Here it is, finally: Richmond's soon-to-commence, nine-day cycling orgy and the region is awash with hundreds of lean, sleekly clad athletes racing on two wheels for world-class honors. Yet, with some irony, these are not exactly the people Max Hepp-Buchanan might have in mind each day he pedals his own machine to work as the director of Bike Walk RVA, a subsidiary effort of Richmond Sports Backers.
No, in Hepp-Buchancan's trade of advocating for regional bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, the gung-ho types have their own category in transit-research studies.
They are the Strong and Fearless.
Very little will stop the Strong and Fearless from taking the 50-mile training ride out of town on a narrow two-lane country road. Very few obstacles in the frenetic city traffic will intimidate them from threading through cars to get to class, to work, to the local hangout or home; they wear everyday cycling on their rolled-up pant sleeves.
The category subdivides as well: There are the sport and fitness riders (most likely to be seen in their flashy full "kit" or racing gear), die-hard commuters (who labor to and fro like pack mules) and the ire-inducing "scofflaw" riders (young, sans helmet and with an air of invincibility, very often).
These are the cyclists many of us recognize on the road when we raise a fist at a kid in skinny jeans who runs an intersection in a game of chicken against the right of way. Strong and Fearless is the fit amateur enthusiast hunched over the handlebars and fiercely hugging the white line on Route 5 as we nervously steer into the oncoming lane to pass and get back to speed. Or we notice the daily commuter who has nobly and meticulously equipped herself to get to work while burning calories without burning fossil fuel or her bank account.
And the Strong and Fearless, unfortunately, are also sometimes the people we read about in car vs. cyclist fatalities. They are the very visible cautionary tales that sow doubt in some of us.
For all their visibility, Hepp-Buchanan notes, these bike riders make up only a tiny sliver of the entire pie chart showing how people feel about cycling in their communities.
"It varies by study and locality," Hepp-Buchanan says, "but generally what we see is 1 to 3 percent are Strong and Fearless."
"Until you make an infrastructure that appeals to more than only the strong and fearless (cyclists)," Hepp-Buchanan says, "you're only going to attract the strong and fearless." (Photo courtesy of Max Hepp-Buchanan)
Maybe you are the pragmatic rider — Enthused and Confident — a slightly bigger category that describes 7 to 11 percent of us, Hepp-Buchanan says, and practically, also includes commuters who are encouraged by dedicated bike infrastructure.
About one-third of people surveyed in the studies, Hepp-Buchanan says, are squarely in the No Way, No How crowd.
This brings us, of course, to the holy grail of Bike Walk RVA's existence. These are the Interested but Concerned, and according to Hepp-Buchanan, most studies estimate this to be about 60 percent of us.
Think of the young family who would rather go for ice cream or to the grocery store on bikes than to load up in the minivan; the 60-year-old couple who would like to slow pedal around town for some fresh air, to look at classic old houses and to see flowers in bloom; or the would-be commuter who eyes a few tricky roads that still seem too crowded and too risky.
At the helm of Bike Walk RVA since March 2013, Hepp-Buchanan has made the rounds in the city and surrounding counties to assist grassroots groups, residential communities, business districts and public officials throughout various phases of planning and implementing new bike-pedestrian features in certain neighborhoods.
"It's really about connecting people to where they want to go — the library, their schools, the shopping center," he says.
It was odd weather one early June morning — cool, humid and overcast — when I first met Max, who came rolling up to the Earlybird Biscuit Co. on Lakeside Avenue on his well-traveled, trusty Surly bike. Amid the waft of freshly baked bread coming through a screen door, you could also smell the rain coming, and Hepp-Buchanan was geared up for that eventuality.
The helmet-wearing 34-year-old hails from one of the nation's uber bike cultures, Seattle, where a 65-degree June day is not uncommon and where he worked in a progression of bike-pedestrian planning and advocacy jobs that eventually made him the perfect choice to lead the Sports Backers' offshoot effort.
Hepp-Buchanan had come to Lakeside from his Ginter Park home to meet with members of the Lakeside Business Association about adding traffic-calming features and bike lanes to Lakeside Avenue between Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens and Bryant Park. As it is now, the road is a heavily traveled thoroughfare, a commuter route for sure, but business owners are eager to slow the people down and entice them to visit, shop and enjoy themselves. They also want nearby residents to feel comfortable visiting without getting in a car.
That same night, Hepp-Buchanan was due to show up for a public meeting in Chesterfield County to hear community feedback on the county's Special Area Plan for Bon Air, which outlined a number of bike-walk infrastructure projects for that specific neighborhood. The idea, it seems, is to bring back more of the village feel it had in its origins.
Since that June day, in just a few months, Bike Walk's direct and indirect efforts in Bon Air and Lakeside have moved closer to reality.
In Lakeside, Hepp-Buchanan says, about 20 business owners have already made preliminary moves toward aneighborhood plan of their own, working with Virginia Department of Transportation and the county's traffic engineers to consider the changes needed to accommodate more foot and bike traffic. Meanwhile, they have started a “bike-friendly business district”, offering retail incentives for customers who bike in on Saturdays, a play to inspire more bike culture in the area.
The Bon Air Special Area Plan got another round of consideration just this week in a second public meeting hosted by Chesterfield County, and Hepp-Buchanan expects that soon, if residents and planners agree, the blueprint will make its way to the county board for approval.
Also, seemingly overnight (thank you, Impending Big Bike Race), new bike lanes showed up in the city in recent weeks, introducing new color cues and road markings to motorists and cyclists alike. Anyone know what a "contraflow lane" is? Or a "conflict zone?" If the markings are done well, a transit planner might say, they should make it clear and intuitive without ever having to explain.
Hepp-Buchanan is a diplomatic, calm and intelligent guy, and he has to be to deal effectively with so many vying interests while introducing the concept of a new culture — bike culture — to a region that traditionally resists change. The UCI Road World Championships have served as an amplifying and accelerating influence for Bike Walk RVA, but the real work is still there to be done when all the glamour is gone in two weeks. And as it turned out, one key reason that the UCI gave Richmond such strong consideration for a historic return of this event to U.S. soil was the idea that it could leave something behind, what they term "legacy projects."
With that, perhaps some of the next great American cyclists will come to the sport because there was a lower threshold of entry, more infrastructure for the Enthused and Confident riders, freeing them from the more fearful mindset and luring them into saddle.
"Until you make an infrastructure that appeals to more than only the Strong and Fearless," Hepp-Buchanan says, "you're only going to attract the strong and fearless."