Published July 17th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Exhausted, Kelly Aaron laid on a Columbus Park bench. She recorded an “SOS” selfie video to send to a friend, sweat dripping off her face.
“I’m good… I’m laying on a park bench in Columbus Park, breathing in the breeze,” Aaron said in the short video, catching her breath. “And could you bring me a Diet Coke — or do you think you can come get me?”
The 50-year-old mother of two did this to herself. Two months ago, during the initial phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, Aaron went to World Class Bikes in the West Bottoms and bought her first road bike.
Now, she is addicted to riding.
That’s how she wound up sprawled on a bench in Kansas City’s “Little Italy,” calling it quits for the day. The other option? A half-mile climb up the 6.4% incline to the Cliff Drive Scenic Byway in Kessler Park.
“I bit off a little more than I could chew,” Aaron said, admitting it may have been an amateur move, not bringing water or a bike lock along for the ride.
But she just couldn’t stop pedaling.
Between stay-at-home orders, time away from the office and gyms closed due to the pandemic, the bike industry is seeing its biggest boom in a decade.
According to Eco-Counter, a Montreal-based company that designs and provides bicycle and pedestrian counters, there’s been a 21% increase in U.S. urban-area ridership from March through mid-June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
A recent survey of 932 U.S. adults by PeopleForBikes found that 9% of American adults rode a bike for the first time in a year due to the pandemic.
Locally, things look similar.
Midwest Cyclery owner Christina Decker said her shop has already surpassed total 2019 sales. Decker shared the story of parents who bought bikes to take the place of their kids’ gym class in the spring, before buying bikes of their own to get in on the fun. The family has since vacationed to ride in both Colorado and North Dakota.
World Class Bikes owner Jay Luschen said no one in the industry saw this coming. The result has been bike tune up appointment backlogs lasting up to six weeks and major shortages in popular parts.
“We noticed an uptick in walk-ins, but our online sales just exploded,” Luschen said. “A lot of people took that bike that was in the basement or the garage or shed that’s been sitting there for years and dusted it off, got it repaired and up and running again.”
That wasn’t so much the case for Aaron. She hadn’t hopped on a bike since childhood and, for the sake of avoiding the obvious cliche — it’s going swimmingly.
“That feeling like you’re going to vomit your lung up is going to go away,” Aaron says. “Biking feeds a lot of different things — it checks a lot of boxes for me. I get on it and it’s just instant joy. The exercise is just a byproduct of it all.”
Aaron’s medicine has come in the form of rides all over the metro. Biking goes perfectly with her other hobby of mastering Kansas City history. Rides along the Harry Wiggins Trolley Track Trail, Kaw Point Trail, through the Historic Northeast and Parkville provide a unique perspective of her hometown, despite the city’s less-than perfect cycling infrastructure.
In 2008, the BBC One Planet series deemed Kansas City one of the “least bicycle friendly” cities in the country.
That distinction rightfully troubled city officials at the time, according to Karen Campbell of BikeWalkKC. The nonprofit which aims to “redefine our streets as places for people to build a culture of active living” was created in response to the poor rating.
During that time, former Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser asserted that come 2020, Cowtown would be among the county’s most-bikeable cities.
Looking back at the lofty goal got a laugh out of Campbell, although she’s seen steps made in the right direction.
“From our perspective progress is being made, but we have a long way to go,” she said. “I think culturally there are more people interested in biking. Even before the pandemic we were seeing businesses and developers starting to understand that if you are going to build out downtown KCMO, people are going to want to be able to bike and walk places.”
Progress can be seen in Overland Park, Kansas, where 80 miles of bike lanes have been painted in the last year, or on more urban roads like Gillham Road between Armour Boulevard and 31st Street in midtown, where buffered bike lanes are in the works.
Campbell says even three-block segments of bike lanes are worth celebrating. It’s a process of laying the groundwork to connect existing bike lane networks across the city.
Campbell noted that within the next year or so the Rock Island trail will connect to the famous Katy Trail, so cyclists should be able to ride from Brush Creek to the St. Louis Arch, which should come as welcome news to long-distance riders.
Perhaps another sign of progress is Tom Patterson’s return to riding bikes.
Kansas City’s poor cycling infrastructure turned Patterson off to the sport when he moved to the heartland from the swooping hills and mountain bike trails of Colorado in the early 1990s.
A few months ago when Patterson turned 60, his kids pitched in for a bike their old man found on Facebook marketplace.
“It was like, ‘This feels good, this feels familiar,’ ” Patterson said after a handful of southern Johnson County rides under his belt. “I think cycling really gives you the chance to enjoy a few different elements, one of them being just to get out in nature. I found that as I biked, I’ve really enjoyed my surroundings.”
Shop owners Decker and Luschen say Kansas City’s status as a developing bike-friendly metropolitan area should not discourage new riders from getting out there. You just might have to get crafty about avoiding busy roads with limited shoulder space.
With combined bike knowledge of more than 70 years, the pair suggests that first and foremost, new cyclists learn the rules of the road (hand signals, trail etiquette, etc.). Additionally, avoid speeding on multi-use paths, be sure you get a bike that fits and consider what type of bike you want, whether it’s a true road bike, gravel or mountain bike.
Another bright spot in the Kansas City cycling scene is the area’s urban offroad trails.
Hidden gems like the wooded bluffs of Kessler and Swope parks just might be mistaken for a Rocky Mountain trail. Local clubs like Earth Riders ensure trails keep up with trends and remain dynamic.
Above all, the cycling gurus say riders new to the sport should not be intimidated by all the bells and whistles.
“I want you to come in and ask me your dumbest questions,” said Decker, whose family has run the show over at Midwest Cyclery for the better part of 50 years.
“Ride a bike because it’s fun.”
This article is a part of Flatland’s SportsTown Series: A collection of stories covering the average athletes, niche-sport elites and everyone else dedicated to the games you’ve never heard of, could easily be a part of, and just might want to love that make Kansas City truly a one-of-a-kind sports town.