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‘Inclusive culture’: Cyclists find community in Chapel Hill and Carrboro


Though the doors were all locked at Franklin Street’s The Bicycle Chain for its 7 p.m. closing time on Wednesday, cyclists were starting to roll into the quiet parking lot. 

Soon, it was busy with wheels and chatter. Riders experienced with the shop’s group rides — which have taken place every other Wednesday since the fall of last year — and those who were a bit newer exchanged backgrounds and bike recommendations. Shortly after 7:30 p.m., shop mechanic Sarah Plonk raised her tattooed arms to point the direction of the ride. 

And with the blast of music from a portable speaker, the wheels were off into the night for an 8-mile ride — with nobody left behind

“You're more out in the world, you're not in your little car separated from everything,” Plonk said. “You kind of interact more with the environment around you and the people around you. Riding bikes with other people is really fun.”

That isn't even the only Wednesday social opportunity available for riders in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Just down the road, off of East Main Street, Back Alley Bikes hosts "Whimsical Wednesday" social rides

Store co-owner Tamara Sanders said that the group travels to local destinations — chosen by a paper fortune teller — for grilling, games and other activities.

Since becoming a member of the local cycling community during her time as an undergrad at UNC in the early 2000s, Sanders said the number of people biking in the area has grown. She said that Carrboro is designated as the most bike-friendly in the state.

One of the largest advocates of bike-friendliness in the area is the nonprofit organization Bicycle Alliance of Chapel Hill. Board member Joanne Gardner said their mission is to increase the accessibility of safe bicycling, as well as provide information and gear for the community. 

BACH often collaborates with the Carrboro Bicycle Coalition, a group with similar goals, to plan events, such as Carrboro Open Streets. On April 7, a block of Weaver Street will shift gears and be turned pedestrian, featuring free bike checks, a traffic garden for kids and a bicycle blender to make smoothies. 

Gardner said that there is a cycling culture in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Many said that this culture is in part due to the climate. BACH board member Dave Pcolar called it great for cycling, as the lack of snow, ice and sustained cold help him bike year-round.

Another BACH board member, Lee Tobin, moved to the area from Canada and said the climate allows for an extended cycling season for anyone who’s moved from the north.

Tobin also said the community has an acceptance of cycling for transportation. He commuted by bike for over 30 years, half of those being a 17-mile each-way trip to Whole Foods, with a bit of assistance from the bus. 

For the 28 years Pcolar worked at UNC, he said he never once had a parking spot. Instead, he rode a bike to campus nearly every day. For him, any day he doesn’t have to be in a car is a good day. 

“There’s a real freedom in doing that,” Pcolar said. “You can just pick up and go. You don't have to pay for parking. You don't have to put gas in your car, all those kinds of things. And if you're going to campus, honestly, there's so much bike parking on campus. It’s so convenient to get around. It just builds into the culture.”

Besides commuting, Tobin said he has seen bikes being used for shopping and even hauling kids to school, specifically e-cargo bikes. The recent rise in e-bikes, he said, is increasing the number of riders who commute for environmental reasons and changing the nature of what bikes can do for transportation. 

“It really has a potential for more impact if we can get people to just get out of the mindset that 'I have to be in a car to go everywhere.' You really don’t,” Tobin said.

While infrastructure like the Bolin Creek Trail, Libba Cotten Bikeway and protected bike lanes on roads like Franklin Street have contributed to the culture, BACH member and current Town of Chapel Hill council member Melissa McCullough said that there is a desperate need for better bike infrastructure. 

The Everywhere to Everywhere Greenway project, which will expand and connect the current network of greenways, is in the works, she said, with the goal of making biking accessible for all ages and populations. 


Another project underway is a multi-use path on Estes Drive. McCullough said that its completion, expected in May, will be game-changing for anyone who wants to ride from east to west, including kids who want to bike to school.

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“I think the town is on the right direction,” Tobin said. “You talk to cyclists, they'll say that.” 

In the parking lot before he set off on The Bicycle Chain's Wednesday group ride, cyclist Chase Austin said that Chapel Hill and its surrounding towns are avid in supporting the biking community. 

Every bike shop he knows, Austin said, has friendly workers who are welcoming to all types of riders, and encourage everyone to come out and enjoy activities, such as the group ride he was a part of. 

“It’s really an inclusive culture,” Austin said. “And I enjoy it.”


@dthlifestyle |