Richmond, Virginia’s Two-Wheel Renaissance
A grassroots awakening to the fun and the function of urban bike infrastructure has reformed this once-conservative, car-happy Southern capital into a thriving recreation economy.
If you enjoy ripping down trails on two wheels, you already know that Virginia is a hot destination for mountain biking. The Shenandoah Valley offers thousands of miles of mountain biking trails, with a network of singletrack that flows through the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains from Strasburg to Damascus. Anchored by the Shenandoah Mountain 100, an ultra-distance mountain bike race through some of the region’s gnarliest terrain, Virginia’s biking network rightly attracts shredders from all over the world.
While the state’s mountains and valleys have historically been the attraction to riders, the newest biking destination in Virginia isn’t in its backcountry; it’s located in the center of a 200,000-person city.
Not Your Grandfather’s Virginia
The capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia since 1780, Richmond’s legacy as the heartbeat of the Confederacy during the Civil War branded it a conservative, sometimes racially divided city. In recent years, though, an influx of breweries, coffee shops, galleries and hip restaurants have opened, luring in a younger, hipper crowd. Suddenly, the white-water rafters and kayakers who
flocked to the city to run the class IV rapids on the James River had a reason to stick around after paddling. Climbers on the Manchester Wall had new options for a post-climb beer. Off-road triathletes started flocking to the city to compete in the popular XTERRA race series, which the city started hosting in 1998. Then, Richmond was chosen to host the UCI Road World Championships in 2015. And for locals like Greg Rollins, who is the president of rvaMORE, a bicycle advocacy group in the Richmond area, and is passionate about building—and riding on—great trails for mountain biking, the race was on to amplify the enthusiasm for biking by building more trails around the city.
In Search Of A Car-Less Commute (and More Trails)
As president of rvaMORE, a group of volunteers dedicated to advocating for and building sustainable trails in the Richmond area, Rollins’ goal was simple: He, and others passionate about bikes, wanted to build infrastructure that would make it possible to bike to work—without having to get in a car. They also wanted to create a trail system that would be accessible to beginners, families, and even handcyclists. More bike lanes and trails lead to a greener, healthier city, argues Rollins—whether you’re a road biker, a mountain biker, or a once-in-a-while commuter.
“When you build bike infrastructure, you create a community that’s more oriented around biking and walking,” Rollins reasons. “That’s the impetus that’s needed to create other kinds of tangible change.”
A Network of Trails to Unite a City
While building berms and carving corners is a critical part of expanding Virginia’s outdoor-recreation opportunities, politics also play a role. Last year, three Virginia outdoorists—a lawyer, an energy lobbyist, and the Nature Conservancy’s director of legislative affairs—teamed up to form the Virginia Outdoor Recreation Caucus, a bi-partisan group that focuses on promoting outdoor recreational opportunities, advancing public policy, and bolstering related businesses.
“Outdoor recreation is a big part of our economy – more than I had even realized when we began the caucus,” said David Bulova, a Virginia delegate who helped found the VORC. “It is a great feeling to know that we can expand access to outdoor recreation while also growing jobs for Virginians.
“I grew up in the middle of suburban Fairfax County. The woods and creek behind my house were there because of planners and decision-makers who purposefully decided that those things mattered. As Virginia’s population continues to grow, there is more of a need than ever for our elected officials to proactively preserve and protect open space for future generations. That is why I jumped at the chance to help launch the Outdoor Recreation Caucus with friends from both sides of the aisle. I wanted to be one of those decision-makers who made sure that future generations would enjoy what I did as a child.”
Spearheaded by outdoorsmen and women from both sides of the political aisle, the caucus provided an opportunity for Virginia lawmakers to get outdoors together; in the case of Richmond, it also spawned the Richmond Regional Ride Center.
A “Ride Center” is a special designation assigned by the International Mountain Biking Association for a significant network of mountain biking trails that are accessible for all skill levels. The RRRC is significant in that it’s the only Ride Center located in an
urban area. Its designation as an adaptive sports center also makes it unique, as it includes a specially built section in nearby Pocahontas State Park that’s accessible to handcyclists. The RRRC now represents a nearly-complete effort to rehabilitate 15 miles of existing mountain-bike trails at Pocahontas and to construct an additional 20 miles of trails. It’s also linked to trails in the James River Park System, uniting cyclists across a large swath of central Virginia.
“The neat thing is that the trails out at Pocahontas aren’t just for your die-hard mountain bikers,” says Craig Seaver, Virginia State Parks director. “On a Sunday you’ll see small children—some even with training wheels and streamers on their little pink bikes—as well as folks in full biker attire.”
The new trails also open the park up to a new demographic: Handcyclists. For Jody Shiflett, director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America racing team, Mid-Atlantic Chapter, the wider, purpose-built handcycling trails provide critical access to people who are wheelchair-bound.
“These trails get people in wheelchairs back into sports and back into nature,” Shiflett says. “It lets us start exploring our abilities differently. When you start having positive experiences outdoors, you become healthier in mind and body.”
And, he says, it’s critical for handcyclists to be included on mainstream trails such as Pocahontas. “We don’t want to be sequestered in some remote location where people can’t see us,” he says. “When we can ride trails like these as handcyclists, it lets the world know this is possible, whether they want to participate, or have family members or friends who want to volunteer to help.”
Bikes Drive Social Growth
While off-road trail-building has been a major focus in the Richmond area, the Virginia Capital Trail has also had a large impact on getting people across the state out on two wheels. A public/private partnership between the Virginia Department of Transportation and the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation, the “Cap Trail” is a 52-mile mixed-use path connecting Richmond and Williamsburg. It opened in October of 2015, and as Seaver notes, resulted in “people everywhere along the trail. That has an impact on industry, on the economy and also improves the overall quality of life—all of which are good things for the region.”
“We see the bike paths and greenways as the super-highways to the mountain bike trails; everyone can use them in some fashion.” —Greg Rollins, president of rvaMORE
And while you could argue that the mountain biker hucking jumps and carving berms isn’t the same person who is commuting to work or inspired by the UCI World Road Biking Championship, Rollins sees all types out on the roads and trails.
“The biking demographic is wide here,” he says. “We have people who are buying homes near the trails so they can ride more, and we have more casual riders who are getting out there on their Wal-Mart bikes,” he says. “We see the bike paths and greenways as the super-highways to the mountain bike trails; everyone can use them in some fashion.”
And when everyone’s using trails, everyone benefits—and not just people who ride bikes.
“As we kept building trails around the city, we noticed that the work we were doing was having an impact on safety. As trails went in, we moved a lot of bad behavior out, opening safe spaces up for the public to use.” —Greg Rollins
When the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge opened in 2016, it allowed two formerly cut-off neighborhoods to meet over the James River or along one of the many bike- and pedestrian-friendly spots between Southside and Brown’s Island. Suddenly, two once-segregated neighborhoods had direct contact with each other, and the bridge made it more enticing to explore other parts of Richmond via foot or bike.
“For me, what started out as an access issue—advocating for parks to be used for biking, and working on trails to connect various systems—soon revealed other benefits as well,” Rollins says. “As we got into it, we started to see the mental and physical health benefits for children and adults as they added more activity to their lives.”
And as Seaver notes, with adult obesity rates in Richmond hovering at 28 percent in 2012, residents can’t afford not to take advantage. “With the epidemic of ADHD, childhood obesity, and diabetes, access to parks should be a given,” he says.
The health benefits were more or less expected, given the nature of the project. But what Rollins didn’t expect were the nontangible benefits to the community at large.
“As we kept building trails around the city, we noticed that the work we were doing was having an impact on safety,” Rollins says. “As trails went in, we moved a lot of bad behavior out, opening safe spaces up for the public to use.”
For one of Rollins’ friends, a new trailhead and its related community activity made the difference between being afraid to run through her neighborhood—an area of the city known for its drugs and sex activity—and a brand-new, safe running route.
“And that’s one of four or five similar places where that’s happened,” Rollins says. “You can’t put a dollar value on that.”
Driving Economic Growth
The outdoor industry is big business. Nationally, Americans spend $887 billion on outdoor recreation each year; in Virginia, outdoor recreation generates $21.9 billion in consumer spending. According to Seaver, Pocahontas sees 1.4 million visitors annually—“and the season for biking seems to go year round,” he notes. While about 57 percent of Virginia residents participate in outdoor recreation each year, and at least 197,000 Virginians work in jobs related to the outdoor industry, accounting for a large sector of users, the rest are tourists, plugging additional money into Virginia’s economy through spending on gas, hotels, dining out, and gear rentals.
For Giant/Liv bicycle rep Michael Delano, the renewed interest in biking has greatly improved his bottom line since 2003, when he first became a Giant dealer.
“A few things spurred the interest in cycling: the dip in the economy and rising gas prices, increased city congestion and the general health of the population,” he says. “But also, the city started investing in its infrastructure, and opening miles and miles of trails that don’t interface with cars. I sell so many more bikes now because it’s a safe system to ride on. It’s all because of access.”
“The city started investing in its infrastructure, and opening miles and miles of trails that don’t interface with cars. I sell so many more bikes now because it’s a safe system to ride on. It’s all because of access.”—Michael Delano, Giant/Live bicycle rep in Virginia
That access was made possible through various funding streams: grants from entities such as REI, funding made available through city and state options, bipartisan funds (such as those used for Pocahontas) and the generous donations (of both time and money) from folks like Greg Rollins and his team of volunteers.
“What we’ve done at Pocahontas is we’ve built a safe environment for families and beginners to learn on,” Rollins says. “And at $20,000–50,000 a mile, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to bring the community together. We’ve got the natural resources already—the river and the park system. Now that we’ve got the access, everything is falling into place for Richmond.”