July 27th 2012 · 1 Comment
By Mark Ziobro
Uticans and Mohawk Valley residents have been noticing a change in bicycling trends over the last couple months. A series of two “Tour d’Utica” group bicycling events, as well as media coverage on WUTR and an article on Bicycling Trends in the Observer-Dispatch by Dan Miner showed a peaked interest in bicycling in Utica, and in making the city, and the region, more bicycle-friendly and encouraging bicycling as a viable mode of transit.
However serendipitous the recent coverage of these events, organizers and bicycling advocates have been operating in the City of Utica for more than 5 years, attempting to bring bicycling, and the community, together.
Utica Velo, a community bike shop, has been in operation since April of this year. The garage, located at 604B Columbia Street, Utica, is a service-oriented bike shop, which focuses on repairs over sales. And, because of their low overhead, are able offer repairs and adjustments at a lower cost than some other bike shops, most of which operate outside the City of Utica.
Joshua Benson, founder of Utica Velo and shop mechanic, feels that the community-based shop, spread predominately by word of mouth, has a low-key atmosphere that resonates with the residents who utilize their services.
“The difference is environment,” he said. “We encourage a ‘bike hangout,’ a place where people can talk bikes, network, and meet others that are interested in cycling. There aren’t bike shops that will throw you out for talking about bikes for hours, but they may not exactly encourage it either.”
Currently, Utica Velo has roughly 8 members who are all adamant in their desire to build a bike network and raise public bicycling awareness. In addition to Benson, members include: Savannah Heselton and Beth Marshall, Event Coordinators, Liz Morgan, Gary Acey, John Ossowski, Mark Ziobro, and Alex Moore of Mindfunk Studios.
While the Utica Velo bike shop is a haven for bicyclists, to other Velo members like Savannah Heselton, its about community.
“We live in Utica,” she said. “We like living here, and we want our City to have something good that benefits people, something that gives grounds to relate to each other, like going out riding together. We want everyone to get along.”
Group bike rides, such as the two recent “Tour d’Uticas” are nothing new for Utica Velo, who has been holding group bike events since 2006.
Benson explained that Utica Velo started in 2006, when he and his friend Seth Sypko, now living in Portland, Oregon organized a first group ride.
“Our first ride, 8 people showed up,” Benson said. “We didn’t have a destination.”
Later, Velo organized their successful “Tweed Ride,” a group ride where riders dress up in English, Post-Victorian garb. The first Tweed Ride, in 2010, garnered 15 participants, as did the next year’s ride. The rides typically are about 10-15 miles, and, according to Benson, was a chance to create a fun, themed ride.
Heselton mirrored this sentiment. “It was fun to have a themed ride,” she said. “That was the first time that we had a ride where we weren’t wandering around aimlessly.”
Most recently, the group has also undertaken organizing “Monday Night Rides,” which meet at Café Domenico, and ride through Utica as a group. Like the Tweed Ride, a typical Monday Night Ride is 10-15 miles. Utica Velo was also instrumental in helping to organize the Tour d’Utica “Green Ride” with Central New York Bicyclists and Pedestrians (CNY-BAP), and the Mohawk Valley Bicycling Cub.
In August, Utica Velo is planning a Scavenger Hunt, using digital cameras, to take pictures of a list of objects. The hunt will have a time limit, and the group is looking into giving prizes for winning and also a random drawing. There is no entry fee. As Joshua Benson stated, “All of our bicycling events are free.”
Other ‘themed’ rides, in the spirit of the Tweed Ride, are planned for the near future.
Biking as a way of life…
While the Utica Velo bike garage is a new entity, and the group is looking into becoming a full service bike repair shop and for profit business – they want to continue to plan community events, put more cyclists on the street, and raise awareness of cycling as a legitimate form of not just exercise, but transit.
“There’s this stigma of being poor, or low income, if you ride a bike,” Benson said. “Or that you lost your license. It’s losing that negative social stigma, and becoming more acceptable to bike instead of driving because it’s what you prefer.”
Heselton added: “We want to have more bicycles on the road, because it’s the most efficient way to make it safer for cyclists. It becomes second nature to make it safer for cyclists once motorists get use to them. You’re no longer surprised to see bikes behind you.”
The Velo garage also serves a population of people, who, when needing repairs, are dealing with a situation of having their only form of transportation temporarily disabled.
“If you have to walk your bike to get repaired, because you don’t have a car and your bike is your only mode of transportation, our location is easily accessible for those who bike for commuting,” Heselton said.
In the end, Utica Velo is a burgeoning organization, and their growth, according to Benson and other members, is slow, steady, and stable. What the future holds for the group? More events, more biking, and more advocacy and education. Among topics to be addressed is repair techniques, as well as bike safety courses, such as teaching people to ride with traffic, not against it, which is both illegal and unsafe.
“The roads are overpopulated with signs,” Beth Marshall said. “We’re our own signs. The more people on the road, the more they see that we are part of the road. We’re following the rules of the road with them, not against them.”
By Mark Ziobro