Columbia was designated a Bicycle Friendly Community in May by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB).
On the surface that sounds idyllic, invoking images of serene pathways, people commuting to school, work or shopping centers, and amenities such as racks and signage that make the activity more accessible.
And, on the surface, that’s true. There are about 150 miles of paved pathway throughout Howard County, 10 roadway tunnels and five roadway bridges, increasing changes to roadway configurations and markings to make cycling safer, and even a Bicycling Master Plan that lays out long-term improvements and additions to the existing pathway network.
Below the surface, however, the scene is much more vibrant and passionate than most residents and even many casual cyclists may realize. And that scene is growing.
A survey by the League indicated that bike usage by Columbia’s work commuters increased by 500% between 2000 and 2014. The popularity of riding clubs and groups is on the upswing, and these groups accommodate riders of all ages and abilities.
But perhaps most indicative of just how passionate Howard County riders have become is the addition of a USA Cycling-sanctioned event on the Columbia calendar and the availability of focused training and performance testing through a local bike shop.
Ian Kennedy, executive director of the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission, has been racing in Cyclo-cross events for five years. Taking place on a combination of different terrain surfaces and featuring obstacles and barriers, Cyclo-cross is a demanding sport that incorporates different riding styles. It’s all about endurance.
“Cyclo-cross is very active at this point in time, and it’s continuing to grow,” Kennedy said.
A discussion last winter with Scott Westcoat, owner of two Catonsville bicycle shops, and others who formed what Kennedy calls “The Braintrust” behind the Crossland Festival, led to the idea of initiating a multi-heat Cyclo-cross event on a course around Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods, in Columbia.
The inaugural Crossland Festival took place this month on Oct. 1, concurrent with the Horizon Foundation’s Open Streets event that demonstrates better street design options for safer on-road cycling. Festival sponsors included the Downtown Columbia Partnership, Merriweather Post Pavilion and the Howard Hughes Corp., among others.
Recognizing Cyclo-cross’s popularity as a spectator-friendly sport, the organizers incorporated a four-band live music festival and invited four local breweries to be part of the action.
In the week leading up to the event, Kennedy said organizers expected at least 300 participants coming from Maryland, Northern Virginia and southern Pennsylvania.
“Our definite hope is that this is the first of many years for this event, and that we can build on the success of our first year and attract more riders from throughout the mid-Atlantic region in years to come,” Kennedy said. “We’d love nothing more than to have Columbia known not only for a world-class Triathlon event, but also for a world-class Cyclo-cross event.”
Chris Tsien, a business attorney, avid cyclist and member of Bicycle Advocates of Howard County’s board of directors, said cycling in general has seen tremendous growth in Columbia and Howard County in recent years.
“I think you have to trace that back to the Columbia Triathlon,” he said. “That event created a lot of excitement around the sport, and a lot of people started getting into cycling from watching it.”
The number of local bicycle shops has been growing steadily, he said, and each offers a riding club because it’s part of what they do, but other groups have arisen as well.
A sampling of these groups include the county-sponsored Cycle2Health program, which offers weekly casual, moderate and advanced rides for the 50-plus community, a core of about 15 commuters and recreational riders who work at the The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and groups like HoCo Cyclists and the Glenelg Gang, who participate in hard rides over longer distances.
Bicycling Advocates ran several sampler group rides during the Open Streets event to introduce casual riders to the concept “and to make a deliberate statement” about both the fun of cycling in a group and the need for more bicycle-friendly infrastructure in the county, Tsien said.
“With the addition of the Crossland Festival this year, we’re really hoping that having two bicycling events running at the same time, now and in the future, will turn the weekend into a real celebration of bicycling and draw even more attention to it,” he said.
Riding a bike is like, well, riding a bike, except when a rider wants to do it better.
Some want to race at the amateur level or prepare for milestone rides like the 100-mile Seagull Century and quasi-competitive fun rides like the Maryland Gran Fondo. Others just want to feel better physiologically on a bike, or to become more proficient in their recreational riding.
Whatever their goals, 90+ Cycling on Red Branch Road, in Columbia, has the equipment, training staff and testing capabilities to make it possible.
With more than 20 years of amateur bicycle racing experience, Owner John Hughes has also worked as a bike mechanic for Pete’s Cycle in Parkville and Hudson Trail Outfitters, and cut his sprocket teeth running instruction and training programs for TriColumbia. 90+ Cycling recently became the exclusive cycling program for the Ulman Cancer Fund and Team Fight.
“We help a lot of new riders who have just bought their first bike and are trying to figure out what gears to use, but we also deal with a lot of elite riders,” Hughes said. “Our trainers see tons of triathletes and a lot of road cyclists — those that are into it just for fitness, as well as those who are actually racing at an amateur level.”
Open for only a year-and-a-half and named for the optimum cycling cadence, 90+ has quickly become the premiere training program for cyclists and triathletes in the mid-Atlantic region.
“One big thing that makes us special is our ability to still give individual instruction in a class of 25 to 35 participants,” Hughes said. “We’re addressing the different expectations of our clients, [unlike] the places that run one-size-fits-all programs.”
It’s also one of the only locations in the region that provides performance testing that’s accessible by all levels of cyclists. This includes Lactate Threshold Testing to determine optimal race pace and heart rate training zones, Body Composition Testing to dial in training and nutrition needs and Spin Scan to measure torque exerted on pedals at every angle of rotation, which helps to improve pedaling efficiency.
90+ offers a range of indoor and outdoor training plans, and is also preparing to add Cyclo-cross training to its menu this year, which should see some demand generated by the Crossland Festival.
“It’s been a slow process, growing organically with no loans, no investors and being entirely self-financed,” Hughes said. “But the demand is there, our classes are filled, and our advertising has been primarily referrals and word-of-mouth. We’re really enjoying the relationship we’ve built with our customer base.”