Oppressive heat is beginning to lift in the early evening hours.
Around 6 p.m. Tuesday evenings, cars toting bikes start pulling into the parking lot of the Burlington Creek shopping area near the Spin Neapolitan Pizza in Kansas City, North.
A couple dozen riders gather, about half looking ready to take on the 12- to 20-mile ride planned for the evening.
The other half of them look at least ready to learn.
At around the same time in Johnson County, a similar scene is happening at the Rock & Brews in the Prairiefire shopping center. It also unfolds across the metro area at Hen House in Prairie Village, Buffalo Wild Wings in Independence and Foody’s in Olathe.
Those are just the group rides accounted for by one bike club on Tuesday nights.
About a decade ago, the BBC featured a segment focusing on Kansas City — dubbing it the worst city to ride in the country. The city, which worked to earn a League of American Bicyclists bicycle-friendly bronze designation by 2011, lost that honor this June because city officials did not reapply for the status.
Other cities in the region have a mixed record in terms of building infrastructure changes to make cycling an easy choice.
However, an active community of cycling enthusiasts says the Kansas City area is, in fact, a good place to ride. Through a combination of advocacy for infrastructure improvements, partnerships with cycling-friendly businesses that sponsor group rides, and education for new cyclists on the rules of the road, the biking community is pushing for their hometown to be a first-class cycling city.
Gladstone resident Stefanie Smith says she really does not like owning a car.
“It’s just much more environmentally friendly to ride a bike,” Smith said.
Smith is interested in commuting to work from her home in Gladstone to North Kansas City. It would be about a 6 mile trip — in the dark. She is also training for a triathlon.
Both endeavors seemed like good reasons to show up at the Tuesday night Spin pizza group ride in Kansas City, North. The first Tuesday of the month offers free clinics for riders trying to improve their urban cycling skills. Since there is no off-road trail or bike lane to take her all the way to work, the class seemed important.
“I learned some good ways of keeping the road (when cars are present) and knowing the rules of when you should take the road and not let drivers pass you and when it’s not safe for drivers to pass you,” Smith said.
Eric Sligar of Gladstone also came out to the Northland new-rider clinic. It was only the fourth time he had been on a bike since childhood. He started biking because he wanted to find a new way to get in shape.
“I blew my back out running,” Sligar said. “This is easier on the body.”
After getting a deal on a new bike, he checked out the Cycling Kansas City website and discovered a ride that was close to his home that seemed friendly to new riders.
“I want to get back in shape,” he said. “I’m ready to do something.”
Michael Gier, who runs the Cycling Kansas City new rider clinics the first Tuesday of the month at the Burlington Creek group ride, says they often have people who have not been on bikes much since childhood, or have not had their bike out of the garage in 25 years. Many are uncertain about how to ride with cars on the road.
“We talk a lot about how to assert your position on the road and behave as a vehicle behaves, and how to be safe in traffic,” Gier said. “It is easy to behave erratically or get scared or uncomfortable around traffic. Having someone give you specific pointers about how to behave in traffic is very, very, important.”
Gier is a volunteer with Cycling Kansas City, but Spin paid for his training.
Gail Lozoff, co-founder of the restaurant, explains they donated money to train volunteers and offer discounts to cyclists because the sport was a part of the concept for the restaurant from its inception. It is even the reason for the restaurant’s name.
“Spin signifies spinning of our pizzas, but it’s the same word used in bicycling to describe touring, so it just seemed to work perfectly,” Lozoff said.
Lozoff and her husband, Richard, are avid cyclists. When he was a medical student in Italy, cycling through the country and enjoying pizza was a favorite activity.
The restaurant owners decided to start sponsoring regular rides about nine years ago when a customer at their Overland Park location asked if they would sponsor a racing team.
“Because our brand is so linked to cycling, and cycling is important to us in terms of community, green transportation, recreation and social interaction, it is representative of things we believe in,” Lozoff said.
While Spin has offered the rides at other locations, the Northland ride is new this year.
Kyle Frakes, who is the board vice president for Cycling Kansas City and leads the monthly group rider clinics, says he was excited for the opportunity to offer the rides north of the river.
Frakes thinks riders in the Northland are scattered. He was glad to have an opportunity to build a weekly group ride with Spin when the restaurant opened its first location in the Northland in December.
He has been behind the development of other rides north of the river and expanded the yearly Ride the Fountains Tour north to Vivion Road. Those rides bring cyclists to parts of town they normally might not experience.
The Ride the Fountains Tour sent riders as far south as 79th Street. While it does not go into Johnson County as it wanders past some of Kansas City’s most prominent and popular fountains, it crosses into Wyandotte County and brings out riders from Johnson County, north of the river and other parts of town.
Leawood residents Grace Shih and John McQueen were among the more than 300 avid cyclists who recently took on the 62-mile Ride the Fountains Tour. The two say biking is something they enjoy because they can do it together. They often ride south of their Leawood home in southern Johnson County where traffic is light.
“It’s great exercise,” McQueen said. “It’s a great way to get out and see the area and be a part of the community. To me, it’s just more active than just going to a gym and being static.”
Shih and McQueen take part in the weekly group rides, usually in Johnson County, but have experience biking in several different countries, including Holland, Spain, Italy and France. They say they have seen some places where bikers are really welcome on the road. Shih says the Kansas City area is becoming more bike-friendly.
“I think it’s getting better,” Shih said. “I wish there were more bike paths.”
Vance Preman of Overland Park served as a bike marshal for Ride the Fountains.
The volunteer for Cycling Kansas City helps people on such rides with minor problems, such as flats or chain mishaps. He said he’s seen interest in the sport grow quickly.
“We used to have four or five rides a summer,” Preman said. “Now, there are four or five rides every weekend. We see shared roads and bike lanes. People realize it’s fun. It’s healthy. It’s good for the environment, and it’s just a great pastime.”
Preman is also a lawyer who represents cyclists injured in collisions. Preman believes part of the reason biking is getting better in Kansas City is education for both motorists and cyclists.
Distracted drivers who do not see cyclists can be a dangerous problem.
Often cars turn left in front of bicyclists. Drivers need to be aware of cyclists, but Preman says cyclists also need to know the rules of the road.
“We have the same rights, duties and responsibilities as a car,” Preman said. “If we want to be treated like a car, we have to act like a car, which means we stop at stop signs, we stop at red lights.”
According to Missouri state statutes, bikers cannot be on the sidewalk in business districts. The Kansas Department of Transportation requires cyclists to use off-road options when they are available, but it gives riders all the same rights and responsibilities as a car when they are on the road.
After Kansas City lost its bicycle-friendly designation from the League of American Bicyclists, the city’s bicycle pedestrian coordinator, Deb Ridgway, said it had been working with the league toward earning a silver designation but had not realized the bronze designation needed a reapplication.
The loss of the designation was disappointing to many in the cycling community who had worked on getting the designation in the first place.
Eric Rogers, the executive director and co-founder of BikeWalkKC, says the cycling community in Kansas City was galvanized to work for positive changes in 2007.
“A lot of the cycling community is very disappointed that the city didn’t apply,” Frakes said. “People want it. They see it as a way to promote the city.”
Rogers says the bar is getting higher for those designations, and it might be hard for the city to regain it.
“The state of the art has developed quickly, and we have not kept up with innovation,” Rogers said.
Rogers says bike lanes have been planned, but not constructed. He also said new green lanes, which are essentially a bike lane with green pavement and a physical barrier between the biker and traffic, are not in the Kansas City plans at all.
Ridgway said the city is planning for 49 miles of bike lanes by 2020, although some projects have experienced delays. Barry Road is among the streets getting bike lanes, with 1.5 miles planned between Highland and Kenwood. The work there should be completed by fall.
“We are still as committed to being bike friendly. We just have to get some of these projects off of the ground,” said Ridgway.
She said the city is also reapplying for the bicycle-friendly designation and hopes to have it reinstated before the end of the year.
Rogers gives credit to North Kansas City, which recently included green lanes in a planned redevelopment of Burlington Road. Shawnee also has earned a bronze designation from the League of American Bicyclists.
Neil Holman, director of Shawnee Parks and Recreation, said it does periodic needs assessments of residents, and trails consistently come up. The system goes from commercial areas to parks and specialty areas like churches and the post office. Shawnee has 9.2 miles of bike lanes, 75 miles of bike routes and 48 miles of off-street trails.
“You don’t have to have a car all the time,” Holman said. “You can ride for both transportation and recreational. It just makes for a nicer community.”
Local cyclists are trying to make many rides open to new riders by promising a “no-one-left-behind” mentality on the group rides they plan.
Yes, some rides are for the high-speed racers, and others are simply too long for a novice rider. These no-one-left-behind rides mean someone planning the ride promises to ride with the very last rider to make sure they find their way and feel comfortable on the ride.
Chris Muehlbach, a facility manager at the museum at Prairiefire, started a regular ride at the shopping area’s Rock & Brews restaurant in April 2015. Rides are offered on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Riders can choose from routes of 12, 14, 16 or 20 miles.
Between 60 and 90 riders show up.
One of the most important parts of the ride for Muehlbach is the dedication to “no one left behind.”
“I ride with the last person to make sure they don’t get lost on the route,” Muehlbach said. “That is good for people who are new or just starting out and don’t have a lot of group riding skills. It gets new riders involved in the group and excited about coming back.”
Rock & Brews extends happy hour specials to the riders when they return. Muehlbach says about 75 percent of the riders stay around for the social time on the patio. It is good for the riders, who have worked up an appetite on the ride, and it is good for the restaurant, providing an uptick in weekday business.
A new ride north of the river at the recently opened Colony Espresso & Beer in North Kansas City is getting a slow start. Jennifer Lowe leads a Monday night group ride at the restaurant.
Lowe participates in bicycling races. She got into the sport at the encouragement of friends and tries to encourage others whenever she has the chance. She started the Colony ride because she liked the idea that the business was interested in supporting cycling.
“Any business that wants to actively support bicycling is super cool,” Lowe said.
Lowe has worked with the Women’s Racing Association doing cycling clinics and has seen that although the cycling community has been more active in Johnson County, there are plenty of people who want to ride in the Northland.
“North of the river, I wish we had a little more unity,” Lowe said.
While most rides are publicized by word of mouth or social media, several bike shops also sponsor weekly rides. Biscari Brothers Bicycles in Liberty has sponsored a Saturday morning ride for about 15 years. Riders head out to a different breakfast location each week.
The shortest distance is about 25 miles. The longest is 46. About 25 to 50 people participate every week year-round, unless there is snow and ice on the ground. Store owner Dave Biscari says the restaurants are the halfway mark for the rides, which also take care to make sure no one gets left behind.
“We try to give a little extra effort to get people involved. Our store is very community-friendly, and people want to get together,” Biscari said.
Biscari says interest in cycling is steady. He believes most of the growth in cycling has been that people are actually deciding to use bikes they already have.
“The kids are getting older,” Biscari said. “It’s replacing golf for a lot of people. They may have had a bike for years but are finally using it.”
For more information
The Cycling Kansas City website provides a calendar of some regular rides, many of which are connected to restaurants.
Visit the calendar at www.kcmbc.org
▪ Be predictable and ride at a constant speed.
▪ Use traffic hand signals to communicate turns and stops well in advance of a planned change of direction or speed.
▪ Slower traffic should stay to the right. Pass on the left.
▪ Announce hazards like holes, water, glass and gravel to other riders who might not be able to see the road as well in a group.
▪ Watch for traffic coming from the rear.
▪ Each individual should watch for traffic at intersections.
▪ Stay two abreast or single file at intersections in order to leave space for cars.
▪ Move off the road when you stop.
▪ Ride one or two across.
▪ Remember that by law, bicycles are required to follow the same rules as motorists.
From the League of League of American Bicyclists