Charleston’s Band of Bikers

Established over 20 years ago, the Mountain State Wheelers have been providing an avenue for local cyclists to connect with each other and provide regular bike rides each week in the Kanawha Valley for bikers of all skill levels.

By Matt Murphy, Preston Hartman and Summer Ko | 05/09/2012

In recent years, rising fuel costs and an overall trend toward being healthier and eco-friendly have led to an increase in cycling across the country. Whether for commuting to work, or simply for exercise and pleasure, more Americans are choosing two-wheeled transport than ever in the past two decades.

A 2011 study by Rutgers University points toward a spike in commuters who bike to work – a rise of 64 percent between 1990 and 2010. Around the country, designated bike lanes are springing up along roads, and abandoned rail lines are being redeveloped into bike and pedestrian trails, such as the Greenbrier River Trail in Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties, and the Great Allegheny Passage trail in Western Maryland and Western Pennsylvania.

Yet, for a group of bicycle enthusiasts in the Charleston area, biking is not new. Since 1991, the Mountain State Wheelers have been providing an avenue for local cyclists to connect with each other as well as regular rides each week for bikers of all skill levels.

“It’s a family-friendly atmosphere that enjoys riding and exercise,” said Wheelers President Charlie Nutt, the owner of C & C Doors in Winfield. “We’re one big family, I guess you could say.”

In its 21-year history, the group has promoted safe rides for its members, worked to care for areas used for riding and advocated for bicycle awareness and safe travel for all cyclists. Twice a year, the Wheelers help remove litter from the road leading to Kanawha State Forest, a main riding route for the 100-plus-member club.

“We want to do our part, and it helps with publicity,” said Dennis Strawn, the go-to person for advocacy within the club.

Not only does the club help with maintaining clean riding areas, it also helps promote safety for all cyclists, Strawn said. In addition, the Wheelers, with the help of Strawn and other members, have helped get “Share the Road” signs placed along major cycling thoroughfares in the Kanawha Valley, organize an annual “Ride of Silence,” in memory of bikers who have been killed while riding and assisted the local government in establishing designated bike routes and lanes – such as the Kanawha Valley’s first bike lane along MacCorkle Avenue between St. Albans and South Charleston.

Yet, the basic function of the Wheelers remains – to provide local bicycle enthusiasts with a way to ride as a group and connect on a social level.

Every week, around 30 to 40 of the club’s members gather to ride around Charleston on Wednesday evenings, and then gather again for longer rides on the weekends – though many members opt for joining just one or two rides per week. Wednesday rides are called “Memory Rides” and have no set path. Instead, once the Wheelers meet at the University of Charleston around 6 p.m., members break into groups based on skill level, and then follow different routes for the evening. Depending on the skill group, rides can take cyclists through Charleston on city streets, or can travel in a more country setting, often toward Kanawha State Forest. Because there is no set route, rides can be longer or shorter based on time of year with the change in time of the sunset.

“The Wednesday night riders will do anywhere from 10 miles at 10 miles per hour, another group might go 20 miles at 13 miles per hour, another group will go somewhere between 25 and 30 miles, and you will actually find people that can cover close to 40 miles in two hours,” said Heidi Talmage, a local lawyer and the Mountain State Wheelers’ secretary. “We’ll announce different routes so that people that don’t want to climb big hills can go with one of the easier groups, and then people that really want to push themselves – even if they can’t keep up with the speed of the faster riders – will follow that same route.”

Talmage added that if Wednesday night rides are rained out, rides are often made up on Thursdays.

On weekends, rides are longer and undertaken more as a collective group. Saturday rides, which have various starting points throughout the summer, tend to be more strenuous, longer rides, although those rides also have alternate, shorter routes. Sundays are “no one left behind” rides, meaning that the cyclists ride as a group, stopping every so often for slower riders to catch up to the faster riders. Throughout the spring and summer, members of the Wheelers participate in other rides, hosted by other clubs around the state and region.

For many members, the Wheelers serve as a primary social community. In fact, several couples have met their spouses in the group. Talmage, for example, and Wheelers’ treasurer Chris Nagorka, an organ repairman in St. Albans, met during a club meeting in 2010, got to know each other through rides and other events, and were married in October 2011.Talmage said that even the wedding had evidence of the Wheelers’ influence on their lives -the wedding cake was decorated with two bicycles and an “outdoor scene.” Of course, the cake itself had Wheelers’ connections – it was made by the Risin’ Dough Bakery in South Charleston, which is owned by a Wheeler.

“The Wheelers were the first to know we were getting married,” Nagorka said.

Nagorka noted that this isn’t unusual – he said that at least six married couples riding in the group met there as well.

“The running joke is that if you’re president, you’ll marry a Wheeler,” Nagorka said.

Though the community is a large part of the attraction, the size of the club is a definite draw for solo bikers, who worry about safety. The idea of riding in a group is particularly important in Appalachia, where rural and city roads are often narrow and winding, making individual cyclists hard to spot for motorists.

“You definitely feel safer in a larger group,” Talmage said. “People (drivers) tend to pay a little more respect to bikers in a group.”

Strawn, who met his wife through the Wheelers, credits the group and an increase in biking in general with the rise of increasingly courteous drivers, who are more aware of cyclists.

“There’s literally more visibility,” Strawn said, noting that he’s seen an increase in non-Wheeler cyclists throughout the city. “It used to be that drivers didn’t expect (to see bikers). Now, it’s more expected because there are more people riding bikes. There’s a little subculture in Charleston of 20 to 30-year-olds riding a good bit – and they’re doing it to get around, not just for fun.”

Membership in the Wheelers is open to anyone with a bike and a will to ride, regardless of skill level. All rides are open to the public. Schedules and contact information are all on the Mountain State Wheelers website at www.mountainstatewheelers.com.

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