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Richmond Trails Forum to Address City’s Growing Outdoors Network

Virginia High School Mountain Biking event at Forest Hill Park, April 19, 2016.Virginia High School Mountain Biking event at Forest Hill Park, April 19, 2016.

Virginia High School Mountain Biking event at Forest Hill Park, April 19, 2016.

Richmond offers plenty of recreational choices for anyone who wants to get outdoors. Its network of trails is extremely popular and has helped bring several beneficial economic events to Richmond, including Dominion Riverrock, XTERRA and more.

The oldest, the Buttermilk Trail, has been a part of the James River Park since the early 1980s. But the city did not commit to building trails that could officially accommodate mountain bikers until the late 1990s.

The popularity of those early trails prompted the JRPS to appoint its first trails manager in 2003 (Nathan Burrell). Citizens helped to push for more trails and volunteers did much of the work. But for all the people out riding trails in Richmond, park usage statistics show that mountain bikes are in the minority. According to numbers provided by the city’s parks department, walkers and runners outnumber mountain bikers three to one on the Buttermilk Trail. Only one in four users on North Bank is a biker.

“Everything we do is an effort to manage the growing number of people going out on the trails,” said Mike Burton, the city’s trails manager since 2013. “Even though they are the minority users, mountain bikes are always on our mind as we plan trail work.”

Burton said all of the JRPS and trail crew staffers are trail users and mountain bikers, which helps illustrate their dedication and determination to continue to maintain the popular trails network. He said the majority of the work they do is done to just keep the trails open.

The city maintains more than 42 miles of trail, including single track, connector roads, and trails entering parks. This includes more than 20 miles of trail in the James River Park at North Bank (opened 2005), Belle Isle (1999), Ancarrow’s Landing (Poop Loop trail, 2014), Pony Pasture, The Wetlands, and Huguenot Flatwater. The crew maintains trail in other city parks, including Forest Hill (rebuilt 2009), Byrd (Dogwood Dell, 2011), Powhite (1995-99), Larus (2005), and Bryan.

“We are known for having a challenging network of trails in the center of an urban area,” said Burrell, who is now the James River Park manager. “We offer a wide range of skill sets throughout the trail system.”

Burrell said building a facility like the skills park on Belle Isle (which opened in 2012) was an effort to offer a more beginner-friendly training area for new and young riders. The trail crew has also been working to introduce more trail that caters to different types of riders.

“You could spend your life building technical trails, but we only have a staff of two,” Burton said, referring to Andrew Alli, the other full time trail crew staffer. “Every time we add new trail, we also add more maintenance, and there is so much demand for the trails we have now.”

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Richmond Trails ForumFor those interested in learning more and giving their input about the trails network, the city will host a forum Wednesday, Feb. 1, from 7-8:30 p.m. at The Carillon in Byrd Park. Hosted by the City of Richmond and the James River Park trail crew, the event is expected to be an open discussion about the Richmond trails network.

Representatives from the mountain bike, trail runners, and hiking groups are scheduled to be on the panel. The forum will be moderated by Brantley Tyndall, community outreach coordinator for Richmond Sports Backers’ Bike Walk RVA. Topics will include:

A Q&A session will allow the public to voice their ideas & concerns. In advance of the forum, submit your questions.

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rvaMORE volunteers work at Poop Loop.

RVAMORE volunteers work at Poop Loop.

The trails crew is constantly looking for ways to add new trails, but as the network increases, maintenance also increases, which creates the need for more help from volunteer groups, like RVAMORE and the James River Hikers.

In 2016, the trail system received nearly 1,500 documented hours from volunteer groups, a figure that Burton said was very low because the hours for many projects were not tallied. Project managers occasionally forget to share signup sheets or volunteers forget to sign in, missing a chance to document their efforts.

Without volunteers, Burrell said Richmond’s trails network would not exist. For 2016, the parks department used $22 per hour to calculate the value of volunteer time (less than a national figure of $23.56). Often a volunteer project would include a member of the park staff and anywhere from five to 20 volunteers, depending on the work needed to accomplish.

Other projects earned more than 4,900 hours for park maintenance and another 2,850 from long-term volunteers and interns. All totaled, the park counted 9,270 volunteer hours, which equates to about 4.85 permanent employees (considering the average permanent employee works approximately 2,000 hours per year), according to parks department documentation.

“Our job is to be stewards of the land,” Burton said. “Most trail work includes preventing erosion and making it more sustainable.” Once the crew works on a section of trail, the hope is to avoid having to revisit the site to continue to make repairs.

Burrell said the three key factors to trail sustainability include: environmental (immediate and long-term impact to surroundings); economic (cost of the trail work); and social (which involves many factors, including removing poor sight lines, tight trail corridors, dangerous junctions — anywhere trail users could get hurt from collisions).

That often means that can’t justify building technical features and alternate expert trails in the city network because mountain bikes are still the minority users in the park. Where necessary, there are a few sections of trail where hikers and bikers are separated, such as in Buttermilk Heights (including the area near the stone porch switchback), the Netherwood Quarry (east of 42nd Street, includes a ramp for bikes or stairs for hikers), and another on the North Bank Trail.

Burrell said the crew tends to choose permanent materials when they do build new trail features. “We try use the existing materials within the park as much as we can. Rock features play into the natural features of an adventure recreation park. We have a finite amount of land to work with and we have to manage it as best we can.”

DISCLAIMER: Phil Riggan is a member of rvaMORE and other volunteer groups in the city.

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Advice for Those Resolving to Bike More in 2017

We’ve almost reached the end of 2016. Time to start those annual New Year’s resolutions that you never keep. Only this year, pick something that will really make a difference in your life, like riding a bike.

Whether you do it for recreation or to get where you want to go, owning, maintaining and riding a bike should become a part of your 2017 goals to make it a great year.

Biking the Virginia Capital Trail

Biking the Virginia Capital Trail

For the first time, I tracked my cycling miles and routes in 2016. It started out as an experiment but became very addicting and definitely spurred me to bike more often. I used the Strava cell phone app, but there are many similar options. I didn’t begin the year with a mileage goal, but once I started seeing a consistent measure of how far I could ride, how many calories I could burn and how little time difference there was between my motorized commute versus my cycling commute, I was hooked.

I eventually targeted 100 miles a week, which ideally would include mainly commuter miles. My goal was to eliminate car miles. I biked more than 4,000 miles in 2016, with slightly more than 2,000 miles during my 115 commute rides this year — not including about 400 additional miles to work assignments. I also biked another 600 miles for errands, volunteer events, meetings and more. I biked so much that I dropped my rarely-used gym membership ($91 monthly), a parking deck fee at my old job ($40 monthly) and saved about $3 a day in fuel (plus wear-and-tear on my car). I lost about 10 pounds too, a nice bonus.

The benefits of bike commuting didn’t stop there. I’ve made it a habit and look forward to riding every day. At no point have I dreaded my commute (although unexpected storms have caused me to alter plans). I have seen and appreciated so much more of the Richmond region by bike than I could ever see by car. Not so much the cool and iconic places around town, but the little things. Biking is performed at the right speed to absorb what you are seeing and it is so much easier to stop and have a closer look without having to find a parking spot. Also, it is much more convenient by bike to take a different route every time, making each commute an opportunity for a discovery adventure. I have even used off-road routes to ride my mountain bike to work on occasion, which really does turn a commute into an adventure.

By adventure, I don’t mean competing against vehicles on fast-moving 45 mph roadways. For the majority of my commutes, I ride neighborhood streets with posted speeds between 25-35 mph. It makes for a more pleasant experience. There are places where you have to cross major roads or mix in with traffic, which may take some courage and time to build your confidence, but don’t get discouraged. Follow proper biking techniques and ride predictably so drivers can adjust to your speed and give you space. I ride in a travel lane in the same direction as the rest of the moving traffic. I almost never ride on a sidewalk (though it is legal in Virginia) because it creates too many potential problems for pedestrians (and vehicles too). I use hand signals and communicate with motorists and pedestrians as best I can and expect them to reciprocate.

Bike to Work Day 2015

Bike to Work Day, May 15, 2015.

I’ve spoken with dozens of bike commuters in the past year, learning from their habits and best practices. Distances ranged from 2-3 miles daily to more than 30 miles round trip. Their reasons for biking varied from saving money, better fitness, better mental health to being more environmentally friendly. A few were able to reduce the number of cars they owned. Some combined their bike commute with a bus ride. Many talked about how biking improved their social life and helped them make new friends. For those commuting year-round it gets much tougher in the peak of the summer heat and the freezing low temperatures of the winter. Planning ahead matters.

Need more motivation? Here are a few suggestions for anyone planning to commute by bike:

Get a bike. Simple. It doesn’t take an amazing and expensive bike, but find one that fits your body and your commute.For instance, years ago I used to ride my mountain bike long distances on paved surfaces because I didn’t own another bike. Then I bought a used road bike with a rack and my comfort levels went way up. Also, make sure the bike is tuned up, the tires are pumped and the brakes work. Bike shops can do this cheaply or an internet search can teach you. Add a bike bottle cage to hold a water and I suggest you travel with a bike lock just in case. Consider a bike repair kit too.

Accessorize. There are things you’ll need to make a commute safer and more fun. Bright clothing is encouraged, but not required. Helmets are encouraged, but not required. I almost always wear one and end up having to wash it occasionally because of sweat. I wear regular athletic clothing, including my footwear. If you’re going to ride longer distances and plan to change your clothing once you reach your destination, consider padded bike shorts too. Dress in layers so you can remove them if you get hot or can add if you get cold. In the cold months, a good pair of gloves or even bar mitts (shields for your hands to protect from the wind) will make a ride more comfortable.

Bags. Get a bike bag of some sort, especially if you add a bike rack. Panniers, saddlebags, bike bags…whatever you call them, they can become essential to enjoying a daily bike commute. Backpacks work too, but they will make you sweat and add weight to your body.

Lights. Bike lights for the front (white) and back (red) are required by Virginia law when it is dark. I suggest rechargeable USB lights that are easy to attach and remove — worth the extra money. Get in a habit of recharging them often so you don’t get stranded if they lose charge.

Bike lane on Courthouse Road in Chesterfield County

Bike lane on Courthouse Road in Chesterfield County

Plan your route. Know where you are going before you bike. Use an online mapping tool to plan and measure the distance. That will help you to know about how long it will take to ride and you’ll know where you are (most of the time). Ride the route for fun before you do it as a commute to become more familiar. Pick safer routes away from high motorized traffic volumes whenever possible, even if it means you might ride a little further. Enjoying your ride and removing stress from fast-moving cars is worthwhile. Don’t like a route? Change it. If you get tired of a route, try a new one. Add routes past your favorite beverage and food stops. Become a bike tourist in your town.

Establish a routine. For me, this was the key. Eliminate the excuses and commit. Start with the essentials and don’t be too hard on yourself when you forget something. Put all your bike gear in a consistent location. Packing ahead of time helps so that you can double check and hopefully not leave essential items behind (keys, wallets, credit cards, access passes to a workplace, etc.). If you are packing clothes to change into once you reach work, make sure you pack everything (including shoes, belts, socks/hosiery, undergarments, etc.). I usually pack my lunch ahead of time, often the night before so that I gain a few more minutes in the morning. It all adds up to more time to ride if you plan ahead.

Of course, not every day will work out to be a bike day, depending on your line of work. Knowing your day and what meetings and out-of-office times ahead of time is essential. For some, keeping a nice set of work clothes at the office for those “needs to be pressed” days really helps. Not every office has understanding employers, bike parking, showers, company car to borrow, access to public transit, etc. Parents with little children have to plan around daycare and school schedules and often around their spouse’s schedule as well. Find your comfort level…and then gradually push yourself until you’re able to bike more often.

If your bike commute isn’t safe enough, ask for better bike infrastructure and for more consideration to be given to non-vehicular travel from your locality. Be prepared to ask several times and make time to attend public meetings and events where your voice can be heard. Check in with Bike Walk RVA for more advocacy information. If you bike commute by trails, consider volunteering with rvaMORE, the local trails advocacy group.

If transit can help boost your commute, consider adding a bus, taxi or some other mode of travel before you slump back into the cocoon of your personal vehicle. I’ve taken the bus about 10 times when weather was predicted to be a factor in my bike commute but I really wanted to avoid the car. Again, it takes planning ahead, but definitely worth the effort.

NOTE: Phil Riggan is a transportation planner for the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission. This article was not written as a part of his work program. However, if you have any questions or want to share your bike commuting tips, post them in the comments or contact him at priggan@richmondregional.org.

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Mountain Bikers Ride to Support rvaMORE During Annual Tour de Fall Line

Mountain biker rides trails at Larus Park during RVA MORE's Tour de Fall Line.More than 140 mountain bikers took to Richmond’s great trails network during rvaMORE’s third annual Tour de Fall Line on Saturday. The event began and ended at Stone Brewing Co.’s headquarters in Fulton Bottom and included distances of 14, 28 and 50 miles.

Ride organizer Garry Whelan was happy the event brought so many riders despite no advertising and spreading the word mainly through social media and through the mountain biking community.

Riders donated $45 each to support the event, which is a fundraiser for rvaMORE, the volunteer trail-building group that helps build and maintain many of the trails in the Richmond area. All proceeds are re-invested into the trails.

The ride passed through roadways and a number of trails in Richmond’s parks, including the James River Park System, Forest Hill, Ancarrow’s Landing, Dogwood Dell, Powhite, Pony Pasture and Larus.
Tour de Fall Line water stop at Larus Park.

 

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