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Oaks & Spokes highlights Raleigh's critical mass of cyclists



Our dreary winter of distasteful state government drags on, but there's daylight ahead—or Daylight Saving Time, anyway. Soon, spring will be here, and apparently $4 a gallon gasoline as well, which reminds me that it's time to put some air in the bicycle tires and try again to travel in the Capital City on two wheels.

I was inspired to do so by Raleigh's first Oaks & Spokes bicycle festival, which began Friday and continues through Sunday, March 10. Festival is perhaps too grand a word for a series of events put together in a matter of weeks by an ad hoc group of bicycling enthusiasts. That said, Oaks & Spokes got off to a great start over the weekend, underlining that our city is finally leaving its "bikes not wanted" phase of transportation planning and entering a new "What, there are bikes on our roads?" era.

Here's a point to consider: If you think climate change is for real (in other words, if you're not a Republican legislator), your gasoline-powered automobile is greenhouse-gas enemy No. 1.

"Give your car a break," the Environmental Protection Agency suggests. "Walk or bike whenever possible."

Walk the talk—or bike it—and you'll be saving the planet, saving some money and improving your health. Unless, of course, you're hit by a car. Raleigh's roads are a challenge, no doubt about it. But greenway trails are an option. Most neighborhood streets are safe and I wouldn't turn you in for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. And from zero a couple of years ago, we now have 20 miles of roads with bike lanes, sharrows or extra-wide shoulders, with 75 miles to be added within two years.

It's a start.

It was damned cold Friday night, so I eschewed the First Friday bike ride—once a month, riders go downtown from the N.C. State University Bell Tower—and headed for the Benelux Cafe in City Market. Turns out the cafe, which is displaying bicycle art, including mounted examples of racing, touring, polo and other kinds of bikes, is the gathering place for cyclists, with a social ride every Tuesday evening followed by $2 New Belgium bier. Every bier comes with a raffle ticket for prizes.

Sure enough, when the First Friday riders arrived, Alan Wiggs reported that because of the weather, only half the hoped-for 100 cyclists participated. But Wiggs, an engineer by day and chair of the city's Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Commission at heart, was upbeat about the festival and the future of bicycles in Raleigh.

"We're reaching a critical mass" of cyclists, Wiggs said. "With the new facilities coming on board, and the city's effort, we're starting to have a culture here."

Wiggs was pleased that Raleigh's new zoning code will require new buildings to have parking facilities for bikes. He was not pleased, however, about having to battle for bike lanes on corridors like Oberlin Road, Hillsborough Street and West Morgan Street—pitting his group against businesses that want on-street parking. He spit out a quick epithet on the subject, then added: "It's going to be a continuing fight."

At the Benelux, I was introduced to bicycle polo, which is played each Tuesday after the social ride in a parking lot behind the cafe. Steve Beckmeyer, a mechanic who owns an auto repair business, took up the sport a few months ago. He is now among the organizers of the first Oak City Open, Raleigh's inaugural bike polo tourney.

Except he had a problem: The tournament was supposed to be held in a city park, but because of the old "something about insurance" rule, the organizers were scrambling to find a new site for the event two days hence.

I am happy to report that they did, and the Open came off nicely Sunday at Raleigh Center Ice, where an old outdoor roller hockey pad was pressed into service by a dozen teams playing 15-minute games from morning till night. History will note that the first-ever tourney game was won by Polonoscopy, a team from Charleston, by a 3–1 score over a North Carolina club, the Krazy Kamels.

Bike polo is like polo except for the horses, and it's like hockey except there's no ice. Two riders chase a ball on bikes and try to knock it past the other team's goalie (and his bike) using homemade mallets. Like hockey, there's action along the boards, which in this case were erected overnight using plywood borrowed from the ReUse Warehouse in Durham.

"It's fantastic," Beckmeyer said. "It's far exceeded expectations."

I also met Raleigh's Polo Mom, Michelle Willcox, a software engineer who learned the sport while a student at UNC-Wilmington and introduced it when she moved to Raleigh last summer. "It's fun on a bike, and it's a competitive sport, and I love the competitiveness of it," Willcox said.

By contrast to the upstart polo tournament, Saturday's second annual Triangle Tweed Ride had the established look of an old-timey event, which is what it was. About 200 riders set out on their bikes from City Market for a leisurely ride clad in tweed jackets, tweed skirts and, in the case of Janet Kennedy, tweed bloomers—a la Amelia Bloomer, Kennedy told me, whose namesake pants liberated women from riding in skirts and dresses.

Kennedy asked me to mention the Triangle Spokes Group, which raises money and spends it—100 percent—buying bicycles for needy kids. The count so far: 2,050 new bikes, with a goal of 500 more this year.

I'm happy to mention it, Janet.

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