THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL | Chris Herrington
First the fleet took Danny Thomas Boulevard, then passed FedExForum and the National Civil Rights Museum en route to the river, past drivers both impatient and perplexed, double-taking tourists, bemused dog walkers, and at least one impromptu stoplight cheerleader.
What some visitors saw on Mulberry Street a week ago, as the magic hour approached, was a convoy of bike riders more than 50 deep. These were not all Serious Cyclists. It was a motley bunch, ages 10ish to 60ish, on tricked-out road bikes, basket-adorned cruisers, and restoration projects, a dirt bike, a pennant-bearing recumbent and a two test bikes from the coming Explore Bike Share program. Only one person wore spandex. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
It was the first Freewheel Slow Ride of the spring season, and I tagged along, for a maiden voyage, on my own well-worn hybrid.
Freewheel is a community group bike tour that had a six-nights-over-twelve weeks pilot season last fall and is back this year for what is planned to be two six-ride seasons, spring and fall. The spring season began last week with a ride to Martyr’s Park, near the Harahan Bridge, and continues for the next five Wednesday nights, a tighter schedule than last fall’s every-other-week. Tonight’s destination is the Uptown neighborhood.
The rest of the spring schedule:
- Wednesday, April 26, 6 p.m. – Uptown
- Wednesday, May 3, 6 p.m. – Vance, Peabody & Annesdale
- Wednesday, May 10, 6 p.m. – Medical District
- Wednesday, May 17, 6 p.m. – Clayborn Temple & Downtown
- Wednesday, May 24, 6 p.m. – Crosstown & Evergreen
Inspired by similar events in Detroit and Miami, Freewheel is the brainchild of Abby Miller, program director for the Memphis Medical District Collaborative, and Sara Studdard, a bike advocate who works for South Main communications firm Doug Carpenter Associates. The Memphis Medical District Collaborative organizes the rides, in partnership with DCA and the Downtown Memphis Commission.
“[MMDC] conducted 2,300 electronic surveys of employees, students, residents, and businesses and one of the most common themes was having not just big events but also regular, healthy, active events. Smaller group things,” said Miller.
“The big question for us was whether we wanted to target a ride for cyclists or for a broader group, and we definitely went with the latter. We want a ride where whether it’s your first day on a bike or you cycle every day you can enjoy it. We have some more experienced riders, from the cyclist community, and they help the other riders and help us stop traffic. They’re really great in facilitating, so that our novice bikers can just come and enjoy.”
Riders of all ages pass the National Civil Rights Museum and turn toward South Main in the first Freewheel Slow Ride of the spring 2017 season. (Photo: (Chris Herrington/Commercial Appeal))
Here’s how it works: The Freewheel home base is the parking lot next to currently dormant Kudzu’s Bar & Grill (603 Monroe) in the Edge District. Riders gather there and leave at 6 p.m. The ride is free and you don’t have to sign up ahead of time (you do have to sign a legal waiver). There are about 30 bikes in the Freewheel fleet, all rescued from the nearby former Cycle and Supply Co.building and restored by Carpenter Street Bike Shop (since expanded into Community Bikes of Memphis). These bikes are free to use, but if you want to secure one -- and get one that’s the right size -- you should probably reserve it ahead of time via a link on Freewheel’s Facebook page. Otherwise, bring your own.
The rides leave from the Edge District on a 5-7 mile, 45-60 minute ride to some point in the wider Medical District and back, where riders are invited to hang around for water or discounted beers at High Cotton Brewing across the street.
On the rides, Studdard acts as enthusiastic ringleader, yelling out advice (“perpendicular across the trolley tracks”) and encouragement (“snailed it!”), while one of the more experienced volunteers brings up the rear, keeping an eye on riders and offering help.
The routes this year are a mix of repeats (Uptown) and new rides, such as Martyr’s Park and the upcoming Annesdale neighborhood, which requested to be a destination.
Freewheel has different, complementary goals in mind.
See Your City: “We’re trying to grow biking, but the consistent message we see is that people don’t know how close things are,” Miller says. ”The physical way that people get around the city, I think, gives the perception that things are far apart, when Midtown to the Medical District to Downtown is a very bikeable distance. The feedback we get is like, ‘We had no idea this was so close or this was here.'”
On last Wednesday’s ride, the Edge District, the FedExForum area, South Main, Loflin Yard, and the the river were all linked in an easy, leisurely, hour-long round trip. Intimidated by the idea of biking from, say, Sun Studio to Big River Crossing and back? Freewheel’s lesson: Don’t be.
Become a Different Kind of Rider: Memphis has made great strides in increasing biking via our growing network of greenlines, but probably has further to go in increasing bike use on normal city streets. Increasing street biking might also increase the use of bikes as transportation rather than just as leisure. Freewheel can be a kind of gateway to different kinds of bike use.
“Last year we had someone from St. Jude who consistently would take his bike and ride on the Mud Island path. That was his normal after work thing,” said Miller. “There was this small barrier. How do I go from a trail rider to being someone who can actually use my bike to get around the neighborhood? The group ride kind of gave him the confidence to do that.
“For me it was the same way in Memphis,” said Miller. “I would put my bike in the car and go to the greenline, and there was a barrier to feel that confidence about biking to the greenline. Now, we have a lot more infrastructure. You can take the Hampline to the [Shelby Farms] Greenline. It’s just building that broader awareness about what are some really good bike lanes and routes we can utilize.”
One feeling you get on the Freewheel ride is that of safety in numbers. Cars are likely to be more aware of 50 bikes together than a single rider, so Freewheel might increase the comfort of its riders while also increasing the awareness of drivers.
“The way I look at getting people to use different kinds of transit, whether it’s walking, biking, busing, it’s like everyday you’re probably going to make that decision,” said Miller. “So if it’s a nice day and your bike is there and you just came off this great ride experience, maybe you’ll choose one day a week to start riding your bike to work or to go out to dinner or something like that.”
Have Some Fun: “The other goal is community building and fun. We’ve got an employee and student base in the Medical District, and we partnered with the DMC because Downtown has a lot of residents and it’s good to get people outside and interacting, cross-pollinating. Creating this opportunity to build community is really important,” said Miller.
In addition to expanding to separate spring and fall seasons, Freewheel also added a new home for its 30-bike fleet with a permanent storage locker/sign-up booth in the lot next to Kudzu’s. The plan is to make the fleet available for others interested in group bike rides in the area -- events, conferences, etc. And Freewheel will supplement their fleet with Explore Bike Share bikes when that program debuts, probably later this year.
Freewheel rides are typically 50-75 people.
“We’ve gone a little over that, but that’s about right for the level of infrastructure that we have,” said Miller. “If you have too many you’d need to have a police escort. We want to keep it community oriented.”
It’s a free ride, though. What if 200 people show up tonight?
“That would be a very good problem to have,” said Miller. “It would be super cool to be like Detroit, where they get 2,000 people out.”
While Freewheel was designed to explore the wider Memphis Medical District, which links Downtown and Midtown, Miller would be happy to see the idea expand. Last year, the group did a one-off ride from Soulsville to Martin Luther King Jr. Park on the river.
“We built the Freewheel brand for this ride in the Medical District, but we would love to see other groups organize community rides, and we’d make the Freewheel brand and fleet available. I think if there were multiple community rides on multiple days of the week in other parts of the city that would be super cool.”