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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

City of Bicycles

Milwaukee is enjoying a bike-friendly makeover

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Though the city is renowned for manufacturing motorcycles, Milwaukee also boasts an active bicycling subculture. With so many local bike clubs and group rides popping up around the city, it's not difficult to find one to suit any cycling niche. And now, as the city takes steps to improve its cycling infrastructure, biking here stands to further, ahem, inflate.

"We're right on the verge," says Dave Schlabowske, Milwaukee's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. "Our bike use is up 250% in the last five years since we started adding bike lanes. Bike lanes only add a certain percentage of people. You need to add trails, bicycle boulevards and other things to get the rest of them. Once we start doing that, I think we'll see our growth continue to rise."

In September, the Common Council approved a bike plan that would do just that. The 10-year blueprint outlines 153 miles of bike lanes, 54 miles in boulevards and 14 miles of paved trails that will expand the city's bike network almost threefold. The total cost is estimated at $8.6 million, though funding will require approval for each individual project.

The goal, Schlabowske says, is to become as bike-friendly as Minneapolis and Madison, two cities with high ridership and thorough bike networks.

"We're a little behind the curve," Schlabowske says, "but we're moving in the same direction."

The growing local interest in biking is reflected by the spike in bike-themed events around the city. Various local organizations and businesses are offering more weekly and monthly rides than ever before. For instance, the Bella Donnas, an all-female biking club, holds 6 p.m. rides on Mondays starting from Crank Daddy's, and Cory the Bike Fixer offers Thursday rides at 6 p.m. as well. Steve Roche of mkebke.com arranges monthly themed rides, and Schlabowske uses his blog, overthebarsinmilwaukee.wordpress.com, to plan laid-back trips to brunches and farmers' markets.

In addition to these social and meet-up rides, there are many major bike rides and gatherings planned for the summer. Here is a preview of some of the more notable ones:

MAY

Motorists often use the excuse "But I didn't see you!" to justify nearly flinging a bicyclist into the asphalt. While sometimes those complaints are justified, drivers usually just aren't paying attention and are surprised to see a skinny, two-wheeled vehicle riding alongside them. To bring more awareness to those gas guzzlers and remember those cyclists killed on public roads, Ride of Silence encourages riders to traverse the roads quietly and at a relaxed pace on May 18. The worldwide event offers more than 200 starting points, including 7 p.m. ride times at Wheel & Sprocket in Fox Point and Waukesha State Bank.



JUNE

The cantankerous Hoan Bridge rebuilding project that's beleaguered the city for years finally has a plan in place, but the county seems unwilling to implement a relatively inexpensive bike path. Never fear (unless you're afraid of heights): United Performing Arts Fund is permitting only bike traffic over the bridge for its annual fund-raiser, Ride for the Arts, sponsored by Miller Lite, on Sunday, June 5. Cyclists have the option to steer along 5-, 12-, 25-, 50- and 75-mile routes that navigate along the lakefront. The ride begins and ends at the Summerfest grounds and helps support the local performing arts.

Ride for the Arts serves as the precursor to the city's Bike to Work Week, five-days (June 6-10) of educating commuters that cycling to work can be safe, refreshing and fun. Annual activities include a group ride with Mayor Tom Barrett, a Brewers outing and various bike training seminars.

On the following Saturday (June 18), one of the city's longest-running rides, The Fat Tire Tour of Milwaukee, celebrates its 27th year of beer and bicycling. Starting and finishing at Best Place, 901 W. Juneau Ave., this glorified pub-crawl prides itself in going off the beaten path. Last year, cyclists dressed as characters from The Big Lebowski and stopped at a few area bowling alleys. This year's theme borrows from Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

Held the same day, The Tour de Cure makes for a less intoxicating endeavor, though the $150 registration fee can stretch the wallet as much as a bar tab. Thankfully, the event supports a good cause. This year marks the tour's 20th anniversary of supporting the American Diabetes Association. The fund-raiser is a fun ride instead of a race. Ride lengths span from a short, 10-mile family ride to a 100-kilometer trek along the Ozaukee Interurban Trail.

JULY

Colorado-based, bike-friendly company New Belgium Brewing stages a traveling, cycling circus throughout the country called the Tour de Fat. On July 30, it stops at Humboldt Park. Attendees are encouraged to wear oddball costumes and ride outlandish bikes. The premiere event for Milwaukee in 2010 proved successful, raising $12,000 for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

It's not as much about endurance as just having a good time in the neighborhood-looping, daylong race that is the Riverwest 24. From 7 p.m. July 29 to 7 p.m. July 30, cyclists compete in solo, team and tandem categories, stopping at various checkpoints to earn bonus points. The race highlights the neighborhood's community-oriented and counterculture sensibilities. The 600-participant ride sold out in two days, but volunteers are still needed.

AUGUST

The Cream City Cycle Club holds regular group rides throughout southeastern Wisconsin, but all pale in comparison to its Century ride on Aug. 28. As the name implies, its longest route covers 100 miles. The ride begins in Waterford and includes a few planned rest stops along the way, stocked with water and homemade goodies.

Local Bicycling Resources Online

Looking for information on biking in Milwaukee, or on local bike clubs or group rides? Here are some places to start:

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