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Can Bloomington Be Called the ‘Biking Capital of the Midwest’?

On a cold Tuesday evening in February, I decided it was time to try my hand at off-road distance cycling. I had recently purchased a basic “cross” bike — a bicycle that resembles a road-racing bike but has larger tires and a different frame geometry to help with cycling through gravel, mud, and light snow. With a cross bike, I could explore more of the paved, gravel, and forest roads around Bloomington — something I would soon realize I had been missing out on.

Starowitz, an avid road biker, also rides a cross bike, which allows him to explore more of the area's paved, gravel, and forest roads. | Photo by Chase Wischmeier

Starowitz, an avid road biker, also rides a cross bike, which allows him to explore more of the area’s paved, gravel, and forest roads. | Photo by Chase Wischmeier

Not only is Bloomington is home to one of the premier cycling events in the United States (the Little 500), an award-winning bike tour (the Hilly Hundred), and the location of an Oscar-winning film featuring biking (Breaking Away), it also has the most bicycle commuters per capita in the Midwest (ranked 12th in the U.S. at 5.5 percent). While some may argue that Madison or Chicago is the Biking Capital of the Midwest because of their topnotch city-biking infrastructures, we’ve got the rest.

No other part of the Midwest has access to the diversity of riding options that southern Indiana has, including its topography (Indiana ain’t flat?). Whether it’s gravel, road, or mountain biking (MTB), this type of terrain diversity is essential for getting a total cycling experience. In cycling, it’s easy to become one dimensional. Mixing up a cycling workout and cross-training on various terrain is a challenge, helping cyclists become stronger and more focused. Varying the terrain also provides an endless landscape of Instagram-worthy routes for #roadslikethese, and it offers a better chance of discovering a new route — one that is best kept a secret.

“We have so many amazing resources right in our backyard, yet a lot of people haven’t even been to Griffy, Yellowwood, or Hoosier National,” says Don Galligher, owner of Revolution Bike and Bean and DRT Consulting, which provides bike training, coaching, and team management. “A bike is a great way to do that up close and personal. You can cover a lot of ground and get intimate with your surroundings. Running, hiking, and cycling can get you closer to that experience.”

But this is a recent development.

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“We never thought biking in state parks was going to be a thing in Indiana,” Galligher says. “It wasn’t till the International Mountain Bike Association [IMBA] gave the state an ‘F’ in trail systems that really got the local MTB community motivated to improve the trails. They were able to convince the DNR and other stakeholders of the value and feasibility of quality trails. This was the beginning of the Indiana chapter of IMBA, called Hoosier Mountain Bike Association [HMBA]. Prior to this, there were no properly designed trails for mountain biking in southern Indiana.”

Starowitz tried his first off-road distance riding — which lets bikers experience many riding surfaces — on a cold evening last February. | Photo by Sean Starowitz

Starowitz tried his first off-road distance riding — which lets bikers experience many riding surfaces — on a cold evening last February. | Photo by Sean Starowitz

In the year or so I’ve known Galligher, he has kept my 20-year-old road bike going and has offered guidance on Bloomington cycling. Eventually, he said, “You should check out the Rev Ride on a Tuesday.”

A group ride seemed like a good way to break in my new cross bike and meet other riders, so one Tuesday evening last February, I went on a Rev Ride. Hosted by Revolution Bike and Bean, the Rev Ride is an all-surface ride that has been happening weekly for about ten years. Each ride starts on Lampkins Ridge Road and covers anywhere from 20 to 30+ miles of mixed-terrain riding, often circling through Brown County and touching Yellowwood or Hoosier National Forest. It’s a healthy mix of road, gravel, and some trails to boot, depending on what everyone is riding (both cross and MTB bikes are encouraged). Distance and terrain depend on the loop, time, and how riders are feeling that day. The ride is open to anyone, regardless of skill or experience level. Though this may seem daunting, beginning riders typically start with 20-mile rides. The benefit of doing this with a group is that no one gets left behind and new riders will find others who match their skill level.

With the wrong pedals and tires for this type of ride, and without a headlight, I ventured out that February evening with no expectations — and the hope not to wreck or embarrass myself with a new group of riders. I survived. More than that, there was something about riding on gravel, at night, with limited vision and the security of a group of riders that allowed me to lose and find myself over the course of those two hours. Similar to a “runner’s high,” I felt heightened senses and a new sense of connection with my body. It was just me and — with little light — the gravel road. All worries had washed away and I was totally in the moment. As I rode back to the city, I found myself wanting more.…

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Bloomington is an enigma of a place. Its mystery lies at the exact intersection of rural and urban geographies. It’s not one or the other but it’s both, simultaneously. Bloomington has the best road and trail riding in the Midwest and some of the most enthusiastic and devoted riders, but the city’s biking infrastructure needs improvement. Can Bloomington claim to be the Biking Capital of the Midwest when it doesn’t have a proper pedestrian-focused infrastructure for day-to-day bicycle commuting? The City is making strides, but as a community it’s important to think radically different about how people move and interact with the town. Think about it. Let me know your thoughts. And I’ll come back to this topic in an upcoming article.

A few resources

Gravel, trail, mountain, and road — southern Indiana has it all. Here’s how to take advantage of the Biking Capital of the Midwest.

MTB Project App — With an ever-expanding database of over 100,000 miles of trails, a community of dedicated contributors, and a completely free mobile app that works even without cell service, MTB Project is your comprehensive guide for mountain biking trail maps and information nationwide. A must-have.

Strava — The Facebook of Fitness. Strava is a social fitness network that is used to track cycling, running, and swimming activities, among others. (I’ve had a few friends track their lawn mowing.) Not a must-have but not a bad app if you’re looking for tracking purposes with some social capabilities (groups, clubs, and encouragement from friends).

Bloomington/Monroe County Bicycle Map — A collaboration between the Bloomington Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Commission, the City of Bloomington Planning and Transportation Department, and the Monroe County Planning Department. The map is free (printed and online). Be cautious of some of the color coding on the county map — it may show that a road is ideal for bicycles but doesn’t indicate if it is gravel. You could be descending down a hill and, well, if you’re not on a cross bike….

The MTB Project has a database of more than 100,000 trails in the U.S.

The MTB Project has a database of more than 100,000 trails in the U.S.

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A few route recommendations

Road The Morgan-Monroe Forest Loop (and if you’re feeling adventurous, Boltinghouse Hill on your way back into town) — This is a classic road experience for cyclists of all levels. The route is approximately 30 miles and gives the perfect diversity of topography, views, and road riding in Monroe County. Head north on Old State Road 37 (enjoy the short punchy climbs and views), take a right on East Anderson Road, then a left on North Bean Blossom to enjoy another climb and shady trees as you enter Morgan-Monroe State Forest. When Bean Blossom Road meets Forest Road, take a left and ride a few miles to the exit of Morgan-Monroe. Turn left onto Old SR 37 and head back to town via either Firehouse Hill on Old SR 37 or, if you’re up for it, take a left off of Old SR 37 onto East Boltinghouse Road. Save yourself as you prepare for one of the toughest road climbs in the county — steep and relentless (a 14 percent average grade, up to 18 percent!), but rewarding as hell. From there you can take a right onto East Bethel Lane, then take a left on North Hinkle Road to cross Griffy Lake, eventually coming to the 45/46 Bypass. Alternatively, you could turn left onto Bethel Lane to the intersection of State Road 45 in New Unionville. Take a right on SR 45 to head back into town or turn left to Yellowwood or to wind your way over to Lake Lemon.

Riders can choose from an abundance of roads that pass through the beautiful topography of southern Indiana, such as this, Monroe Dam Road, by Monroe Lake. | Limestone Post

Riders can choose from an abundance of roads that pass through the beautiful topography of southern Indiana, such as this, Monroe Dam Road, by Monroe Lake. | Limestone Post

MTB Brown County State Park — The Mountain Biking Mecca of the Midwest. What else is there to say? I’m intentionally keeping this section short, but it deserves so much more. Get yourself a year-long pass and hit the trails whenever you can. Start with Limekiln if you’re a beginner skill level and work up to the flowy Green Valley Trail. When you’re confident and want to test your technique, attempt to climb Hesitation Point and try the rock gardens.

Members of the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association dig out a large rock during their work on Crooked Creek Loop. | Photo by Jesse Smith

Members of the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association dig out a large rock during their work on Crooked Creek Loop. | Photo by Jesse Smith

MTB Crooked Creek — A recent triumph by the HMBA, which was three years in the making and 100 percent worth the wait. It’s an absolute delight of Yellowwood Forest and a masterpiece of trail building. You’ll see the craftsmanship of a trail made for and by trail riders. The trail is punchy and technical, but immensely rewarding. To get there, take Trail 1 to the Yellowwood dam at Miller Ridge Mountain Bike Trail and shoot an immediate left onto Crooked Creek Loop. If traveling to the trail by car, take State Road 46 east, turn right onto Crooked Creek Road, and park at the top of the hill.

Gravel Yellowwood from Town — The Mule Trail (also part of the incredible portfolio of trails by HMBA) is a fantastic experience of weaving in and out of an old forest road. The trail, which is for both cross and MTB, is moderate in skill level and offers very special woodland to explore and get lost in. About 3/4 of the way into the trail, the smell of pine is overwhelming. Take a deep breath and enjoy. It’s my absolute favorite right now. Depending on how far you want to go, start at East Lampkins Ridge Road and head east, turning north on South Friendship Road. Turn east on State Road 46, then in less than half a mile turn southeast onto East Kent Road. Kent eventually turns due east and Ts into T.C. Steele Road, where you turn south. Just after the road veers left, take Bartley Ridge trail to Miller Ridge trail and you’ll hit Trail D. If traveling to the trail by car, take SR 46 east and take a right onto Crooked Creek Road and park at the top of the hill.

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New to Biking?

There are many options for group rides in Bloomington and the surrounding area. | Photo by Sean Starowitz

There are many options for group rides in Bloomington and the surrounding area. | Photo by Sean Starowitz

Bloomington Community Bike Project’s Earn-a-Bike program allows anyone to volunteer three hours of their time for the opportunity to build a bike using the Bike Project’s gently used frames and parts. For free!

PACE Bike Share is now available in Bloomington. This is a recent accomplishment by the City of Bloomington to supervise the market of Ride Share programs. It’s a joint project between Indiana University and the City of Bloomington and allows bikes to be parked and locked anywhere. The bike doesn’t need to be locked at a designated PACE bike rack.

Get involved in the cycling community and join a ride. Here are a few options in Bloomington:

Rev Ride — Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. Meet at Eastview Church of the Nazarene on East Lampkins Ridge Road and State Road 446.

Bloomington Bicycle Club — Multiple date/time options. Location varies for each ride.

Bloomington Velo — Multiple date/time options. Location varies for each ride.

Yellowwood State Forest Bike Trails – HMBA — Facebook Group

Brown County MTB Group Rides — Facebook Group

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Contributors
Sean Starowitz
Sean M. Starowitz is an artist/community member whose work focuses on issues and challenges within our built environment. He is a 2010 graduate of the Interdisciplinary Arts program at the Kansas City Art Institute. From 2010 to 2015, he was the artist-in-residence at the Farm To Market Bread Company in Kansas City, Missouri. Sean currently lives and works in southern Indiana as the assistant director of the arts for the City of Bloomington and teaches at Indiana University. When he’s not in the studio, teaching, or in City Hall, he enjoys reading, running, and cycling.
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