Chris Schulz Published

Group Bike Rides Aim To Make City Streets More Accessible

A cyclist standing up on her pedals is blurred by motion. The bicycle she rides has multicolored lights woven through the spokes of the wheels. The image is lit from the left by a bright white light, casting long shadows to the right of frame. In the background more bicycles, less blurred by motion, can be seen.
The ad-hoc Morgantown Social Rides aim to get cyclists onto the streets to explore the city in a new way.
Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

As temperatures start to rise, people are taking the opportunity to get outside. One group in Morgantown is taking to the streets on their bicycles.

On an unseasonably warm evening in March, just as the sun was setting across the Monongahela River, a group of about 20 gathered at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Park amphitheater, ready to take to the streets on their bikes.

A group of mountain bikers has come down after work from Uniontown, Pennsylvania to take part in the ride. There’s two brothers on a tandem bicycle and a woman with LED’s woven through her wheel spokes.

“Follow me. The route? I just finished it right before we came here,” Drew Gatlin said to the group. He is the staff engineer for the city of Morgantown, and one of the primary organizers of Morgantown’s social rides. 

“It’s just a good time on bikes, exploring Morgantown streets and essentially trying to spread the joy that I know at least to be riding on two wheels in Morgantown,” Gatlin said.

Despite its hills, Gatlin assures newcomers that Morgantown and the social rides in particular are relatively accessible. 

“If you want to get around town on a bike, you have to climb some hills eventually,” Gatlin said. “It’s a little bit aspirational, it’s a little bit ambitious. Sometimes we take the hills, it’s also helpful to remember and remind people, who are not used to riding around, that it’s okay to walk as well and get off your bike and just push it up the hill a little bit.”

The group sets off behind Gatlin, who has a large speaker strapped to the back of his bike from which he plays music and gives directions.

As the group winds its way towards West Virginia University (WVU), and starts to climb some hills into the student neighborhood of Sunnyside, some riders starts to wonder between gasping breaths why they aren’t riding on Morgantown’s miles of gently graded, car-free rail trails. Professionally, Gatlin said he’s interested in ensuring people can get around town via any mode they choose, be that on foot, in a car or, of course, on a bike.

“Morgantown can feel pretty intimidating to ride around,” he said. “My own motivations for the social ride, taking them on the streets, is really geared towards reminding people that it is possible to ride out on the streets, that you can have a good time, if not, on your own, at least in a group of people with some music, and some whimsy.”

Last year, the bicycling blog IceBikes ranked West Virginia as the fourth safest state for cyclists in the country based on low cyclist fatalities on roads. But analysis by the League of American Bicyclists showed less than a quarter of a percent of commuters in the state biked to work in 2022.  

Gatlin said promoting bikes as a viable mode of transportation is an objective of the social rides, albeit a secondary one.

Two men sit on a purple tandem bike in the dark, lit by small lights from the left and front. The man in the front wears a blue shirt with the sleeves pushed up, while the one in the back wears an orange-red shirt. Both are wearing jeans and helmets.
Brothers Gabe Holtzer, left, and Kemp Holtzer sit on their tandem bicycle while waiting for a flat to be fixed on another rider’s bicycle March 8, 2024.

Photo Credit: Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A woman stands next to her bicycle, her head cut off by the photograph's frame, as a man works on the front wheel of her bicycle. There are multicolored lights woven through the spokes of the bike's wheels. The scene is dark and lit by small lights. Another person with their back to the frame straddles a bicycle to the left of them with a red safety light illuminated.
Participants of the Morgantown Social Ride stop to help each other with a flat after a long climb up an alleyway in Westover, March 8, 2024.

Photo Credit: Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The night’s ride routed through WVU’s downtown campus, next to the student union, down Morgantown’s High Street and through a residential neighborhood before crossing the river into Westover. Following the river, there’s momentarily no worry about hills. 

But when riding in West Virginia, you don’t get to avoid hills, just take breaks from them. After the evening’s longest climb up an alley, a rider suddenly got a flat. 

“We always try to stay together. We don’t want to lose anybody or drop anyone, that’s why we have someone out in the back,” said Rebecca Marshall. She recently moved to West Virginia from Massachusetts with her partner. For them, the social ride is literally that: a social event built around a physical activity.

“In Morgantown, every place is hilly,” Marshall said. “I think it’s great. That’s why it’s better to stick together just in case people fall behind. People show up that are new to this, and might not have the general fitness for it. That’s totally okay. We want everybody to show up no matter what. Just sticking together is the most important part of social riding. That’s the point.”

Group rides are not a new concept, and according to some attendants of the current social rides, Morgantown even hosted a national series of social rides known as Critical Mass a few decades ago. More recently, Gatlin and others maintained a municipal bicycle board that gave rise to the current social rides, as well as supported a confidence city cycling class at WVU and events at middle schools. Those efforts led to the city being awarded a bronze ranking by the League of American Bicyclists in 2016. 

Like so many things, the bicycle board hasn’t quite recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, something that actually helped promote the social rides.

“They’re a lot less intense in terms of organizing resources,” Gatiln said. “As COVID hit, and as the community conscious, if what was safe and what felt safe, at least developed, the social rides were one of the only options that many people felt comfortable doing, to socialize with their community.”

After the flat was fixed, the group headed back across the river to the riverfront park where the ride started.

After more than 12 miles, the ride is over and participants like Ash Orr basked in the feeling of accomplishment, to be back on his bike after the winter, and to have an opportunity to do some road riding. 

“Morgantown is difficult to bike solo, I find,” Orr said. “I try to pretty much use my bike only, I try not to use my car at all. But I found that I feel more secure and more confident when I’m going through downtown or just different smaller streets within Morgantown.” 

Orr came out on his electric bike, something Gatlin said he’s seeing more of and can help lower the barrier to riding in the Mountain State. But ultimately, the social ride is just a fun time.

“It’s just really a great time to be with the community, bike around town and see parts of town we don’t really get to see much,” Orr said. “It’s really nice being able to get together with folks like this. Social rides will set you free so you got to come on out.”