by Jeremy Morrison
There’s something magical about riding a bicycle. Each rotation of the pedals propelling you deeper into the present moment, each new street opening up whole new worlds to explore.
It’s Christian Wagley’s preferred method of travel.
“I can smell what’s blooming, I can tell which way the wind’s blowing, I can tell you what people are cooking for dinner,” explained the bicyclist. “I just experience much more that way.”
Wagley would like to see more people experience their journeys this way, comfortably cycling through Pensacola’s streets. It’s why he helped launch the local Slow Ride events in the spring of 2015 — to encourage bicycling in the city.
“The reality is our city, the older part of our city, is fantastic for biking,” Wagley said, pointing to the city’s grid-patterned streets. “Because they were created before the automobile, so it makes sense.”
Pensacola’s Slow Ride events are scheduled for the last Friday of each month. Riders of all skill levels meet up at a predetermined location for a few miles of leisure cycling through the cityscape.
Since first beginning the Slow Rides, Wagley has watched the event bloom. For this month’s event — scheduled for Aug. 26 — as many as a couple of hundred riders are expected to participate.
“It’s really exploded on us,” Wagley reflected, relaxing with a coffee inside Waterboyz’s Single Fin Cafe a few days out from this month’s ride.
It started out simply enough. An invitation to a group bike ride. But the mission was ambitious — to encourage casual cyclists to get on their bikes, while also preaching bike safety and striving to better Pensacola’s overall bike culture.
And, of course, to enjoy the ride. Which people seem to be doing.
“People just ride around with big smiles on their faces,” Wagley laughed.
When Tim Bustos arrived in Pensacola, he immediately noticed something. There weren’t many bicyclists.
There were some cyclists, with their high-end rigs and specialized equipment. But not many everyday bike riders, riding for pleasure or for travel, and by choice instead of circumstance.
“And the bicycling I did see was pretty risky,” Bustos remembered. “People riding without helmets, people riding at night without lights.”
This was not like places he’d lived before. Places like Portland, Ore., or Boulder, Colo., places where great numbers of people tend to make use of their bicycles in lieu of vehicular travel.
“The one thing they have in common is a bike culture,” Bustos said of such locales. “It’s not just races and Lycra, or a few people riding to work, it’s a bike culture.”
This is a subject of particular interest to Bustos. He has made a career out of helping communities better accommodate and foster bike culture.
“When I first got involved there were only a handful of us doing this nationwide,” said Bustos, who recently moved back to California to take a position with the University of California, Davis, as their bicycle program coordinator.
These days, Bustos said, such consultants are almost mainstream. Communities consider being bike-friendly to be pretty important.
“The highly educated work force, these are the things they look for when moving to a community,” he said, referring to attracting employers and their employees to a particular area.
This is not what Bustos saw in Pensacola. He saw a bike culture that nearly held the casual cyclist in contempt. As if a person would only ride a bike under less than optimal circumstances, such as poverty or the loss of a driver’s license.
“They viewed it like you’re being punished,” Bustos said. “Not like it’s something you choose to do.”
Wagley is familiar with this perspective. He’s been riding the streets of Pensacola for 20 years and gotten plenty of looks down plenty of noses.
“Until recently there were very few people that rode by choice like I did,” Wagley said, explaining that he has “so many stories about being mistaken for homeless.”
“Alternately, I’ve been offered help or asked to leave places,” Wagley laughed.
The environmental and development consultant recalled one time when he rode his bike to a downtown meeting with some local officials and engineers. He knew something was wrong as soon as he locked up his bike and felt the doorman approaching from behind.
“He said, ‘Can I help you?,’ except it’s one of those ‘Can I help you’ where you know he doesn’t really want to help you,” Wagley said. “He thought I was homeless and he was trying to run me off.”
This was the doorman’s routine. Probably because there was, in fact, quite a few homeless bike riders in the area. And because he had come to view all bicyclists who weren’t wrapped in Spandex to be somehow suspect and something that needed running off.
“That has been our bike culture until recently,” Wagley noted.
That type of bike culture, or mentality, is one of the things that Wagley and Bustos hoped to change when they launched the Slow Ride. They wanted to get people back on their bikes, and educate them about how to ride safely and confidently.
“To create a bicycle culture you have to get people interested and make them pay attention,” Bustos said, explaining the decision to combine the Slow Ride concept — part of a national trend — with a dash of bike-safety education. “They’re having fun and taking something away with them.”
But, Bustos said, they try to slip the safety education in between the layers of fun. Because it can be tough to get people excited about bicycle safety.
“Most people either yawn or run the other way, I try to avoid the term ‘bike safety,’ it’s kind of generic and like something you learned from Officer Friendly in 4th grade,” Bustos laughed, explaining that the local Slow Rides were designed to educate in large part by example. “Osmosis — they’re riding with experienced riders.”
A Bike-able City
Back in May of 2015, Bustos and Wagley weren’t sure how the inaugural Slow Ride would play out. They had tempered expectations.
“We thought, ‘if we have five people show up, we’ll go for a nice ride and we’ll have a beer,’” recalled Bustos.
The first ride attracted around 30 cyclists. The next one double that. And so on, with recent rides boasting 150-plus.
“It caught on way more than we thought it would,” Bustos said.
“People were ripe for it,” said Wagley.
Turns out Pensacola was ripe for the rides as well. The city’s streets, the sprawling grid in its core, as Wagley and Bustos and other cyclists have long known, beg to be biked.
“This is why Pensacola is such a great bike town, it’s a very old city and as such it has a classic street grid system,” Bustos said. “Cities on a grid system, like Pensacola, they tend to be slower, narrower. That’s what the backbone of the Slow Ride has been — slow, easy streets.”
By sticking to the city’s slower-paced side streets, avoiding thoroughfares like Cervantes, or congested areas like Cordova Park, the Slow Ride events are able to comfortably accommodate varying skill levels.
“A lot of our riders are real novices,” Wagley said, adding that other riders are experienced cyclists who enjoy taking it easy for a change. “Fast riders like to ride slow, because it’s just a social ride.”
And in addition to getting casual riders more accustomed to biking the city’s streets — increasing their confidence level and safety awareness — the rides also serve to educate drivers about the presence of bikes.
“We’re retraining drivers in Pensacola that bikes are here and you need to share the road,” Wagley said.
The bike advocates also say the Slow Rides are capturing the attention of local elected officials, who may not be aware that a significant number of people — their constituents, the taxpayers, the voters — care about an area’s bike-ability. This was part of the plan, to increase their awareness.
“We wanted to demonstrate that there were a lot of people riding bicycles in Pensacola that elected officials weren’t aware of,” Bustos said. “Now we have Pensacola police officers riding along with the group, we’ve had Pensacola City Council members riding with us.”
A Party With a Point
These days, the Slow Rides are full fledge affairs. They are meticulously mapped out ahead of time. They feature host sponsors — like this month’s, Cycle Sports, or last month’s, End of the Line Cafe — and spreads of drink, food, and fellowship.
This month’s event features a food truck. And a massage therapist.
“It’s evolved into sort of a party,” smiled Wagley, sipping his coffee and noting how quaint that first Slow Ride at Single Fin now seems.
But a party with a point: to educate, engage and encourage casual bicyclists. To up the city’s bike culture.
“It’s kind of important in making our city a destination place to live, work and play,” said Marie Mott, who is leading this month’s Slow Ride and, with her husband, owns Trek Bicycle Store.
Plus, it’s just plain fun. Windswept, sun-kissed fun. The kind of fun that familiarizes you with your surroundings and affords the opportunity to soak it all in.
“I hear repeated comments from people marveling at how beautiful the city is,” Wagley said, relaying the revelations of riders. “When you’re in a car, you think you see things, but you really don’t see things. When you’re on a bike, without that steel and glass wrapped around you, you see things.”
This month’s Slow Ride is scheduled for Friday, August 26. The ride departs from Cycle Sports, located at 2125 N. Palafox St., at 6 p.m. Bicyclists of all skill levels welcome. For more information, visit Bike Pensacola’s Facebook page.