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Bicycle group pedals for fun, education

The new WeBike group gathers once a month for a community bike ride. <i>Submitted photos</i>

A group of bicycling enthusiasts rolls out WeBike River Falls this year after a $2,500 grant gave them a kickstand to lean on as the members organize, reach out and evolve.

The new nonprofit organization seeks to advocate for biking fun, education and awareness, as well as to promote it as a sensible mode of transportation.

Members of the group Ian Johnson and Karyn Wells say there are about six to eight core members, and the mailing list has about 30 people.

The first three community bike rides WeBike organized in April, May and June have drawn 20-50 riders.

The next ones happen on the third Friday of the month through summer: July 20, August 17 and September 21.

They start at 6 p.m. in Veterans Park, says Johnson, and usually wind through a four-to-five mile route that may include the White Pathway, the Swinging Bridge, parts of the university campus and downtown neighborhoods.

They normally cross Hwy. 29, too, where riders practice crossing a state highway safely.

He said the rides usually last about an hour and go at a "really leisurely pace."

Johnson said about the group and its activities, "There's nothing competitive about it at all."

He works at the UW-River Falls-based St. Croix Valley Institute for Sustainable Community Development and helped write the grant application that pulled in funds from New Belgium Brewing out of Fort Collins, Colo. He says the company owners are "very sustainable minded" and became inspired to fund the grants after touring Belgium by bicycle.

Wells works at UWRF, lives in River Falls, and often commutes on her bicycle, to the grocery store, a restaurant, events.

Johnson, a former mountain biker, lives in Hudson and likes to make the 13-mile one-way commute on bicycle whenever possible -- he also enjoys riding recreationally with his family.

Wells said, "My husband and I both work and live in town, so there are times when we experience a week or two without starting our car. I love that feeling."

They say last year, a group casually formed and did a "Just Local" community ride to promote local buying.

Talk brought on the idea of organizing to do more community rides and share ideas with other people who like bike riding.

Wells and Johnson confirm the group includes all levels of riders and is open to anyone. About six members meet every other Tuesday over lunch in the University Center.

The grant money has helped build WeBike's identity, enabling it to design a logo; print poster-sized invitations to the community bike rides; produce spoke cards and stickers; and generally gain momentum.

WeBike is not governed by a board but does have non-profit status as a project of Johnson's workplace, the SCVISCD.

Johnson said the group is subject to change and is staying flexible, but organizers are happy with the current, informal structure. They realize that too much formality could inhibit the group's momentum.

"We're trying to keep it fun and low key," he said.

Turning wheels, wide tread

Some group members have purchased the official WeBike T-shirt, which is grey with the red logo and available for $15 at the Main Street bike shop, CrankWorx, that's helping the group promote itself.

The organization also plans to undertake a project in which it will use a Geographic Information System (GIS) to produce a bicycle map of River Falls.

The goal would be a comprehensive color-coded map to help bicyclists navigate town using the most bike-friendly thoroughfares.

The grant will help with a future review of the city's bicycle plan. WeBike may also, for example, advocate for bike lanes and/or stands in the city.

Much of the group's activity may also help the city meet more of the criteria required to become a bike-friendly community, a goal long coveted by former mayor, avid bicycler and WeBike member Don Richards. He said the city received an honorable mention last time.

He and Johnson confirm that the city has analyzed the possibility of a bike-sharing program. Richards said it looked like River Falls might not be big enough to sustain it, and Johnson said it proved to be quite expensive.

Johnson says the idea of the community bike rides is to enjoy riding together and build awareness among all who share the road and must obey the same rules. Wells agrees that raising consciousness biking and its hazards such as broken glass, will help everyone advocate good, safe biking.

He said, "It's an educational process all around for bike riders and car drivers."

Participants must sign a waiver before the rides, which they can do just before they take-off.

After they've signed the full waiver once, they get a card that allows them to just initial the form at subsequent rides.

Wells said she likes biking for the fun of it but also recognizes the benefits of a bike-friendly community, including better physical health and more local shopping.

She captured at least some of the essence of WeBike when she said, "We make a much more sustainable choice by choosing pedals over fuel."