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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
Central Arkansas Recreational Peddlers – www.carpclub.com