BIKING THE VINEYARD
BY JIM MILLER
From the bike path on Beach Road to the rolling hills up-Island, cycling is a great way to get out of the car, experience the landscape, and bond with family and friends
(Photos by Kathryn Osgood)
Before deciding to move to the Island last year, the first calls I made were to several bike shops to ask about the cycling scene here on Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve biked cycling meccas from the Alpe d’Huez in France to the Slickrock Trail in Utah, from our national parks to the (not so) mean streets of our nation’s capital. I’ve raced, commuted, and cruised to the beach on bikes. And I wanted to be sure that there was a cycling community here on the Island I could join – the simple reason being that bike people tend to be good people.
Of course, there is a cycling community on the Vineyard, populated with hard-core racers and those just out for a neighborhood ramble, day-trippers and year-rounders. And as traffic and parking on the Island get worse, more people are taking to two wheels. Here is a small sampling of the good people I’ve met.
No article on Vineyard biking would be complete without David Whitmon. His bicycle built for three, the mane of feathers on his helmet, and his unwavering enthusiasm for cycling combine to make him an Island cycling icon. The Oak Bluffs resident, who’s fifty-three, grew up an avid cyclist in the Washington, D.C., area, moving to Martha’s Vineyard in 1983.
“I visited [the Island] for four days, and my jaw ached from smiling so much. Then I went home and drove to work in [Capital] Beltway traffic. I said, ‘This isn’t how human beings are supposed to live.’” At the time he wasn’t riding a bike much, but in 1989, after years of knee trouble, a doctor suggested double knee replacement. David bought a mountain bike instead. “I went from using a cane and going down stairs on my butt to riding a bike built for three,” he says.
The bicycle built for three, or triplet, is tricked out with lights, a rack with pannier bags, a 120-decibel air horn, and a trailer for trips to the grocery store. It even boasts a communication system so David and his two daughters, Gaia and Gracie, fourteen and twelve, can talk without shouting. Big and green, the triplet was dubbed “Boooger” (with three O’s) by the girls. “Many times,” David says, “I have people – strangers – say, ‘I watched your girls grow up on that bike.’”
In addition to alleviating his knee troubles, cycling has helped David through the difficulties of parenthood: Gaia has Asperger Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism, and Gracie is autistic. Cycling has proven particularly beneficial for Gracie, who struggles with verbalization. “When she was very young we thought maybe she was deaf, but on the bike she began to hum and sing and talk. She would clap, and I would think, ‘That’s great, but it means she’s not holding the handlebars!’”
“They may get to an age, especially Gaia, when they don’t want to ride with me. But I hope they have good memories,” David says. “It’s a wonderful way to raise children.”
Rob met Magda in Guatemala, and in fact taught her how to ride a bike, which is very challenging for an adult. She endured a healthy ration of falls, but Rob says, “The bike brought us together, and will keep us together.” That’s doubly true now that they ride a tandem. “It’s family time; no cell phones, no distractions, just time together on the bike,” he says.
Baloo, however, can’t reach the pedals, and as this Leonberger rapidly grew from a puppy into a one-hundred-pound-and-then-some dog, Rob found himself hauling Baloo to work at the FARM Institute in the car. “Baloo is a farm dog, he belongs on the farm,” says Rob.
To get back in the saddle, Rob needed a trailer for Baloo. “I wanted an enclosed space for Baloo to feel safe and comfortable,” says Rob, but traditional bike trailers for children were too small to handle Baloo’s potential of 140 pounds. So Rob enlisted the help of local artisans, welders, sail makers, and bike shops to create the perfect conveyance for Baloo. “The project brought people together.”
Now, Rob makes the twelve-mile trek from West Tisbury to Katama almost every day with Baloo in tow. “The Vineyard is a great place to go for a bike ride,” says Rob. “It’s an island, so you have to go in circles, but there are thousands of circles to go in.ELEMENTI can always find a different way home.” As for his reception on the roads, Rob notes that most Vineyard drivers are courteous, and many wave. “They laugh and do double takes, seeing this huge dog in a trailer.ELEMENTIt feels good to make people smile.”
“I learned to ride a bike on School Street,” recalls Diana Dozier, a life-long summer resident of Edgartown, and now a full-time Vineyarder. “We were staying at the Brown Cottage when I was five or six, or however old you are when you learn, and I started at the top of the driveway and went down, and I couldn’t make the turn.” After a handful of unsuccessful attempts ended with her in the bushes, she made the turn and has been pedaling ever since.
Over the years, Diana progressed from one speed to three speeds to twenty-one. Though by now she’s quit riding no-hands, she hasn’t stopped biking.
“I couldn’t live without my bicycle,” she says. “It’s the only sensible way to get around Edgartown.” And get around Edgartown she does, for tennis or meeting friends, or biking to the beach. “Best of all is East Beach. Unfortunately, people know about it now,” she says.
Hauling modest loads doesn’t deter Diana either, as she goes shopping on two wheels, and even carries her sails to the harbor when she goes sailing. She hauls what she needs in an old basket that has outlasted several of her bikes, remarking that “a good basket is hard to find.”
While Diana notes that most drivers are courteous, she also sees “a tension in people here now. When I was a child it was more laid-back.ELEMENTNow everyone’s racing around to get somewhere.”
She mentions that even some in her family “look at me as if I’m from Mars when I show up somewhere on my bicycle.” But that doesn’t stop her.
Biking remains her preferred mode of transportation around her home town.
“Am I a cyclist? No. I’m a cyclist of Edgartown.”
The Sunday afternoon ride that leaves from Edgartown Bicycles
attracts the faster cyclists on-Island.
Alan Lovewell (third from left)
Vineyard native Alan Lovewell grew up a “bike shop rat” at Frank Jennings Edgartown Bicycles, beginning his career there when he was in the fourth grade. “I’ve always seen bikes as a way of life, not just as a sport or for transportation or keeping fit.”
Since his college days at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Alan has also enjoyed racing. As a freshman, Alan helped revive the UCSC team, which annually made nationals despite a tiny budget.
Alan notes that it’s not simply better weather that makes Santa Cruz a friendlier cycling community than the Vineyard. “Santa Cruz is very forward-thinking and environmentally conscious.ELEMENTOrganizations and businesses really encourage cycling.” On the Vineyard, he says, “Cycling is seen as a lower form of transportation, not as a better form. People aren’t really weighing the pros and cons.” Among the pros, Alan says, is “the opportunity to enjoy your surroundingsELEMENTthe smells, the trees, the birds. You also pay more attention to people, to your neighborhood and neighbors; there’s a real sense of connection that’s lost in a car.”
The twenty-five-year-old also suggests that many year-rounders associate biking with tourism, and there’s a stigma to that. “Cyclists are seen as dorky, lost, holding up cars.” Alan helps destroy those misconceptions by being decidedly un-dorky, never lost, and very fast.
David Murphy (fifth from left)
Captain David Murphy of Vineyard Haven enjoys the social aspect of cycling. “I love meeting new people,” he says. In his job with the Dukes County Sheriff’s Department, he says, “I’m involved in the community all the time. [Cycling] is a way to meet other people – most criminals aren’t cyclists.”
The thirty-seven-year-old comes from a competitive background. After a youthful experience in the gravity-defiance realm of biking, the Plymouth native was introduced to road racing, cyclocross, and mountain biking by Mark and Frank McCormack, also Plymouth natives, who went on to become world-class professional cyclists.
Here on the Vineyard, David mixes the social and competitive aspects of cycling in group rides. He’s a regular at the speedy Sunday afternoon road ride that leaves from Edgartown Bicycles. “I love the competitive spirit, even though I’m not the fastest. I love the camaraderie.” Though he notes the ride has its drawbacks: “That hill coming out of Menemsha, it’s miserable. But I enjoy the misery.”
David also is fond of the Vineyard Off-Road Bicycle Association (VORBA) Sunday morning ride. “It’s just an eclectic group of people,” he says, “including a Filipino guy named Murphy with tattoos all over.” He means, of course, himself.
Most of Murphy’s rides these days have a serious aspect, since he’s training for triathlons. “You need a goal to work toward, otherwise you’re just playing around.” Still, Murphy also emphasizes the mental benefits of cycling: “It’s a way to stay fit, but more important, it helps me maintain my sanityELEMENT.There’s a sense of well-being whether you’re hammering along or just cruising.”
While cycling is a great way to get around our Island, and generally safer than riding in a car, research (and common sense) proves that there are three simple steps you can take to make your ride even safer:
1. Always ride with traffic.
Riding against traffic on the wrong side of the street is incredibly foolish and dangerous, as well as against the law, but many people seem to mistakenly believe they should. They’re dead wrong. Never ride against traffic.
2. Wear a helmet.
Until recently, the prevailing attitude on the Vineyard seemed to be that accidents don’t happen here, so helmets are unnecessary. Dead wrong again. Even a minor, low-speed fall becomes life threatening if you smack your head on the ground. If you’re sixteen or under, the law requires a helmet. If you’re over sixteen, common sense requires one. I’ve also noticed that people without helmets tend to be those who need them most: the inexperienced and the immature.
3. Use lights when riding at night.
The law requires a headlight and a taillight. They’re inexpensive, and they let drivers see you as well as let you see obstacles.
I could go on for pages with dos and don’ts for safe biking, but if everyone gets these three down, we’ll be in pretty good shape.
(Originally published in the September - October 2007 edition
of Martha's Vineyard Magazine)