How it started: No training wheels and a feeling of freedom. A summer camp surprise at the top of a hill. Tagging along with a boyfriend for outdoorsy adventure. The remedy for a pandemic side effect.
How it’s going: An aspiring pro who has already raced in Europe. An expert cycler who still loves the woods. A well-rounded advocate for female empowerment. Rekindled interest and a job at a local shop.
Midlands cyclists got into the sport for different reasons and currently enjoy it in different ways. They tend to agree, however, the area is a good — not great — place to ride a bicycle.
“From flat roads to hilly roads, the Midlands has something for everyone,” says Mitch Smith, a former college swimmer who now cycles for fun and fitness and to keep up with his son, Noah, a local racer. “South Carolina in general has some of the best cycling in the world, period.”
For most of the 21st century, interest in cycling has been somewhat of a mixed bag. Annual U.S. sales of bicycles, parts, and accessories were flat, hovering in the $6 billion range. In 2014, the League of American Bicyclists reported 215 bike shops in South Carolina and $86.2 million in annual bicycle sales. Americans ride their bicycles 8.5 billion miles per year, but the years from 2009-2017 showed a steady decline of participation among youths. Then the thing that changed everything changed cycling, too.
“I kind of got bored sitting around the house during the pandemic and wanted to get back into it,” says Colton Wienecke, a customer service rep at Cycle Center. Colton had raced as a junior in high school but lost touch with cycling as he got older. After reacquainting himself with the sport, he secured a job at the bike shop on Harden Street in Columbia, which was enjoying a mini-boom in sales.
“People wanted to get out of the house. Some were not having to go to work and wanted something to do with their free time,” Colton says. “A lot of people were wanting to do it for exercise. For people who had knee injuries, who used to run or play football or play tennis, cycling is really good because it’s low impact.”
Amidst lockdowns and work-from-home policies, bicycles began flying — or at least rolling very quickly — out of shops nationwide. The Associated Press reported industry sales were $1 billion in April 2020 alone. Supply chain issues quickly followed.
The current mantra states, “If it gets built, it gets bought.” Some parts orders are already backlogged into 2023. Bicycle Retailer and Industry News reported that despite supply chain issues, the industry imported 19.24 million bikes in 2021, the most since 2010 and a 13.3 percent increase over 2020. Those figures don’t include e-bike sales.
“Our biggest years ever by far were 2020 and 2021,” says Brian Curran, who owns Outspokin’ on Devine Street in Columbia. “The government sent everybody a check, and people had a bunch of time on their hands. The two things that keep people from cycling are money and time.”
While the pandemic spawned a renewal of family bike rides, Brian has also noticed the longer-term trend of shrinking interest among youths. He says youth participation is a challenge for the entire sports industry. The cycling community is putting its efforts into organizing local youth teams. Meanwhile, he’s seen the opposite trend among older adults.
“That reflects America in general,” Brian says. “America is getting older. I see more older adults getting into bicycles, and that’s why electric bicycles are getting more and more popular.”
The National Bicycle Dealers Association reported earlier this year that one of the hottest new trends is the 20-inch urban e-bike. These types of motor-assisted bicycles typically have smaller wheels and a longer handlebar post, allowing the rider to sit more upright instead of hunched over.
Riding in the opposite direction of the trends is Noah Smith. Mitch’s 15-year-old son has placed first in numerous races. A ninth grader at Heathwood Hall, he says he became attracted to racing because he was allowed to go as fast as he wanted. “I got my first bike when I was 3, and I didn’t want training wheels on it,” he says. “I fell a few times, but I wanted to get the hang of it. I enjoyed the thrill of being free.”
Noah raced in Austria last summer and is headed to France this summer. He’s already getting corporate support from Chapter2, a bicycle manufacturer based in New Zealand. He hopes to begin riding professionally once he graduates from high school.
“Right now, my goal is to win a national championship,” Noah says. “In two years, it’s to get an invite to the world championships. My ultimate goal is to win the Tour de France and win an Olympic gold medal.”
Noah is coached by Corey McCracken, himself a local racer. A West Coast native, he met Noah at some races and got to know him better during a weekly group ride in Cayce. Corey puts together Noah’s training schedule.
“On the junior level, he’s nationally competitive in his age group and he’s moving up in the rankings,” Corey says. “He’s super competitive — hard on himself, but in a good way. I think he has the ability to go as far as he wants to go in cycling.” Corey, 52, is road captain for the Carolina Cycling Team, a Charlotte-based masters squad (age 35 and up) that includes riders from north and south of the border.
Avid cycling isn’t purely the domain of racers, or of men, however. If you want to know the best way to commute downtown from Shandon, or the safest two-wheeled routes for running errands, Luzviminda Gruner might be able to show you the way.
“I can carry about 60 pounds of groceries,” she says, thanks to a cargo trailer that attaches to the end of her bike. She became reacquainted with cycling in her 20s. After taking up climbing with her boyfriend, a friend suggested mountain biking. “We tried it, and it terrified me, but I got used to it and now I’m a big proponent of it.”
She says she eventually met her husband, Derek, through mountain biking. In addition to grocery runs, Luzviminda bicycles to her job at the University of South Carolina. Her 17-year-old son, Aidan, competes in the National Interscholastic Cycling Association and in Columbia Composite, a local mountain biking team for grades six through 12.
“I wish more women would bike and enjoy it like I do,” she says. “I will always be a proponent of mountain biking. My favorite word to describe mountain biking, especially mountain biking for women, is empowerment. Emotionally, it’s liberating.”
Harrison Floyd also got hooked on the sport through mountain biking. A Columbia-based designer and professor at the Clemson University School of Architecture, he continues to ride with the Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association when he can find time.
“I really got into it when I was about 10 years old and went to Camp Carolina for summer camp,” Harrison says. “I signed up for a mountain bike trip. It was just about the greatest thing I’d ever done in my life.”
After rusting out the frame on one of his favorite mountain bikes, he decided to take a bike-building course. Now, he gives away or sells bicycles he assembles from recycled parts.
“What I primarily do is take old bikes that are obsolete and neglected and turn them into something great,” Harrison says. He has several working bicycles as well as another 10 or so “in various stages of disarray.” He admits he’s not afraid to rescue a bicycle he spies in the trash. “People throw away a lot of good stuff.”
What’s it like to be a Midlands cyclist? Harrison says, “I wish it was a better place to commute, but I’m pretty happy with the setup here.”
Brian is one of several in the community who says a lack of investment in cycling infrastructure like bike lanes and trails and a vehicle-centric society dissuades growth. “If there was a place to ride without being run over by an SUV, more people would ride, but someone’s got to write the check.”
Fort Jackson is frequently mentioned as a safe place to ride. The miles of rolling terrain and controlled traffic make it a popular spot for in-the-know cyclists. “I love riding on Fort Jackson — the roads are super smooth,” Noah says. Cyclists must purchase a pass to ride at the fort and abide by specific safety rules.
For safety in numbers, evening group rides are also popular. Summit Cycles in Blythewood hosts a Wednesday ride. Tri-City Cyclers hosts a Cayce ride on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Numerous cycling groups can be found through social media and local shops.
The Cola Town Bike Collective, a nonprofit that supports bicycle maintenance and safe cycling, has an app, Sprocket, that provides route maps suggested by local riders. It can also locate bike-share stations for those who want to ride but don’t own a bicycle.
Derek Everling, a road cycling instructor who runs Cycle Center with his wife, Rebecca, says novices need their confidence built up to ride on Midlands streets. He recommends the Cayce and Saluda riverwalk trails.
“The easy answer is one of the forested trails,” Derek says. Harbison State Forest north of Columbia, Manchester State Forest in Sumter County, and Lynch’s Woods Park in Newberry County all have popular trails. “Those trails do get a ton of traffic. The majority of our sales are off-road.”
In the suburbs, Shandon is lauded for its wide streets and relatively flat terrain. The areas around Lake Katherine and Forest Lake are also recommended by some. For low-key cycling, Columbia’s Riverfront Park trail, the mile-long Vista Greenway rail trail, and the Timmerman Trail near Interstate 77 in Cayce also earn recommendations.
“Cayce and West Columbia have done a really great job,” says Scott Nuelken, Cola Town Bike Collective’s executive director. He says some of the in-town trails have become so popular with pedestrians that riding a bicycle on them can be challenging. “It shows if we had more of that infrastructure, it would all be used. It would also bring in people who might stay longer to take advantage of that infrastructure.”
He points north, to Greenville, as an example. The Swamp Rabbit, which began as a 9-mile rail trail, has since been expanded to 22 miles, running from south of downtown to Travelers Rest. It attracts more than half a million runners, walkers, and cyclists per year.
“People from Columbia literally go to Greenville to take advantage of the Swamp Rabbit,” Scott says. Additional and extended trails in the Midlands are planned, but progress has been slow. Most prominently, Prisma Health has pledged $2 million toward a bridge that would connect the Saluda Riverwalk and Riverfront Park trails. Also talks are underway with Irmo officials to extend trails to the Lake Murray Dam. “Once the bridge is in, you’ll theoretically be able to bike from downtown to the dam, and that’s going to be fantastic.”
And perhaps, years from now, a Midlands bicycle lover will look back and recall a ride on that trail as how it started for them.