When James Wilson and his wife moved to Delaware, the couple only had one car, and hoped to keep it that way. Wilson planned to ride his bicycle to the University of Delaware, where he was pursuing a PhD in material science and engineering. But he was disappointed to discover that there was no reliably safe route to campus from his house, and the Wilsons begrudgingly bought a second vehicle.
Years later, his short-term frustration turned out to be the state’s long-term gain. Wilson channeled his frustration into a series of advocacy wins for cyclists and pedestrians, primarily during his nine-year run as executive director of Bike Delaware, a nonprofit advocacy group. And it’s striking how much things have changed.
Working with the state Department of Transportation on campaigns such as Walkable Bikeable Delaware, Wilson and his allies have gradually fostered an environment that doesn’t just make roads feel safer—there’s empirical evidence to show they are safer. And it’s not just commuter trails and bike lanes. In 2017, the state passed the Bicycle Friendly Delaware Act, which banned honking at cyclists except in cases of imminent danger and required that cars change lanes when passing bikes, among other new rules. “We’re working really, really hard to make better trails throughout the state,” Wilson says. “There have been some key strategic investments.”
As roads become more welcoming, riding becomes more fun—all of which has led to something of a bicycling boom. In 2012, Delaware cracked the top ten nationally for most bike-friendly states, according to the League of American Bicyclists. Last year it rose to sixth place, a gain of one spot over its previous ranking.
If you don’t believe it, check out the roads on a warm day this spring. “Look at Lewes,” Wilson says, citing a popular riding destination. “It’s impossible to find a place to park your bike on Second Street.”
The popularity of the sport also shows up in the strikingly high number of Delaware-based clubs and events. Groups gather at a set time and place and set off on rides—some race, some to crank out long distances, others simply to turn the pedals peacefully for an hour. Typically the gatherings include food and beverages afterward. Some groups are geared for advanced riders, but many of them welcome newcomers.
“Cycling can be a very social activity,” says David Chauner, a two-time Olympic cyclist who has promoted cycling in the region for more than five decades. “That’s the genesis of bike clubs—to get together for rides and events. And there is a real passion and desire to spread the gospel. A lot of what we cyclists do is campaign for safer roads and education about safety.”
Riding in groups is also safer. “I have seen more riders across the state,” says J.W. Haupt, president of White Clay Bicycle Club, a New Castle County outfit that has been around since 1973. “We want to get people on bikes, but we’re also about getting people on bikes in numbers. If you are driving and you see one rider he doesn’t stand out. If there is a group of four, five or six in bright colors, they stand out.”
Like everyone else, cyclists have had to adjust what they do and how they do it in the time of COVID-19. Still, even though club members can’t ride together while social distancing orders are mandated, they continue to head out solo or with family members, and look forward to the time when they will be able to again reconnect with fellow cyclists for group rides, events, races and the general camaraderie associated with the sport.
And even with group rides postponed, members of clubs are still working to grow membership, promote cycling, teach safety, advocate for more bike paths and provide cyclists with fun opportunities to pedal in group settings.
Club members are eager to see how the year plays out. Larry Carson, president of the Biking Blue Hens, which counts among its members residents of several states, with the most in Delaware, is worried about whether his members will be able to take part in the Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, a weeklong event that was the reason for the Biking Blue Hens’ creation 35 years ago.
“Cycling can be a very social activity. That’s the genesis of bike clubs—to get together for rides and events. And there is a real passion and desire to spread the gospel. A lot of what we cyclists do is campaign for safer roads and education about safety.” —David Chauner, two-time Olympic cyclist
“We hope it can go off,” Carson says. “Not only are there the riders, but there are support people riding along in vans and people selling food along the way.”
The clubs will be poised to return to larger-scale efforts once things return to normal, and once normal activities return, look for clubs’ membership rolls to grow, with people looking to connect after a period of isolation.
“I think there is a pent-up desire to get out and go,” Carson says.
Commuters and mountain bikers have been finding plenty to love about the region as well. The Trail Spinners, who are based in Newark but who advocate for mountain bikers in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland, not only take to the trails, they also build some impressive singletrack (biker-speak for a trail narrow enough for a single bike) for their—and others’—enjoyment.
In fact, members of the organization often create their own courses; check out the video on the club’s Facebook page to watch riders carve up a BMX-type course they created an at area park to get a sense of the homespun fun.
But they are also among groups working with the state on the construction of permanent trails, and most groups are open to advocating sensible suggestions for increasing road safety. John Kurpjuweit, president of the Sussex Cyclists, says DelDOT has been conducting safety studies to find areas where cyclists are most at risk, partly as a result of the growing number of riders.
One example of the progress is the Georgetown-Lewes Trail. The first section opened in 2016, and the project took a huge step forward last June with a ribbon-cutting on the second phase. Part of the new, nearly five-mile segment was dedicated to Thomas Draper, a cyclist who was killed after being hit by a truck on Slaughter Beach Road near Milford. Construction on the third part is slated to start this summer, and the full 17-mile path, which connects to the Junction Breakwater Trail, should be finished in six to seven years.
“The Lewes-Georgetown Trail has gotten people on bikes who haven’t been on them,” Kurpjuweit says. “We have found people will ride more if there are low-stress trails and separated bikeways, not just shoulders of roads.”
Another marked improvement is along Del. 1 between Dewey and Rehoboth beaches. Every summer, students from foreign countries come to Delaware’s beach communities to work, and many of them commute by bicycle. But they often don’t have helmets or high-visibility clothing that makes them more noticeable to drivers.
“DelDOT has set up stops at 20 locations where they hand out safety brochures, give students helmets and put reflective tape or lights on their bikes,” Kurpjuweit says. “At the beginning of the season, local churches have dinners for students to welcome them to town, and we go to talk about riding safety.”
Wilson also references the 3.6-mile James F. Hall Trail near Newark, and the Pomeroy and Newark Rail Trail. Maps for the spiderweb of trails and routes are available on the DelDOT website.
“We want to get people on bikes in numbers. If you are driving, and you see one rider he doesn’t stand out. If there is a group in bright colors, they stand out.” —J.W. Haupt, White Clay Bicycle Club president
In more urban settings, groups have advocated for separating bikes from traffic in places. One key improvement is the dedicated, protected lane on Division Street in Dover. Public safety campaigns and laws like the one passed in 2017 continue to put drivers on alert. “We have to make drivers more aware of cyclists,” Kurpjuweit says.
That’s partly why Bike Delaware works with clubs to introduce as many people to cycling as possible. Last year, it hosted its annual conference, which draws people from around the country—and around the globe—to discuss cycling and exchange ideas to improve enjoyment and safety. In 2019, several attendees traveled from the Netherlands, one of the world’s most bike-friendly nations. “For most trips under three miles there, people choose to ride,” Wilson says. They shared their experiences and offered suggestions to help Delaware grow its cycling culture.
“There’s not something in our DNA that keeps people in Delaware from cycling as much as people in Netherlands do,” Wilson says. “You have to build an environment in which people want to cycle.”
If all of this makes inspires you to pull the bike out of the garage, you’re in luck. The state is home a variety of cycling events throughout the year. Here are a few highlights.
The 14th Wilmington Grand Prix, scheduled for mid-May, had to be postponed due to coronavirus-related restrictions, but it’s a fixture on the cycling scene here. And Jerry DuPhily, promotor and principal in Wilmington-based Event Allies LLC, which owns the Grand Prix, is confident it will be rescheduled. The event includes rides for cyclists of all levels of skill and endurance, but organizers point to a greater purpose, which is to showcase the city and its commercial areas.
Pre-pandemic, the 9th annual Broad Creek Bike & Brew in Laurel had been scheduled to take cyclists on a ride past Trap Pond, Old Christ Church and other landmarks on June 6. Riders are encouraged to register at broadcreekbikeandbrew.com, then embark on a 15-, 25- or 50-mile route on their own that weekend. Participants can then upload photos to the website to create a virtual community of riders. On Sept. 26, everyone involved will (hopefully) gather in Janosik Park on Broadcreek to celebrate.
“Obviously, this year, we’re having to mix things up a bit,” says Matt Parker, chairman of the Bike and Brew Committee. “We still want folks to get on their bikes, and whether it’s outside or on their stationary bike, we hope folks will ride.”
Plenty of other events remain on the schedule for later in the year. On Sept. 12, the Amish Country Bike Tour will take place throughout the woods and trails of Kent County; riders can choose from routes of 15, 25, 50, 62 or 100 miles. That same weekend, the Big Oyster Brewery in Lewes is sponsoring Bikes & Beers, part of a nationwide series. On Oct. 3, the White Clay Bicycle Club will sponsor The Savage Century, comprised of 44-, 77- or 100-mile tests that involve significant climbs, particularly on the longer rides.
In October, Dogfish Head Brewery will again hold its I Pedal A-Lot (IPA, get it?) ride, which begins and ends at its Milton headquarters and offers a menu of 50-, 75- or 120-kilometer rides. There will also be food, music, and Dogfish Head samples inside its tasting room.
Edited by Dave Howard. Published as “Join the Club” in the June 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.