About half-way
through the ride I figured out how cold it really was. It was sunny and
probably about 45 degrees but the driving wind made it feel like it was
30. I hadn’t been on a bike in months, but had decided this was the day
to pick up a hobby I had dropped long ago. Not only was I inadequately
dressed — an understatement — but out of shape too, and painfully so.
However, the food, hot shower and night’s rest that followed were the
best I’d had in a long time. Maybe I had made a good decision after all.

Every Sunday at 1
p.m., members of the Arkansas Bicycle Club and Bicycling Advocacy of
Central Arkansas gather at the end of River Mountain Road near the
Arkansas River and set out on a 35-mile ride. It’s laid-back but fast,
challenging but fun. Riders of all levels are invited to come and if
you fall behind someone will always be there waiting for you.

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The ABC ride is just
one of many you can join any given week. It’s part of a biking
infrastructure that has grown up around Pulaski County over the years.
Central Arkansas’s reputation as a bike-friendly culture has grown with
it but there are still some improvements to be made. For every cyclist
that says Little Rock is a bike-friendly town, there’s another who says
the city doesn’t have enough bike lanes, signs or cool-headed drivers
on the road. And while almost all can agree that the Arkansas River
Trail has been a boon to not only bikers, but joggers, walkers and
skaters too, critical parts of the trail remain unfinished.

“Ten years ago, you
wouldn’t have believed it but we’re a biking destination now,” says
David Holsted, who is organizing the 6th annual Tour de Rock bike race
that takes place in June. “People come here from out of town and they
know to bring their bike, and that reputation is going to continue to
grow.”

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Part of the draw is
the soaring Big Dam Bridge pedestrian and bike path over the Arkansas
River, which connects the North Little Rock and Little Rock portions of
the River Trail. But the River Trail’s planned 14-mile loop is
incomplete, and a group called Close the Loop, a task force created by
BACA, is pushing for completion of the trail.

North Little Rock’s
portion of the trail is ideal — bikers share only a tiny portion of the
7-mile route with automobiles. The rest is dedicated to bikers and
hikers, a wide asphalt path that takes a scenic route along the river
and includes a side loop through woods near the Big Dam Bridge. But
less than half of the Little Rock trail is on a dedicated path and when
it emerges from Rebsamen Park Road to climb to downtown Little Rock, it
requires bikers to share the four-lane Cantrell Road and take some
complicated turns on city streets to find their way to Riverfront Park.
To cross the river again, bikers have to share the road with traffic on
the Broadway Bridge or use the Junction Bridge, which requires an
elevator ride.

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Holstead says
completing the trail — which would include turning the Rock Island
Railroad Bridge on the Clinton Library grounds into a pedestrian
bridge, a long overdue project — would make the ride safer for younger
and more inexperienced riders, and also bring business into the River
Market.

“Experienced cyclists
know how to handle riding in traffic, but that’s difficult for young
cyclists experiencing the trail for the first time. People would love
to come down the trail and go to the River Market and buy a drink or
eat down there but right now they can’t do it. An experienced rider can
handle it, but an 11- or 12-year-old? No way.”

Little Rock’s parks
department is negotiating with Union Pacific to work out a right-of-way
agreement to allow bikers to safely follow alongside and cross the
tracks. Bikers and city officials would like to see the trail run
alongside the river, instead of through busy downtown streets.

“The trail puts you
on the sidewalks of streets and narrow bridges. So they’re basically
saying, ‘cyclists, stay out of my way,’ ” says Tom Ezell.

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Ezell is a licensed
cycling instructor with the League of American Bicyclists, and a member
of BACA. He says riding on the River Trail forces cyclists to break
some rules of the road.

“You’ve got several
city laws that are more stringent than state laws — you have to ride
with the traffic, you cannot ride down one-way streets and you cannot
ride on the sidewalk. So, the way they’ve engineered that really makes
it a hazard to a lot of cyclists and it teaches or reinforces some bad
riding habits.”

Jim Britt is the
president of the ABC. He agrees with Ezell and says the downtown part
of the trail can be confusing for visitors and experienced cyclists
too.

“I get calls every
couple of months from people who are coming to town for business and
they want to know where they can ride their bicycle. I tell them their
best bet is to go to North Little Rock and find the trail over there,
because you can’t really find it in downtown Little Rock. We ride it,
but you have to take so many zigzags that a visitor wouldn’t be able to
locate it,” Britt says.

There are some signs
that direct cyclists where to go, but they are sparse and once you lose
the trail, it can be difficult to find it again.

Dan Lysk, manager of
Arkansas Cycling and Fitness in Sherwood, says he gets calls all the
time from people who get lost on the trail and call for directions. 

“Finishing that up will be good for tourism and will help people traveling out of town on business,” Lysk says.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola says the trail is technically complete, though not optimal.

“We’ve got some
physical and geographical obstacles there,” Stodola says. “Nothing on
this project has been easy. It’s all been a challenge, but we’re going
to get it done.”

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 Getting to work

 

While more signage
would help bikers find the river trail, signs would also help raise
awareness of commuting cyclists throughout the city.

Danielle DePreux
bikes everywhere — to work, to the grocery store, to grab a cup of
coffee. She says that while she does experience some hostility from
drivers at times, Little Rock is becoming more and more bike friendly.
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement.

“Bike lanes, public
awareness, more signs — all those things would help,” she says. “I
think what this town is lacking right now is a general awareness of
bikers. We need to put ourselves out there a little bit more, because
it’s really a mutual respect thing. Bikers need to obey the rules of
the road and the cars need to do the same — respect a bicycle as a
vehicle and not try to squeeze by them or honk at them for no reason.”

Some of that respect
has to come from the city. City officials are working with Metroplan, a
transportation planning organization for Central Arkansas, to paint
large arrows, or “sharrows,” on city streets with a speed limit of 35
mph or less. These 10- by 3-foot pavement markings will remind drivers
to share the road with cyclists and will also serve as a guide for
bikers.

DePreux says that
even though biking to work can be a little stressful, the benefits far
outweigh the negative aspects of commuting.

“The environmental
benefits are obvious. You’re not driving as much, you’re using less
gas, so it’s less pollution. The physical benefits are outstanding. You
get your daily exercise. People are always trying to fit in 30 minutes
of exercise into their schedule and never can. Riding is an easy way to
get that done,” she says.

Of course, economics
are a concern. Riding a bike can cut down on your costs, but a good
bike can cost a pretty penny. Jim Britt says that a good bike can set
you back a bit, but the initial investment is worth it.

“I think this is a
great time for people to get into biking. Gas prices are going to go up
again. A good quality bicycle is kind of like an airplane. If you take
care of it, it will last forever. It’s a good investment. Healthwise,
you can’t beat it because you’re getting exercise at the same time you
have to be heading somewhere anyway,” he says.

 

Getting going

 

Dan Lysk boasts that
Central Arkansas has a trail system like no other state in the South,
offering both long, smooth rides and off-road routes.

“Arkansas has some
phenomenal mountain trails and the River Trail provides access to a lot
of them,” Lysk says. “You’ve got Burns Park, Camp Robinson, Allsopp
Park. I can’t think of any other metropolitan city that has the trail
infrastructure of Arkansas.”

Dave Schons is a
carpenter by day and an avid mountain biker in his spare time. He rides
the roads sometimes too, but says mountain trails offer something
special.

“There’s a danger factor that goes into
mountain biking,” he says. “The risk of crashing is higher just because
the trails are rough and you go over rocks and it’s dirty. Riding in
the dirt just comes natural to me. There’s a thrill-seeking aspect,
plus it keeps you in shape.”

Schons, who works at Chainwheel on the
weekends, says the trails around Little Rock make mountain biking an
accessible hobby. For those looking to get into the sport, he says
getting a good bike is key.

“A lot of people think that bikes are
just toys, but that’s not true anymore,” Schons says. “If you’re really
going to be hammering on a bike then you need one that’s going to hold
up. Otherwise it’s going to fall apart and you’ll get bummed out right
away. A bike is more of a tool. It was probably a toy when you were 12
but not anymore.”

A good road bike isn’t
cost-prohibitive, the ABC’s Britt says. “It’s an initial investment but
then you don’t have a whole lot of costs after that. You have to get
some clothing and things come up from time to time. I complain when I
have to buy a new tire, but it’s not near as much as having a car.”

There’s one thing that seems to unite cyclists of all stripes: the freedom of the open road and simply being outdoors.

“I have maps of all the surrounding
counties so I’ll just take them and say, ‘I think I’ll head out this
way,’ and I’ll head out and get lost and see something new,” Schons
says. “If you go for 50 miles or so you can see a lot of terrain that
you wouldn’t see in a car.”

 

 Getting political

 

Politically, cyclists are a motivated
group. Groups like ABC, BACA and others are constantly talking strategy
and meeting up with public officials. The constant pressure seems to be
working. Mayor Stodola says finishing the River Trail is a priority.

The conversion of the Rock Island
Bridge is a major item on Close the Loop’s agenda, which is estimated
to cost $10 million. The Clinton Foundation wants to have 90 percent of
the funds in place before it begins construction. Jordan Johnson, a
spokesman for the foundation, says funding is about halfway there and
the foundation plans to update the city on its progress in April. 

Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines
recently announced construction would begin in August or September on a
$5 million bridge across the Little Maumelle River, on the westernmost
part of the trail, to connect to Two Rivers Park. 

Having a common recreational space, cyclists say, is an important part of attracting tourism and building a healthier community.

“The success of the
Big Dam Bridge is now showing everyone that it was the right thing to
do,” says Lysk. “There are a lot of people that use the trails and the
bridge that normally wouldn’t see each other. People are down there,
smiling at each other and connecting with others from different parts
of the city. It’s really improving the community.”

 

 For more information on bicycling in Arkansas, visit the following:

BACA – www.bacar.org

ABC – www.arkansasbicycleclub.org

Central Arkansas Recreational Peddlers – www.carpclub.com