By Harry Ford

May is National Bike Month, sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists and celebrated in communities from coast to coast. Established in 1956, National Bike Month is a chance to showcase the many benefits of bicycling — and encourage more folks to giving biking a try.

The League was founded as the League of American Wheelmen in 1880. Bicyclists, known then as “wheelmen,” were challenged by rutted roads of gravel and dirt and faced antagonism from horsemen, wagon drivers, and pedestrians. In an effort to improve riding conditions so they might better enjoy their newly discovered sport, more than 100,000 cyclists from across the United States joined the League to advocate for paved roads. The success of the League in its first advocacy efforts ultimately led to our national highway system.

Bicycling has grown tremendously over the years. The number of Americans who ride bicycles is greater than all those who ski, golf, and play tennis combined (National Sporting Goods Association), and according to the National Household Travel Survey, nine million bike trips occur in the U.S. every day. Sounds like a lot of people doing a lot of riding, right? Absolutely. During the past two decades, cycling has increased in the United States. The number of bike commuters rose by 64% from 1990 to 2009. Most of us ride for recreation and fitness reasons and commuting is only a part of the bicycling story, but the statistics on bicycle commuting are an accurate indicator, not only of changing transportation patterns and choices, but also of the rise of cycling in general.

In Illinois, between 2005 and 2011, bicycle commuting grew 45%; in Missouri, 73%. But enough with statistics. Bicycling is simply good for the legs and lungs, the heart and the core, good for the environment, good for the community—economically and culturally, and it is good for the soul. There are many, many reasons that people ride bicycles.

Ask a bicyclist why he or she rides. All of the answers will be good ones. Here are a few from local cyclists:

One fellow (nameless by request) rides because he likes the quiet cruise through the countryside; he likes “sneaking up on” wildlife – turkeys, deer and a special sighting of a red-tailed hawk coming out of a wet spring ditch with a five-foot long shake in beak and talon: Only time – and the last time – that snake ever flew.” It’s not just sights and sounds though. Biking provides unique stimulation for all the senses: “I have only once smelled simultaneously the lovely thick aroma of pan-frying chicken combined with the acrid scent of skunk and that was on a bicycle while passing a farmhouse.”

Herschel Surratt, 79, of Chapin says that he started rides because it works out the soreness in his knees – his replaced knees. That, plus the exercise improves his overall health and helps combat cholesterol and blood pressure problems. That, plus “I see things I just don’t notice when I’m in a car.” And finally, “I like it.” Herschel recently has ridden as much as 50 miles in a day; and his “joke” with friends is that he’d like to ride 80 miles on his 80th birthday. Best guess is that it’s no joke, and, if it is, Herschel will provide an 80-mile punchline.

Bottom Line: Whether one bikes to work or school; rides to save money or time; pumps those pedals to preserve personal health or planetary and community environment; or simply to explore one’s surroundings, National Bike Month is an opportunity to celebrate the unique power of the bicycle and the many reasons we ride.

Each year the number and diversity of Bike Month celebrations continues to grow. Let’s add Morgan County to that list and work toward accelerating the momentum building around bicycling locally, as well as nationwide. Let’s celebrate the reasons we ride and invite everyone to find his or her own reasons.

More . . .

Bike safety quiz

Morgan Cyclists — rides every Wednesday at 5:30

Protect the Melon! — free helmets sponsored by Passavant Area Hospital, Morgan County Medical Society and distributed by Illinois College psychology students