The pandemic visual etched in my memory is of my husband and I riding our bicycles 6 miles from our home in east Wichita, Kansas, to the core of the city. Once there, we would ride to the top of parking garages for an aerial view of the mostly deserted downtown district, take a bridge across the Arkansas River to peek through the gate of the newly-constructed-but-quarantined minor league ballpark and ride down blocks we’d never taken the time to explore.
On our return trip to our house, we’d cruise down the middle of the main thoroughfare just because we could. A few times, we even did this at 5 p.m. on a Friday when the streets would typically be crowded with commuters heading home in their cars and others driving into downtown for happy hour. With a metropolitan statistical area population near 800,000 people (and their cars), this is not a route I normally felt comfortable riding.
I felt guilty that — for at least a couple of hours — I was able to ignore the reason we had the roads nearly to ourselves and enjoy seeing this city I’d lived in for 25 years from a new perspective: on two wheels and not worried about getting run over by traffic.
We were not alone. Though we rarely encountered other cyclists on these routes, we would see riders in our neighborhood and on the rail trail near our house. Stores couldn’t keep bikes in stock and service departments were overwhelmed with demand. According to data gathered by bicycling advocacy group People For Bikes, cycling established itself as one of the pandemic’s most popular forms of recreation and exercise by May 2020 after remaining static since 2009.
Bicycling has been around for more than 200 years and most of us rode as kids, but it took a global pandemic to remind some of us of the benefits of riding a bicycle. I realized that while biking was something I did regularly when traveling for work or vacation, I didn’t always take advantage of the cycling resources in my own backyard.
A Cycling Revival
Some folks needed an alternate workout when their gyms closed. Others just needed an escape from the house during stay-at-home orders, especially if they were working from home and had children attending school virtually. A few likely rediscovered bicycles they forgot were in the garage until they used the shutdown to clean and declutter.
The cycling renaissance that started in spring 2020 across all demographics continues for numerous reasons, industry groups say. Year-end data compiled by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), the nation’s largest trails advocacy organization, shows nationwide trail use in 2022 was 45% higher than in 2019. While demand dipped 1.5% compared to 2020, the most significant year for trail use on record, it still grew 9.5% from 2021.
“When trail use spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, people were flocking to the outdoors to find safe spaces to connect with each other, to find respite and to be active. It was hard to predict the long-term implications of surging trail use in 2020,” Torsha Bhattacharya, research director at the RTC, said in a release sharing the most recent data. “Now, after several years of sustained demand for trails, it’s clear that this is a trend and that this infrastructure is essential to people across the U.S. These consistently high levels of trail use reinforce how critical this infrastructure is to our physical and mental health — as well as the well-being of our communities.”
Beyond trail counters for the numerical data, the RTC conducted an online survey about the perceptions of trails and active transportation. Respondents cited exercise, enjoying a bike ride or walk, spending time in nature, recreation and managing stress as the top reasons for using trails. Other explanations given by the bicycling community for the continued growth in interest include rising fuel prices, focus on self-care and more bicycling opportunities at destinations and attractions, from bike-share programs to guided tours.
Riding Options for All Levels
Every state has thousands of miles of roads and trails for bicyclists of every skill level. There are cycling opportunities for every type of rider and all styles of riding. Whether you consider yourself a hobbyist, an enthusiast, a competitor or a commuter, you can find events and routes that feature wide, tree-lined former railroad beds, paved roads and paths, rugged trails just wide enough for a single tire and gravel roads offering unspoiled scenery in remote areas.
If you missed out on the pandemic bicycling surge, it’s not too late to hop on. Use these resources for ideas on getting out and exploring by bike, whether staying close to home or traveling afield.
Read about different types of rides:Rail-Trail Riding Mountain Biking Gravel Grinding Road Cycling
MeLinda Schnyder is a freelance journalist based in Wichita, Kansas, and has been a regular contributor to Kansas Country Living since 2017. She grew up in Columbia, Missouri, where her first grown-up bike was a used yellow Schwinn 10-speed that would now be considered vintage and cool.