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Bicyclists pedal with a passion
Northeast Georgia is popular destination for riders
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Bicyclists from around the region take a hill Thursday night on Old Cornelia Road. This group of cyclists meets for weekly rides. - photo by NAT GURLEY

To join the ride

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursdays

Where: Wrenched Bicycles, 328 NW Bradford St., Gainesville

How much: Free

Contact: 770-287-8842

“When I ride my bike, I truly feel alive,” Gainesville resident John Lilly said. “I’m outside with the wind in my hair and I’m getting exercise.

“It is a wonderful feeling, and when you’re with friends, it’s even better.”

Cycling is an increasingly popular sport and recreational activity, and many cyclists are choosing to ride in Northeast Georgia.

Lilly, who started cycling with his dad in 1999, attributes Northeast Georgia’s popularity to its wide breadth of terrain, from rolling hills to challenging mountain slopes, and natural scenery.

“What makes cycling fun is the different challenges you run into,” he said. “You can ride hard or easy, up a mountain or down it.

“It is good exercise for people, and there are all kinds of groups (who) get together and ride.”

Though the total number of Americans who ride bicycles regularly has declined in the past 10 years, the number of adult riders has seen a slight uptick. Riders who hit the trails and roadways at least 110 days out of the year has grown by nearly 400,000, according to surveys conducted by the National Sporting Goods Association. In addition, membership in USA Cycling, the official cycling organization recognized by the International Olympic Committee, has increased by almost 70 percent since 2002.

Locally, the trend is even more pronounced.

“I’ve been in the industry since ’84 and there is no doubt that cycling has grown tremendously since then,” said Joe Elam, local cyclist and owner of Habersham Bicycles in Gainesville. “I would say it’s probably doubled here in North Georgia since 2000.

“It’s become more of a popular sport, instead of just a fringe activity. And it is much more accepted by the general population.”

In the early days of cycling in Northeast Georgia, the community was dominated by local enthusiasts. That changed when the Tour de Georgia, billed as North America’s premier professional cycling event, came to the region.

Started in 2003, Tour de Georgia attracted cyclists from all over the world and the United States, including Lance Armstrong. It frequently covered ground in Northeast Georgia, including Hall County on multiple occasions.

Nathan O’Neill first traveled to Gainesville from Australia to participate in the inaugural Tour de Georgia. He placed third in the general classification category.

“I think (cycling) was like a sleeping giant in some ways,” O’Neill said. “There was a hard-core group of individuals up here (who) were pushing the sport and then Tour de Georgia happened and that gave interest a huge bump.

“More and more people are realizing how much fun it is now.”

Tour de Georgia was canceled in 2009 because of financial troubles, but cyclists continued traveling to Northeast Georgia to challenge the difficult slopes. O’Neill even moved to Gainesville and opened Wrenched Bicycles with a friend after retiring from professional racing.

“The terrain and roads up here are fantastic,” he said. “You’ve got Hogpen Gap, Neels Gap and the mountains. That is what attracts people here, and now you got people who want to ride the same roads as Tour de Georgia.”

The popularity comes despite the fact local roads aren’t particularly suited for cycling. Hall County has just roughly 5 miles of paved and unpaved walking and biking trails, according to a report from the Gainesville-Hall County Metropolitan Planning Organization. Comparatively, Cobb County has about 48 miles of paved multiuse trails, including part of the Silver Comet Trail, a 61-mile-long paved trail running from Smyrna to the Georgia-Alabama state line.

In addition, Northeast Georgia has very few “complete streets,” or streets accommodating vehicular traffic as well as pedestrian and cyclist traffic.

“I understand (complete streets) cost a lot of money,” Elam said. “But in some environments, especially in a downtown area with heavy traffic, a complete street design is absolutely proved to be much safer, and it’s more inviting.”

Elam said a street with room for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians improves the safety for all in downtown districts. Ill-suited roadways force cyclists to ride alongside cars and trucks, which can cause frustration and dangerous situations for both parties.

“I’ve been hit,” Lilly said. “I’ve had people throw stuff at me, and I’ve been screamed at. But most people are nice and happy to go around you.”

However, Lilly said both sides have a responsibility to be safe and courteous.

“I’ve seen some cyclists ride four abreast, and you just can’t do that,” he said. “When people see that, they’re going to get mad.”

In its April Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan Update, the Gainesville-Hall County Metropolitan Planning Organization recommended the county complete existing plans for pedestrian and bike trails, develop new recreational trails and adopt a complete streets policy.

Until then, cycling isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

“I’ve always been a bicyclist,” Elam said. “It’s all I know and it’s all I do.”

Regional events