The pandemic visual etched in my memory is of me and my husband riding our bicycles 6 miles from our home in east Wichita, Kansas, to the core of the city. Once there, we would ride to the tops of parking garages for an aerial view of the mostly deserted downtown district, take a bridge across the Arkansas River to peek through the gate of the newly constructed but quarantined minor league ballpark and ride down blocks we had never taken the time to explore.
On the return trip to our house, we would cruise down the middle of the main thoroughfare just because we could. A few times, we even did this at 5 p.m. on a Friday when the streets would typically be crowded with commuters heading home in their cars and others driving downtown for happy hour. With a metropolitan statistical area population near 800,000 people, this is not a route I normally felt comfortable riding.
I felt guilty that—for at least a few hours—I was able to ignore the reason we had the roads nearly to ourselves and enjoy seeing this city I had lived in for 25 years from a new perspective: on two wheels and not worried about getting run over by traffic.
We were not alone. Though we rarely encountered other cyclists on these routes, we saw riders in our neighborhood and on the rail trail near our house. Stores couldn’t keep bikes in stock, and service departments were overwhelmed with demand.
According to data gathered by bicycling advocacy group People For Bikes, cycling established itself as one of the pandemic’s most popular forms of recreation and exercise by May 2020 after remaining static since 2009.
Bicycling has been around for more than 200 years. Most of us rode as children, but it took a global pandemic to remind some of us of the benefits of riding a bicycle. I realized that while biking was something I did regularly when traveling for work or vacation, I didn’t always take advantage of the cycling resources in my own backyard.
A Cycling Revival
Some folks needed an alternate workout when their gyms closed. Others just needed an escape from the house during stay-at-home orders, especially if they were working from home and had children attending school virtually. A few likely rediscovered bicycles they forgot were in the garage until they used the shutdown to clean and declutter.
Industry groups say the cycling renaissance that started in spring 2020 across all demographics continues for numerous reasons. Year-end data compiled by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the nation’s largest trails advocacy organization, shows nationwide trail use in 2022 was 45% higher than in 2019. While demand dipped 1.5% compared to 2020—the most significant year for trail use on record—it still grew 9.5% from 2021.
“When trail use spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, people were flocking to the outdoors to find safe spaces to connect with each other, to find respite and to be active,” says Torsha Bhattacharya, research director at RTC. “It was hard to predict the long-term implications of surging trail use in 2020. Now, after several years of sustained demand for trails, it’s clear that this is a trend and that this infrastructure is essential to people across the U.S. These consistently high levels of trail use reinforce how critical this infrastructure is to our physical and mental health—as well as the well-being of our communities.”
Beyond trail counters for the numerical data, RTC conducted an online survey about the perceptions of trails and active transportation. Respondents cited exercise, enjoying a bike ride or walk, spending time in nature, recreation and managing stress as the top reasons for using trails.
Other explanations given by the bicycling community for the continued growth in interest include rising fuel prices, focus on self-care and more bicycling opportunities at destinations and attractions, from bike-share programs to guided tours.
Riding Options for All Levels
Every state has thousands of miles of roads and trails for bicyclists of every skill level. There are cycling opportunities for every type of rider and all riding styles. Whether you consider yourself a hobbyist, an enthusiast, a competitor or a commuter, you can find events and routes that feature wide, tree-lined former railroad beds, paved roads and paths, rugged trails just wide enough for a single tire and gravel roads offering unspoiled scenery in remote areas.
Railways converted to multiuse trails are among my favorite to ride, likely because I grew up able to ride the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad corridor in the early stages of it becoming a state park. I appreciate the even surface, places to stop along the routes, lack of vehicle traffic and the abundance of scenery often accessible only via the trail.
Serious and casual cyclists come from around the world to experience Katy Trail State Park, the longest developed rail-trail in the United States at 237.7 miles east-west across the middle of Missouri. The park is about 100 feet wide with a 10-foot-wide crushed limestone trail stretching from the western terminus in Clinton through the Osage Plains until it crosses the Missouri River at Boonville and follows its path for 165 additional miles to Machens, just west of St. Louis.
There are 26 trailheads, four fully restored railroad depots along the route, and many points of interest on and off the trail. Cyclists can find self-guided itineraries online or sign up for shuttle services, guided rides and other special event rides throughout the year.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy counts more than 2,000 rail trails covering 24,000-plus miles of rail trails on the ground across all 50 states. Visit www.railstotrails.org to find one near you.
Cycling on paved roadways is one of the most accessible ways to ride. Serious road riders use lightweight bikes and are committed to long, sustained rides, whether on flat urban and rural roads or mountain road climbs. Many bike races happen on pavement, though commuting and recreational riding can be considered road cycling, too.
Most cycling publications and websites create annual lists of their favorite U.S. scenic road routes, including the Blue Ridge Parkway from North Carolina to Virginia, the Natchez Trace Parkway from Mississippi to Tennessee, and California’s Big Sur Coast, to name a few.
For the recreational cyclist, the flat, 15-mile loop along the Shark Valley tram road within southern Florida’s Everglades National Park is epic for the alligators and other wildlife you will see up close.
Or take the 8-mile spin around Michigan’s Mackinac Island so you can brag about having traveled on M-185, the only state highway closed to motor vehicles.
My most recent ambitious road ride wasn’t as easy as I expected when I heard “Drive up, bike down” at Pikes Peak in Colorado. Adventures Out West led the trip they call the highest bike tour in the United States.
The ride starts early in the day to avoid the heaviest traffic on the 19.5-mile summit road, so keep that in mind and wear layers for the day. They loan you a parka and gift you a neck gaiter—accept them and use them. The drive up in an open-air Jeep is chilly, and the temperature during the first portion of the descent from 14,115 feet is near freezing.
Surprisingly, the ride is not completely downhill. There are a few spots that require some work. Fortunately, the guide stops along the way to keep the group together, take a break and offer tips for the next section. A support vehicle follows the group to help manage vehicle traffic coming down the mountain. The ride is exhilarating, and the sweeping views of the Colorado Rockies make the effort worthwhile.
Mountain biking is one style that intimidates me, especially after trying out a few trails that required technical skills I didn’t have. That means I limit myself to hiking when visiting destinations with worthy mountain biking trails.
The Northwest Arkansas region built a 5-mile trail in 2007 and has been aggressively building its bicycling community since then. The OZ Trails network boasts more than 300 miles of routes of varying difficulty for mountain bikers and gravel riders, as well as the 40-mile, multiuse paved Razorback Regional Greenway connecting the area’s major cities. In the middle is Bentonville, where you can access two trail systems just off the town square.
What caught my attention is the Women of OZ organization offering programming to connect women riders of all abilities. It offers a ride the first Saturday of every month that includes a free fundamental skills clinic, followed by guided rides for beginners to advanced riders.
There is an easy explanation for why gravel biking is the fastest-growing style of riding: There are more than 2 million miles of unpaved roads across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The industry considers anything that is unpaved as gravel. The ideal equipment falls between a mountain bike and a road bike.
“We don’t have to construct anything—the roads are already here,” says LeLan Dains, cyclist and owner of Gravel City Adventure & Supply Co. in Emporia, Kansas.
LeLan is a former co-owner and race director for Unbound Gravel, a race through the Flint Hills, Kansas, rugged landscape of hilly roads dotted with sharp limestone rock and soil filled with even harder chert, or flint. The event started in 2006 with 34 riders and now draws 4,000 competing at distances ranging from 25 to 350 miles.
“Unbound Gravel was not the first gravel cycling event, but I would say that it was the event that made gravel world famous,” he says.
Kansas isn’t the only state with tens of thousands of unpaved public county roads, but LeLan believes the quality and diversity of the topography of these roads make for interesting, unexpected rides for first-time visitors.
While the epic rides get the publicity, there are plenty of leisurely gravel rides to start with. Choose a beginner route with less mileage, fewer feet of climbing and less intense topography. Most bikes can be used on gravel, but talk to an expert about appropriate tires and ask for tips for handling loose gravel.
If you missed the pandemic bicycling surge, it’s not too late to hop on. Use these resources for ideas on getting out and exploring by bike, whether staying close to home or traveling afield.
Follow the Rules of the Road
The League of American Bicyclists’ five rules of the road prepare you for safe and fun bicycling no matter where you’re riding.
Follow the Law
You have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers. Obey traffic signals and stop signs. Ride with traffic; use the rightmost lane headed in the direction you are going.
Make your intentions clear to everyone on the road. Ride in a straight line, and don’t swerve between parked cars. Signal turns and check behind you well before turning or changing lanes.
Ride where people can see you, and wear bright clothing. Use a front white light, red rear light and reflectors when visibility is poor. Make eye contact with others, and don’t ride on sidewalks.
Anticipate what drivers, pedestrians and other people on bikes will do next. Watch for turning vehicles, and ride outside the door zone of parked cars. Look out for debris, potholes and other road hazards. Cross railroad
tracks at right angles.
Ensure your tires are sufficiently inflated, brakes are working, the chain runs smoothly and quick- release levers are closed. Carry tools and supplies appropriate
for your ride. Wear a helmet.
League of American Bicyclists, bikeleague.org
Use the map feature to find local resources, including bike clubs, bicycling advocacy organizations and Smart Cycling classes. The league also shares safety information and tips for bicycle commuting.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, railstotrails.org
Find information about trails and their initiatives in all 50 states. One initiative, the Great American Rail-Trail, aims to create a multiuse trail that stretches more than 3,700 miles between Washington, D.C., and Washington state.
People For Bikes, peopleforbikes.org
The mission of this bicycling advocacy group is to make bike riding better for everyone. Its Ride Spot app makes it easier to access rides via a platform that integrates stories, images, routes and a social network.
Find trail maps, walking and biking directions to local trails, contact information for local trail managers, and status updates about trail facilities for more than 40,000 miles of trails nationwide using this searchable database. Though the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy manages it, the database includes all types of trails. There is a free version and an annual subscription with additional features.
MTB Project, mtbproject.com
This website/app is dedicated to helping mountain bikers discover and enjoy trails—the data is rider-submitted. AllTrails, Bikemap, Google Maps, Komoot, Ride with GPS and Strava are just a few apps available to find routes and plan rides for all types of riding.
Local Bike Shops
Most local bike shops offer state bicycle maps and information on local rides.
Check with city, regional and state tourism agencies for information on bicycling where you live or visit.