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The Free Times: 50 Words or Less

As seen in the "After the Rust" column in the March 9-15, 2005 issue of the Free Times.

50 Words or Less

Bike Town: finally, a distinction Cleveland can be proud of

by Michael Gill

CLEVELAND HAS HAD ITS SHARE OF DISTINCTIONS. This year, besides the bleak and embarrassing marks that have been so frequently reported, we have a title that will make at least 50 people very happy. Thanks to the editors of Bicycling magazine and a push from a local bike shop owner, the city is part of "Bike Town, 2005."

Bike Town is the concept of Bicycling editor Steve Madden, who wondered two years ago what stories he and his staff would get to tell if the magazine gave away 50 bikes in one city. Would it change people, help them lose weight, stop using cars so much? Would it change the community in any way -- as a catalyst for bike lanes, or two-wheeled community building?

It would certainly make good copy and give the sponsor some great PR.

So Madden started with Portland, Maine, and asked residents to send 50 words or less telling why the magazine should give each entrant one of the 50 bikes. Each winner got a bike and was asked to write about the results in a journal. Last year they did it in five cities. You can read about the results in the March issue of Bicycling. This year there will be 20, including Cleveland. The list has yet to be finalized, but also includes Philadelphia, Ann Arbor, Austin, and Washington, D.C.

To win a bike, you just write 50 words or less about why you're so deserving. If yours is one of the 50 stories they like best, come June you'll get not only a fine machine, but also a helmet, lock, clothes, and classes on maintenance and safety. In return, they ask that you keep a journal through the summer. Did you lose weight, or save time and money? Did you spend quality time with the dogs chasing your wheels through Rockefeller Park? Did you use the bike at all? Did you bring the kids?

Being named Bike Town, as it turns out, is not a mark of distinction in any competitive sense. I asked the magazine's spokesperson, Chris Brienza, if they selected Bike Town cities in any systematic way.

"That would probably be giving us too much credit," he said.

As we talked, though, it became clear that Cleveland's main attraction was quite a good one: potential.

Brienza mentioned the flat landscape, which makes it a little less intimidating for novice riders to get started. But every city in the Midwest can say that.

He says Cleveland distinguished itself by having a lot of "greenbelt space," and by being in a state that the editors felt "did not have a reputation as being an extremely bike-friendly place."

The word "potential" sounds great, but it also implies that there's room for improvement.

Brienza says the Bicycling folks thought shining the national giveaway spotlight on Cleveland could help give a little boost to bike-related projects such as lanes and other facilities.

"It hasn't been an area where there has been a lot of that," he said.

Cleveland also had an advantage in Lois Moss, the co-owner of Century Cycles, which happens to carry bikes made by one of the sponsors. And she networks constantly with local government and bike advocacy groups.

Moss is hoping the Bike Town giveaway will bring some new energy to the many advocacy projects around town. Last week at Jane Campbell's Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting, she told the assembled that Cleveland would be a Bike Town this year. She brought notes on all the various bike initiatives in the city, and added more in the margins. It's a long list. Cleveland may have a long way to go towards bike-friendliness, but thanks to Lois and many others, the course is being charted.

But hanging in the back of my mind through all this optimism is the belief that the most important piece of bike-friendly infrastructure a city can have is human: it's people who want to ride bikes, and badly enough that they actually do it.

The same logic applies to the bicycle itself. It's not hard to get your hands on a bike in Cleveland these days. The price of a good bike has never been lower. For less money still, a person can go to the Ohio City Bike Co-Op and learn to build one from recycled parts. Or look around town on garbage day and pick up a servicable throwaway.

Do you want to get healthier, worry less about whether gas reaches $2 a gallon, and forget about parking lots? Want to balance, charge, and glide your way to the office?

Enter the Bike Town contest. Fifty people will get free bikes. But whether you win or not is entirely up to you.