Charleston’s underground bike culture

A man wears a dress at one of the many themed social rides that are occurring with increasing frequency around Charleston. Photo by Samuel McCauley.

A man wears a dress at one of the many themed social rides that are occurring with increasing frequency around Charleston. Photo by Samuel McCauley.

The city of Charleston is widely known for its history, colonial style architecture, distinguished restaurants and Southern hospitality. While touristic landmarks such as the Market, historical buildings, and the Battery remain staples in the Holy City, downtown is also home to a vibrant culture surrounding bikes.

“In the past years I’ve been back in Charleston, I’ve easily seen the number of people on bikes double,” said John Chritton, a Charleston native and employee at the Trek Bicycle Store in Mt. Pleasant. It may be surprising to hear that among the carriage rides and walking tours there is a growing population of bikes hitting the streets in Charleston. In different corners of the city, independent bike related events such as group rides, races and bike polo are drawing in a diverse crowd. 

“Last night we had a dress ride where 25 plus people showed up… The Midnight Mystery Ride had more than 30 people,” Jake Thomas, an avid cyclist and pedicab driver explains. The bike ride was one of the many social rides that routinely happen downtown.

Social bike rides have gained popularity among locals from various backgrounds in the downtown area. Every last Friday of the month, a group of people on bikes gathers at Marion Square at midnight for Mystery Rides. The rides typically make stops at a number of locations along the way.

“A big thing about social rides is getting people from all kinds of backgrounds, ages, locations and levels and getting them together to realize that they have something in common,” Sylvie Baele, a senior at the College said.

Bikers compete in cyclocross - an obstacle course for bikers. Photo courtesy of Jon English.

Bikers compete in cyclocross – an obstacle course for bikers. Photo courtesy of Jon English.

For those with a competitive or thrill-seeking spirit, there are cyclocross and alley cat races that are free of charge and open to the public. Cyclocross is a form of racing that consists of many laps around a one-and-a-half to two mile course. A lot of the planning that goes into these events involves making the course challenging; that is a big part of cyclocross. There are a combination of different obstacles for riders to pass through including mud pits, rough terrain, hills, tight spaces, tight turns and barricades. The number of other racers competing in the challenging course is an obstacle in itself, as bikers can compete with upward of 20 people. Charleston-based bike club, the Blue Collar Bandits, hosts cyclocross races in unlikely locations, including underneath the I-26 overpass between Huger and Grove Street.

In recent years, the Charleston area has experienced higher rates of bicycle usage and increased demand for improved bicycle infrastructure. The city has increased the amount of bike parking and is making the greater Charleston area more accessible for cyclists. The Battery2Beach route network provides 32 miles of mixed-use paths that connects downtown to Folly Beach and Isle of Palms. Last year the city also approved building a bike-pedestrian lane on the Legare Bridge over the Ashley River. “Right now seems like an important time for bikes,” Chritton said. “If you want to talk about getting more people on bikes, you have to have the infrastructure there for it. You have to think about not just the people that are already into bikes, but also people that don’t care about what kind of bike they have, but that rely on it to get them to and from work.”

With the help of a few dedicated individuals, Charleston is quickly becoming a hub for the biking community. Biking is no longer just about getting from point A to point B, but rather it is seen as an alternative form of transit that can be both practical and social. The benefits of biking span beyond just physical health, but can also help shift people’s perspective on everyday surroundings. “You get to see a different side of the city. I know where all the potholes are, all the bumps in the road. You start to do things like timing yourself and trying to go faster. I started knowing how long each light takes,” Jake Thomas said. There are a number of facets that encompass the overall culture of bicycles that help make it a worthy pastime. Chritton said, “It’s good to get outside, ride and go really fast and at the end of the day be healthier because of it.”

This article first appeared in the February 2015 issue of The Yard.

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