
Scott Robertson, owner and self-admitted "cheesy salesman" at Hammerhead Bikes in Brookside, talked about the huge transformation he's seen take place at Turkey Mountain over the last ten years.
"If you've been around the biking scene here in Tulsa over the past few years, it's apparent how many more families, hikers and mountain bikers are up on Turkey after all the improvements," Robertson said.
A recent gift of $1.5 million by the George Kaiser Family Foundation helped complete the recent transformation of Turkey Mountain at the entrance near 67th St. and South Elwood. As a result, there are more people than ever before that are heading out to this "urban wilderness area" and taking advantage of both its quality and its proximity.
Although it's hard to argue that River Parks is not the central hub for cycling in Tulsa, by no means is biking limited to that area. With over 100 miles of paved biking trails in the Tulsa metro area, a person can connect from the River Parks trails to numerous other trails such as the KATY Trail (Tulsa -- Sand Springs), the Osage-Prairie Trail (Downtown -- Skiatook with plans to go to Barnsdall) and the Creek Turnpike Trail (Riverside at 91st Street -- east to NSU).
On top of these paved trails, numerous groups are working together to create a wider network of on-road bike routes that will facilitate safe travel for all cyclists. These efforts are continuing to move forward and were proved effective when Tulsa received a bronze-level Bicycle-Friendly Community status in 2009 from the League of American Bicyclists (LAB).
Maybe more than anything, the River Parks trails serve to network the various parts of our city. "The River Park trails gives you easy access to other parts of town as well easy access out of town to other cycling routes. I can't imagine Tulsa not having a trail system that would rank in the top three in the country for a city our size," said Robertson. There's no doubt that the continued development of River Parks trails, along with recent upgrades, has created a solid foundation for the continued growth of cycling in our city.
The famous "Wednesday Night Ride"
Ask people around town about one of the greatest cycling gems that Tulsa has to offer and you will hear the "Wednesday Night Ride" mentioned more than anything else. If you're looking for a corporate sponsored event or a group ride with clearly marked signage and impeccable organization, then you've come to the wrong place. This ride is the epitome of the term "organic."
Tom Brown, president and owner of Tom's Bicycles and longtime Tulsa cycling enthusiast, described the Wednesday Night Ride as "probably the biggest non-sponsored and spontaneous ride in the entire country, at least that I know about." Just 10 years ago you would have been lucky to find 75 people gathering together to ride. Now, on any given night throughout the spring, summer and fall you will find anywhere from 200-300 cyclists who gather at Jackson Park to ride and have a great time.
"When does it start?" you may ask. It depends on what time you get there. While many say it begins around 5:30pm, this event is unsponsored and unorganized, so it's the rider's responsibility to show up, meet some people and find a group of riders in the appropriate skill level to ride with.
When does it take place? It's every Wednesday night throughout the spring, summer and fall from daylight savings spring to daylight savings fall. How far is the ride that night? Well, as you have probably guessed, that's completely up to you. While the route that night is generally the same for everyone, there are turnoffs throughout the roughly 40-mile route where you can defer to a 25- or 15-mile route. Afterward you can hang out in the parking lot, as the after ride turns into a large outdoor tailgate party with people hanging staying into the night.
Tell me another city in the country where you can find a completely spontaneous, unorganized ride where professional cyclists gather together with amateurs to ride and then hangout to enjoy the evening. It's uniquely Tulsa, that's for sure!
Tulsa Tough -- the event of the year
If you live in Tulsa and don't know about the annual Saint Francis Tulsa Tough -- you should. This cycling event, which takes place June 8-10 this year, has slowly developed into one of the nation's elite destinations for both professional and amateur cyclists. Whether you ride recreationally, professionally, or decide to just to be a spectator for the weekend, you won't leave disappointed.
Ask anyone around town about the status of cycling in Tulsa and they will tell you that Tulsa Tough has been a huge catalyst for cycling expansion and development in our city. Not only does it offer top level cycling opportunities, but it has also become an economic stimulus and has given Tulsa a great deal of positive exposure in the national cycling scene.
"Outsiders will come in for the Tulsa Tough and they look around say, 'This is a really cool city. Not only do I want to come back, but I could see myself living here," said Adam Vanderburg, longtime Tulsa cyclist and owner of Lee's Bicycles and Trek Bicycle Store of Tulsa. People are impressed. Both Tulsans and out-of-towners leave Tulsa Tough with a great first impression.
The atmosphere at Tulsa Tough is truly exciting. How often do you get to see some of the world's best riders fly by you at 30 mph, take a corner in a peloton of 40 riders and even wipe out jockeying for position in one of the last turns? If you're a cyclist you can easily be overwhelmed by the intensity, the strategy and the sheer athleticism of these racers. That's what makes these "crit" races so exciting.
A "crit," short for "criterium," is a race usually held on a short course with closed-off streets, with length being determined by the number of laps or total time. Many of the category one riders (the highest level of professional criterium racing) will race for 70-80 minutes at an average speed of nearly 30mph with enough left in the tank to sprint to the finish with a $12,000-$15,000 payout on the line. To say that these are elite fitness athletes would be the understatement of the century. The bottom line is that crit racing is high intensity and high speed, and it makes for great racing and spectating.
Cry Baby Hill
If you want to experience the full grandeur that is Tulsa Tough, you absolutely MUST make your way up to "Cry Baby Hill" during Sunday's professional criterium races. Every year one of my favorite Tulsa Tough experiences is taking a first-timer up to Cry Baby Hill to experience the madness. It's hard to describe the scene but if you enjoy watching crazy hammered people in lycra, random acts of complete absurdity and professional cyclists being pelted by water as they pass by, you don't want to miss Cry Baby Hill. As a visiting category 4 cyclist put it, "The atmosphere on Cry Baby Hill was crazy! They were loud, lewd, armed with super soakers, and once I was dropped in the race the harassment really started."
Ask any visiting professional cyclist who races all over the country and they will tell you that Tulsa Tough, and specifically Cry Baby Hill, is a unique experience for both fan and rider. The best way to describe the atmosphere is to say that it's a massive outdoor party and concert (hosted by our friends at Soundpony) that stops every four or five minutes to allow some of the world's best cyclists to pass through as they make a brutal climb. Bottom line is that it's a guaranteed good time for everyone.
Gran Fondo tour rides
You can tell that an event is gaining momentum when every year the crowds get a little bigger, the teams a little more elite and the events/atmosphere a little better than before. Some of the highlights of the weekend are the "Gran Fondo" tour rides (meaning "endurance" or "long distance" rides) that take place on both Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday you can choose from distances of 24, 40, 68, 109 and 127 miles, while on Sunday you can choose from distances of 35, 63 and 104 miles.
This year the Tulsa Tough crew has introduced yet another twist called "Ride with the Pros." They have confirmed twenty-six professional cyclists who will join the ranks of amateur riders and take part in one of the Gran Fondo rides. Malcolm McCollam, executive director for Saint Francis Tulsa Tough, has likened this experience to "taking batting practice with the New York Yankees."
How often do amateurs get the opportunity to ride right alongside some of the best in the world? One of the 26 riders to confirm their involvement in "ride with the pros" is Jelly Belly/Kenda team member, and growing Tulsa Tough legend, Brad Huff.
Be assured: Whether it's Friday night under the lights in the Blue Dome Criterium, Saturday in the Brady Arts District, Sunday's finale along Riverside or either of the GranFondo Tour rides offered Saturday or Sunday, Tulsa Tough will not disappoint.
Am I saying that Tulsa is the greatest cycling city in the country? I wouldn't go that far -- but when you consider the size of our city in relation to the cycling community, events, networks and trails that are at our disposal, it's obvious that Tulsa has something really special. Maybe more than anything, Tulsa is a city where the cycling community has been increasingly growing and gaining traction for years. As Tom Brown put it, "There are a lot of great people in this city who are working really hard to make this a great place to ride your bike." I think that hard work is paying off.
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