Alabama and the Cycling Frontier
Our first full day in Alabama, we borrowed some bikes and joined a small group of folks on a 20-mile loop through the farmland outside of Montgomery. The overcast sky threatened rain and thunderstorms at any minute, and we passed old, crumbling farmsteads and small pre-Civil War cemeteries.
The traffic was nonexistent. I asked Jeff if it was because it was Sunday or if that was the normal traffic volume – and he smiled and said it’s normal to not see any cars out there. So far, so good.
We were in Alabama to speak at the first statewide bicycle summit, and to meet with a few communities interested in bicycle tourism. We were excited (after all, the South is the frontier for bike advocacy), but we truly had no idea what to expect from our week-long visit. Would it be a living stereotype? Would there be more to eat than fried chicken? Was it a joke to think that anyone might ride a bicycle there?
On our second day in Alabama, we drove to Selma. It turned out that we happened to be there on the same week as the voter rights march from Selma to Montgomery, 50 years ago. A large group was walking the route in honor of that historic event, and the visitor’s center was buzzing with activity. For me, it was surprising and humbling to find ourselves in the middle of something so significant.
In Selma, the blocks of empty downtown buildings met us with sadness and resignation. The tall brick buildings date back to the early 1800s, and you can almost envision what it must have been like when there was enough commerce to support them all.
The Montgomery Bicycle Club put on a ride to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the march. They expected only a handful of people – and had to cut off registration when it reached 350. They estimate an economic impact of $300,000. But they had to bus participants to the beginning in Selma, because there’s no lodging.
Could this really be a bicycle tourism destination? The history and culture are incredibly strong draws, but is that enough?
At Redemptive Cycles in Birmingham, a large and diverse group turned out for pizza and beer and talk about cycling. Here, there is a burgeoning bike culture, with tall bike jousting and an independent coffee roaster and a new bike share system which is slated to open in the fall.
Several hours to the South, we visited the town of Fairhope, along the Mobile Bay. Fairhope is a small community, literally built around utopian ideals. The downtown is exceedingly walkable, they’re starting to stripe bike lanes, and the whole town shows up along the beach each evening to watch the sun sink into the bay. It couldn’t have been more different from Selma.
In Fairhope, we were treated to a round-town bicycle tour so we could see the “castle” built by a local artist and a segment of the Eastern Shore Trail. We ate gumbo and jambalaya and far too many beignets.
And we learned about a new mountain bike park in the nearby community of Foley. One day, someone noticed that people were biking on the hiking trails through a nature area. Rather than kick them out, they worked with the local bike shop to design purpose-built mountain biking trails.
Back in Montgomery, there was an interview on Alabama Live, followed by a short bike ride with staff from the Mayor’s office and a pre-Summit happy hour. The manager at the restaurant suggested the First White House of the Confederacy, just around the corner, as the one thing we should see before leaving town.
Alabama is a surprisingly beautiful state, and a bit of a conundrum. Rolling hills in the North, the Gulf and Mobile Bay in the South. Trees and farms and the most biologically diverse waterways in the US. And, yet, outdoor recreation hasn’t really caught on.
The Summit, which initially drew us to Alabama, was the finale of our trip. After five days spent in various parts of the state, talking with folks about bikes and tourism, reading visitor brochures and trying to grasp the various experiences on offer, we joined 30 or so folks to talk about bicycling in Alabama. From DOT to tourism to Forest Service to advocates across the state, the most striking thing about the Summit was that it brought together people who had never before been in the same room. Maybe that’s what all Summits are about, but it felt remarkable in a place like Alabama, which seems like one of the last places to consider adopting cycling as a part of its culture.
Our week was spent digging in and questioning the possibility of cycling in Alabama. In many ways, bike tourism is already happening. There are pockets of opportunity for cycling and there are energetic, enthusiastic people who are working for safer, more comfortable riding experiences. And, yet, there’s no denying the incredible uphill battle that advocates are facing. What happens next is anyone’s guess. But we’ll definitely be watching, with our fingers crossed.
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