Kalamazoo Commuter Challenge encourages new cyclists to Love to Ride to work

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — The Kalamazoo Commuter Challenge is looking to create a little friendly competition with practical bike transportation. 

To participate May 17-30, you can download the bike app, Love to Ride, enter your address, and if you're in Kalamazoo County you can register for the Challenge. You can ride solo and compete with everyone. Or, if your employer is registered, you can compete with your fellow workers.

As of May 10,19 workplaces and 139 people are registered for the Challenge. The Kalamazoo County all-time stats, from people using the app, show that 285 people have logged 260,473 miles from 14,571 rides. The equivalent travel by burning gas would've put 21,133 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.

“Ride Bikes, Drink Beer”

Want to help those numbers go up? Want to see your name rise up in the rankings? Want to win daily prizes (including Bell’s summer concert tickets, bike lights from Pedal, $25 Gazelle Sports gift card), and celebrate with fellow riders at Bell's Eccentric Cafe on May 30?

Mark WedelThe organizers of the Kalamazoo Commuter Challenge, L-R, Paul Sotherland, Chris Lampen-Crowell and Tim Krone.The event's three organizers say those are all great reasons to ride, but there are other reasons to bike to work. 

"You can get some exercise. You can more closely interact with your community. You might save some gas money," Tim Krone of Pedal, says. "It's a nice way to wind up and wind down from the work day. Just spend a little time on your bike, doing your thing."

Chris Lampen-Crowell, co-owner of Gazelle Sports, says, "I've run to work a lot more than biked to work." 

But he has pedaled to work and rides recreationally. "The urban experience of riding around the city is really more gratifying and fulfilling to me, versus in a car. You see more, just the sense of experience is much deeper."

With the city adding more bike lanes, the option to use bikes as practical transportation has become real. (See the Kalamazoo Commuter Challenge video on practical cycling.)

Paul Sotherland — whose shirt during the interview reads "Ride Bikes, Drink Beer" — is a retired Kalamazoo College professor, so he's not commuting much these days. When working, he lived six blocks from K, so he walked to work. 

Mark WedelThe Kalamazoo Commuter Challenge starts May 17."But we've (he and his wife Pam) been recreational cyclists for decades, and really didn't even think much about riding downtown because it was so horrible. And then last year, they put in the bike lane on Michigan Avenue," Sotherland says. "And I started riding my city bike down there. I thought, Oh, that's pretty cool. And I convinced Pam to give it a try," he says.

"Now with the Kalamazoo Commuter Challenge and Love to Ride, we're trying to log rides all the time. Pam just rode to the post office. I rode down here (to the interview). We get credit for riding a couple miles. This morning we rode 20 miles on a fun ride, recreational ride, out west of town."

Heat mapping

Love to Ride, like Strava and RideWithGPS, creates a heat map of where its users ride. Heat maps show what routes people use, and what roads they avoid.

This event and app, being focused on Kalamazoo riders and on early 2024 riding, will give a picture of where people are riding now, and why.

Kalamazoo City Planner Christina Anderson confirms that the City will be using that data to see where further improvements to Kalamazoo's bike infrastructure are needed. The City will also be looking at safety feedback from the app -- there's an option on Love to Ride for users to give safety ratings to routes they've taken. 

Sotherland says, "It'll be really helpful for the folks in the cities (Kalamazoo and Portage), the county, and the Kalamazoo Area Transportation Study to see where people are riding, and how that lines up with where the bike routes are, where the bike lanes are... Maybe down in Portage, they'll see that people are riding on the trails, but they're also riding on Milham Road or whatever to get to the trails, and that might cause them to put in a bike lane on Milham."

Don’t overthink it.

The goal of the Challenge is not to turn people into hardcore cyclist commuters, but to simply get someone who's on the line to try biking for a week or two, the organizers say.

Friendly competition, "that's the fun part of it," Lampen-Crowell says. 

But it’s more about support. "Peer-to-peer support in the workplace, in families, churches, organizations, is really where the fire ignites."

When you're part of a team, you're likely to participate. "I'm not sure if that means you're continuing (to commute on a bike), but opening that threshold door is very, very important," he says.

Mark Wedel"I'm a big believer, and a lot of research in wellness proves this, that connection in the workplace, to best friends, changes behavior," Lampen-Crowell says.

But what if you get to work sweaty? What if the road to work is dangerous? What if one doesn't identify as a "cyclist," doesn't have a $2,000 bike or a lycra bib?

"The first thing I would say is, don't overthink it," Crone says "It's just not that hard. As someone who overthinks everything, I would say that you can make an obstacle out of one that doesn't exist."

He continues, "Probably a thing that people think about all the time is hygiene. What if I'm all sweaty when I get to work?' There are strategies for that. Maybe your workplace has a shower you can use. Maybe they don't. In which case, baby wipes are a terrific friend.

"A change of clothes will fix you right up. Most people have a backpack. It's not so tough."

Sotherland's advice for inexperienced riders is, "Maybe don't make the first ride the ride to work. Make the first ride a ride around the neighborhood and explore the streets on your bike. And find out that it's not that scary."

Then explore to see if there's a reasonably safe route to work. If work is a bit distant, or if there are hills in the way, e-bikes are allowed, the organizers’ say.

Sotherland continues, "And yeah, don't overthink it. Just get on and ride. When you were a kid, you just got on and rode, right?"

The Kalamazoo Commuter Challenge happens May 17-30. Register on the Love to Ride app; ride to work, or ride anywhere, any time, to earn points and increase your chances of winning prizes.

Tips for bike commuting from Love to Ride.

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.