Can bike touring save small town America?

May 12, 2014

by Rachel Walker


Morgan exploring Colorado by bike during her Bike & Build trip.

When Morgan Sachs set out to bicycle across the country three years ago, she was hardly thinking about stimulating the economies of small towns along her route. As a newly minted college grad, Sachs was in search of something more profound, more directive. At the time, she was living in St. Louis, trying to capitalize on her visual communications degree, but feeling the restlessness of youth. She was curious about biking, but “would hardly have called myself a bicyclist.”

She joined a group called Bike & Build, which teamed her up with about 30 fellow riders on a mission to traverse the country on two wheels and simultaneously raise money for the affordable housing cause.

“I really wanted to go explore and have an adventure,” says Morgan, who later went on to join one of PeopleForBikes events crews. “I wanted to see what was out there, and I knew there wouldn’t be a better way to explore than on a bike.”

The group rode from Providence, RI to Half Moon Bay, CA. They rode between 60 and 120 miles per day, and the adventures Morgan sought presented themselves one after another.

“When you’re riding across the country, everything is extreme,” she says. “You laugh harder than you’ve ever laughed. You get more upset than you ever have, and then you feel more elated than ever—all in the context of one afternoon.”

The other thing you get—which Morgan hadn’t anticipated—is a front-row view into the world of rural America. There was the town in Kansas that centered itself around a ball of twine, the largest twine ball in the United States. There was Estes Park, CO, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. There were pit stops and outposts and artist enclaves, some of which didn’t even show up on a map.

“Experiencing all of these places was sensational,” says Morgan. “I found myself interacting with people in a way I hadn’t before.”


Laura and Russ from Path Less Pedaled on one of their many bike tours.

That’s not surprising, according to the Laura Crawford and Russ Roca, who have pedaled more than 18,000 miles and have leveraged their passion for bike touring into advocacy and public speaking gigs. At their Path Less Pedaled blog, the duo argues that bike touring could provide an essential economic stimulus to small towns around the country.

Because bikes are slower than cars and bicyclists are often very hungry, they’re likely to stop and spend their money in the small places through which they pass.

They write, “After being nomadic for three years and passing through literally hundreds of tiny towns, it dawned on us that bike travel could be a viable means to revitalize rural areas.”

They estimate that over the course of a 200-mile journey, a bicyclist will consume roughly 17,000 calories over four nights – while a motorist will make the trip in a day, stop and eat about 2,000 calories, and spend just one night on the road.

Better yet, it will be more fun to ride a bike than to just drive.

Whether or not those who bike tour are doing it with economic stimulus in mind or simply because they’re seeking the thrill and adventure of the open road on a bike, their impact will be immediate. And, the more bikers out there, the greater the impact.

For Morgan, the overall experience of riding cross-country changed her life. “It widened my view of what’s possible,” she says. “I am an organized, Type A personality who needed to plan everything out. After that trip, I embraced the idea of being flexible and letting experiences happen to me. There are amazing things out there that you can’t anticipate and that you should let happen and just embrace.”


The Bike & Build riders final day in Half Moon Bay.

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