Sorry, Portland

Posted by Eric Smillie

A primer on the best burgeoning bike scenes in North America


In any list of the best biking cities on the continent, Portland, Oregon, would certainly come out on top (with some cries of foul from San Francisco cyclists). But there are plenty of other North American cities where people move on pedal power. And in the wake of the 2008 spike in gas prices and boom in bike sales, municipal governments are attempting to make things easier for riders. We've measured everything from the League of American Bicyclists' comprehensive Bicycle Friendly Community ratings to the frequency of informal street races to bring you snapshots of seven places where the gears are turning. (A glossary of terms–including the dangerous races called alley cats-is listed at the end of this article.)

Albuquerque, NM


(Pictured above)

Population: 518,000
Workers commuting by bike: 0.8%
Alley cats a year: 20
People at Critical Mass (approximately): 125 per ride
Bicycle Friendly Community rating: Bronze
Miles of bike lanes and trails: Nearly 400

Scene: With mountain trails in the Sandia range next door and flat roads in the city, Albuquerque has options along with its near-constant sunshine. The access roads to the city's flood-control canals have become a car-free system of paths, and you can spot roadrunners off the Paseo del Bosque trail along the Rio Grande. The city is scheduled to launch a bicycle-rental program called Q Bike this year, and the advocacy group BikeABQ recently won cyclists the right to the equivalent of a whole lane on regular streets. Riders take advantage with poker rides, during which participants cruise from one bar to another, drawing a card at each stop until they have a full hand to play for prize money. Bikers here also have their hearts in the right place: The handful of volunteers at the Community Bike Recycling Program refurbished and donated more than 1,000 bikes to elementary school students and the homeless. For those in need of a little more action, the city also boasts the world's largest covered BMX track, Duke City BMX.

Austin, TX


Population: 743,000
Workers commuting by bike: 0.9%
Alley cats a year: 80
People at Critical Mass (approximately): 300 per ride
Bicycle Friendly Community rating: Silver
Miles of bike lanes and trails: 258

Scene: Even in the beastly heat of July and August, Austin bike lanes bustle. The city's largest bike club, the Austin Cycling Association, has 1,500 members, annually gives away more than 1,000 helmets through its safety education program, and runs up to 10 rides a weekend. Of the many other community rides, a standout is the Tour das Hugel, which takes advantage of the local hills to climb 14,600 feet in 105 miles. "It just goes up and down these horrible little streets, all without ever leaving the city limits," explains Association president Stanton Truxillo. The Hangover Rover on New Year's Day, a longstanding alley-cat street race, includes a scavenger hunt. If you just need to get yourself rolling, join the hundreds of people who teach themselves repair skills each month at Yellow Bike Project's free workshops. In its Earn-a-Bike program, volunteers who do 12 hours of work gain the right to build their own rides.

Miami


Population: 409,000
Workers commuting by bike: 0.1%
Alley cats a year:12
People at Critical Mass (approximately): 60 per ride
Bicycle Friendly Community rating: Not registered
Miles of bike lanes and trails: 22

Scene: In a city with temperatures averaging 77 degrees, just a few weeks of rain per year, and a maximum elevation of 40 feet above sea level, we'd expect a bigger biking community, and one might be on the way. Miami adopted its first bike plan in 2008 with a push from the advocacy group Green Mobility Network and the Everglades Bicycle Club. Fixed-gear ridership is flourishing: "There were five dudes riding fixed in the streets here two years ago," says the blogger and Critical Mass organizer Rydel Deed. "Today there are about one hundred." The Firefly collective runs a free repair center downtown on Saturdays where volunteers can work to build their own free bikes. It also organizes outings like a trip last November that started with homemade vegan pizzas and ended at a local bar to shoot a black-metal music video.

Minneapolis


Population: 377,000
Workers commuting by bike: 3.8%
Alley cats a year: 30
People at Critical Mass (approximately): 600 per ride
Bicycle Friendly Community rating: Silver
Miles of bike lanes and trails: 122

Scene: Even 56 inches of snow each year cannot smother Minneapolis's beating heart of bicycling. "I don't know if I dare say the alley-cat scene is the biggest in the country, but it's ridiculous," says Jeff Frane of the Bike Jerks crew. A recent women-only street race saw 123 riders, and the 2008 Stupor Bowl drew 400. Chalk up some of the depth to local companies like the national distributor Quality Bike Parts, the bike manufacturer Surly, and a contingent of custom frame-builders like Capricorn Bicycles. Plus, the place is flat, which obviates the need for gears. "Minneapolis is huge for single-speed mountain biking. It's basically the birthplace of it," says Frane. "In winter, they handle the snow better and don't need much maintenance." In summer, meanwhile, bike polo matches run three times a week. The scene gets hefty support from the city, too: The local administration has earmarked funds to install self-service bicycle rentals and 45 more miles of trails and lanes by 2010, and the city's 5.5-mile Midtown Greenway, a path that cuts all the way across the city's south side, has been so successful that riders are clamoring for more.

Montreal


Population: 1.6 million
Workers commuting by bike: 1.1%
Alley cats a year: 20
People at Critical Mass (approximately): Unknown (but it has 408 friends on Facebook)
Bicycle Friendly Community rating: Not registered
Miles of bike lanes and trails: 280

Scene: Montreal is on a roll: It now has a $134-million plan that will nearly double its bike-path mileage and quintuple its parking by 2015; it also has a commitment from the city government to keep a growing number of routes plowed through the hideous Northern winters. Vélo Québec, a regional advocacy and cyclo-tourism powerhouse with more than 5,000 members, has been instrumental in establishing the province's 2,485-mile Route Verte, the longest network of cycling paths in North America. In town, the Skids in the Hall crew holds competitions in fixed-gear feats like skids (slide the farthest), track stand (stand in place the longest), slow races, and tag. Not sure your ride is up to the challenge? There are more than 50 bike shops in town, including the fixed-gear-only boutique Brakeless. If you just need a tune-up, head to one of the city's seven do-it-yourself community workshops listed on the website of the local organization Right to Move.

Pittsburgh


Population: 311,000
Workers commuting by bike: 1.1%
Alley cats a year: 9
People at Critical Mass (approximately): 100 per ride
Bicycle Friendly Community rating: Not registered (working on it, though)
Miles of bike lanes and trails: 36

Scene: The city recently appointed Pennsylvania's first bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, and the mayor is pushing for cycling infrastructure improvements. An advocacy group called Bike Pittsburgh more than quadrupled its membership to 800 in three years and throws a ten-day BikeFest annually. Volunteers at Free Ride repair old bicycles to earn their own, putting 500 back on the street a year. "We're the ‘gateway drug' of cycling," says coordinator Eric Boerer. "People get a cheap bike that works, and some get hooked and move on to more expensive ones, then give their old ones to friends." Members of the fixed-gear scene ride in events like the peg leg race during the Pirate Bike Olympics, and polo matches happen twice a week. The terrain ranges from the flat banks of the Allegheny River to Canton Avenue, arguably the steepest hill in the United States. The city's hills make for good mountain biking and some wicked soapbox derbies by the Pittsburgh Illegal Soapbox Society.

Salt Lake City


Population: 180,000
Workers commuting by bike: 2.1%
Alley cats a year: 12
People at Critical Mass (approximately): 50 per ride
Bicycle Friendly Community rating: Bronze
Miles of bike lanes and trails: 169

Scene: Every Sunday evening, cyclists grab children's bikes and hop the TRAX light rail to the top of the hill at the University of Utah, then speed down as though they were 9 years old. It's called the U-bomb, and it's one of the City of the Saints' many rides that range from the amusing to the intense (like the late-night, dangerous-sounding Blackout). If you don't want to go anywhere, Salt City Sprints hosts indoor "races" with bikes bolted onto stationary rollers. For more traditional outings, try the Bonneville Cycling Club. Canyon trails for mountain biking start at the edge of town. Polo matches are open to all on Tuesday evenings at Liberty Park. The Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective runs a do-it-yourself and volunteer community shop, with women-only hours the second and fourth Wednesday of the month, and the yearly Pedal Pusher Film Festival. Come the full moon, a crew of freak bike riders takes to the street on Franken-bikes with triple-decker frames or built to look like zebras and horses.

Glossary

Critical Mass: Organized rides where bikers and bike activists take to the streets en masse in order to stop traffic and draw attention to cycling issues. They usually occur after work on the last Friday of every month (although some cities have them more frequently). They drive police crazy.

Alley cats: These are potentially dangerous and usually illegal street races that are particularly popular with bike messengers.

Bicycle Friendly Community rating: The League of American Bicyclists' scores (from bronze to platinum) for a local government's investment in engineering, evaluation, planning, education, encouragement, and safe policing for and of bicyclists.

Fixed gear bicycles: These have only one gear fixed to the back wheel and often no brakes (you peddle pedal backward to stop). Favored by bike messengers and hipsters everywhere.

Bike polo: A sport-in practice since 1891, but more recently adapted for urban environments-in which cyclists use a mallet to hit a street-hockey ball into a goal. 

Albuquerque photo by Jesse Phillips. Austin photo by Ian Blair. Miami photo (CC) by Flickr user Koitz. Minneapolis photo by Andrew Ciscel. Montreal photo (CC) by Flickr user Sashamd. Pittsburgh photo by Noah Lovejoy. Salt Lake City photo by Danielle Mariott.