Can cycling save rural America, and does rural America need to be saved? Good questions, and thank you to a reader for mentioning rural America and the fact that cycling is “totally impractical,” in these spacious places. Here’s the thing friend, yes and no, yes and no. If we think rural America is going to be taken over by bike commuters anytime soon we would need to first check ourselves into the closest psych ward. After a nice, long stay combined with potent therapy we might come close to understanding how unlikely this scenario is. However, bikes “saving” rural America can come in several different shapes and sizes, but first let’s talk rural America.
I grew up there. Indiana, Wyoming mostly. I love rural America. Much more than urban America. And, for you coastal snobs, the “average American,” is a MIDDLE American, many of whom live in rural environments and believe you are crazy for living where you do. Yes, you have $27 avocado toast but you are not the best representation of the country. Sorry. For those of you who don’t dwell in these places, or worse yet, condescendingly call them “fly over states,” just know that rural America is hurting.
What comes along with population decline? Well, a bevy of things like failure to maintain critical infrastructure, failure to maintain healthcare, and failure to maintain education. Ya, it’s not good. Oh, and one more thing. COVID made it worse, a lot worse. Toss in continued economic instability and corruption at the highest levels of the financial world and a superstorm builds on that beautiful horizon line of rural America. But wait, something peculiar this way comes.
Cycling. Okay, go ahead. Get it out of your system. “Milnor, what are you TALKING about?” There is NO WAY cycling will have any impact on rural America. No way, no how.” Oh, my friends, here is the punchline. It’s already happening. Fifteen years ago, in the dusty, lovely, warm backwater(meant in the most wonderful way) that is Emporia Kansas, thirty-four riders lined up for the running of “Dirty Kanza,” a one-day, two hundred mile gravel race through the Flint Hills of RURAL Kansas. Fast forward to this year’s race, now known as Unbound Gravel, when 4,000 riders did battle. Financial take from the weekend from the riders alone? $5.5 million. Yes, you read that correctly, five and a half million dollars into the local, rural economy. (Over 7,000 people hit the “buy” button over a two-minute period trying to secure tickets.)
Rural America has all the best roads. Rural America hold the keys to the best cycling in America. Emporia is no longer alone on the gravel cycling radar. Riders fearful of road cycling are switching to gravel in a major way. Here in America, gravel bikes are selling at a 9:1 ratio over road bikes. The tide has turned and we are still at the beginning the wave. Leadville, Colorado. Beaver, Utah. Bentonville, Arkansas. Trinidad, Colorado. Patagonia, Arizona. Rural and semi-rural towns realizing that bicycles are a key component to their survival. (I am currently planning a trip to Trinidad to ride a few of their epic roads where I will contribute to their local economy.)
But this cycling street is a two-way, for sure. Pulling off events like this isn’t easy and it isn’t cheap. (Permits are expensive and often transportation authorities are difficult to work with.)The local population MUST buy in. Thankfully, in places like Emporia, they have. So have those along the rural parts of the race, which in the case of Unbound is most of the race. Not everywhere will buy in. But once the economic benefit becomes clear it will more and more difficult for struggling towns to turn away.
But there is another important factor that often gets completely overlooked in the coverage of events like Unbound. City people come to the country. Like two alien species lining up to spend a bit of time together. Think spandex and Copenhagen, long cut of course. Less than 2% of Americans are involved in farming and ranching. Having grown up a part-time ranch kid, the misunderstanding of rural life, agriculture life, is profound and holding the country back in many ways. Ignorance and arrogance. But what’s interesting is during events like this the guards are down and the curiosity is up. You look weird, what are you doing here? Need some water? It’s THAT simple. So, classic cycling infrastructure and acceptance may not become the norm in rural America, at least in my lifetime, but the bike in rural America comes in many forms. It’s up to us to educate, experiment, and lead by example.
“Reader” here, my response about bikes being impractical was in the context of being a form of transportation in rural areas. This post does not address that in the least. Your examples are of recreational rides, or competitive rides or just for exercise. Your gravel routes exist mostly in the west and midwest. Throw in rails to trails in your category. All those are a fun and wonderful thing, and sure, those exist in rural areas, but they don’t get used to get to work, or shop for groceries, or pick up the kids from school. I applaud your enthusiasm for using bikes and riding bikes, but they won’t “save” rural america, not even close.
It’s like you didn’t read the post. I said that in the first paragraph. No way this means rural America suddenly uses bikes for transport or commuting. This is about another way bikes can add significant revenue into rural areas. And, this isn’t a theory. It’s been happening for fifteen years and I’ve seen it first hand. And, gravel is all over the US. Maine was loaded with gravel, Florida too, and everywhere in between. It’s not just the West. The forwarding thinking areas are taking advantage and the narrow minded areas are getting left behind. But this is true for far more than bikes or bike events.
Those trail guides are really cool! Love stuff like that. I’ve got two road bikes just collecting dust. I should probably sell them. I’m just never riding on streets again. Sell one or both and get a gravel bike.
Sell or donate…
You’re right, I apologize. Going away now.