Local bike clubs need volunteers to keep established rides, advocacy work rolling

Capital Bicycling Club’s Two-County Double Metric turns 35 Sunday (June 28) morning and it has aged well.

The club’s primary fundraising ride has evolved from a free, lightly supported tour of Thurston and Lewis counties in the early 1980s to an event with six route options and a finish area with music and food trucks.

In fact, club president Bill Stevenson says the ride has changed so much from just last year, the most notable similarity is the event’s name.

South Sound bike clubs are finding that no matter how established their rides are, they must adapt if they are going to stay viable.

Earlier this month, the Tacoma Wheelmen’s Bicycle Club canceled the 33rd Peninsula Metric because fewer than 100 riders registered in advance. Instead, the ride became a free outing for club members and a small band of cyclists pedaled the rolling course.

The effort may have kept the Peninsula Metric alive, but the Tacoma club lost its second-largest fundraiser.

The Peninsula Metric is hardly the only club ride to struggle in recent years. The Olympia club retired its Tenino-Rainier-Yelm-Bucoda Rally in 2012. And the multi-club Rapsody Ride was canceled last year after a 10-year-run.

Why, in a time when cycling is as popular as ever, are established club rides struggling to stay viable?

Stevenson and TWBC president Darrell Eslinger have a few ideas: They need more volunteers, they need younger club members and the ride is so saturated even established rides are competing for cyclists.

“The one big ride is the (Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic),” Eslinger said. “Everybody thinks that is the only ride in the Puget Sound anymore.”

The STP is July 11-12 and has 10,000 people registered to ride. It’s organized by the biggest bicycle group in the nation, Seattle-based Cascade Bicycle Club. It has big-name sponsors and a reputation that transcends the sport.

While it may be easy to point at the Cascade Bicycle Club and its paid staff (local clubs are all-volunteer) and say that its well-publicized schedule is pulling cyclists from smaller club rides, Stevenson doesn’t believe that’s the case.

“I actually think the STP helps our ride (Two-County Double) because our ride is just a few weeks before,” Stevenson said. “It’s a good last evaluation to see if you’re up for the test or just a nice last long training ride.

“I usually tell people if they can do the 200-kilometer course and finish by dark then they can do the STP in one day. It’s hillier than the STP.”

While Cascade “is the big dog,” Stevenson says the club does a good job of working with smaller clubs to make sure their rides don’t overlap.

Still, it sometimes seems as if there are multiple rides every weekend.

“I just think people have a certain amount of money and a certain amount of time,” Eslinger said. “They have to choose a few rides to do.”

With so many options, Stevenson says, “I think people aren’t driving as far as they used to to do a ride. I used to race around the Northwest and wore out a couple cars over the years. But the idea of driving over to Spokane for a ride now, I can’t even remember the last time I did that.”

So, Eslinger and Stevenson agree, the clubs must adapt their rides if they’re going to draw participants and get volunteers excited to help.

Hence the changes for the Two County and numerous attempts to spruce up the Peninsula Metric.

In recent years, the Peninsular Metric changed its routes and added a Gran Fondo (a timed race) option. But they got unlucky last year. The ride conflicted with a larger ride. And Kitsap County required the Tacoma club to use powdered paint for route markers.

When the markers didn’t hold up, some cyclists ended up missing turns and riding farther than they planned. Some weren’t exactly happy.

All these things, Eslinger said, may have contributed to the lack of interest this year.

There are other obstacles rides most overcome. Poor weather can crush day-of-ride registration. And in the case of the Tenino-Rainier-Yelm-Bucoda Rally, an increase in traffic made the route less than enjoyable even for club members.

But the hardest hurdle to clear when putting together a ride is drumming up enough volunteers. From course setup to publicity to passing out bagels, each ride needs an army of volunteers. Sixty or more, Eslinger said.

The volunteers are typically rewarded with free entry into a club ride.

Both clubs have healthy memberships. Capital’s membership recently crept above 500. Tacoma’s is about 350. However, only a small portion of the membership is typically involved in planning and volunteering at the rides.

And, in some cases, the active membership is simply getting older, Eslinger said. At a Tacoma meeting in late May, Eslinger said 26 people attended, and 16 were 70 or older.

Stevenson says the Olympia club’s meeting attendees are younger but “there is a lot of gray hair.”

“We’re trying to figure out how to get more young people to join the club,” Eslinger said.

While it might be that younger people just aren’t interested in being active members of a club, there are plenty of reasons to join.

“We could spend the next hour talking about that,” Stevenson said.

The clubs provide a place for people to learn the sport and meet riding partners. But arguably, more important is the fact that these clubs are working to build and maintain the local cycling community.

The Capital club is a sponsor for the Thurston County Commuter Challenge each May, and it helps provide bikes for veterans returning from duty.

The Tacoma Wheelmen donated more than $22,000 to the South Sound bike community last year, Eslinger said. They gave $10,000 to Town of Eatonville so it could complete the Bud Blancher Trail. The club supported newer groups such as the Velofemmes (a riding group for women) and Kidical Mass (a series of rides for families with kids).

And both clubs support bicycle education programs.

The funding for all this work comes mostly from the club’s rides. Like Sunday’s Two-County Double Metric.

“We are cycling advocates,” Eslinger said. “All we are trying to do is let people know what is available to them and they can have fun doing it. And, I like to think it is a good thing for our community.”