It all started with a letter from an innkeeper to a newspaperman in 1987.
Jim Beaver, the innkeeper of the Chanticleer Inn in Ashland, Oregon, had experienced adventure cycling and came away with a sense that the activity could spur economic activity in the small towns around Oregon.
Jonathan Nicholas, a reporter for the Oregonian, was focused on telling stories about the shifting economic landscape in rural Oregon that was occurring in the 1980’s.
Jim encouraged Jonathan to invite people to go for a ride to small towns, and in the process they’d get hungry and thirsty, leading them to buy pizza and beer in each place. Jonathan agreed to write the story, and with the support of area chamber of commerces and the generous backing of Travel Oregon who oversaw the event coordination, the first event was scheduled to take place in September of 1988 – covering 320 miles from Salem to Brookings.
Jonathan wrote the story and they both thought that somewhere between a handful and a hundred people would arrive.
Over one thousand people from 20 different states participated, generating $360,000 in economic activity for the participating regions. Cycle Oregon was officially born.
Defining the experience and routes
As the growth of Cycle Oregon has extended out from its roots, the one thing that has not changed is the focus on a quality experience for the riders who participate, something Alison Graves, the Executive Director of Cycle Oregon, knows is critical.
“Cycle Oregon is renowned for its amenities and support. Our saying is, ‘all you have to do is pedal and we do the rest’,” she said.
But things weren’t always that way.
“The first year there were no porta-potties and after the first few days, realizing something needed to be done, Jonathan hired a local roto-rooter who also had porta-potties – they have been with Cycle Oregon ever since. Similarly, food used to be provided by communities. But after the fourth day of burgers and dogs, Cycle Oregon turned to a mobile catering company, OK’s Cascades, who also provides incident response catering.”
However, no matter the level of support and amenities, the core essence of the ride is still the route the ride takes throughout Oregon. In recent years Oregon, and primarily areas like Portland, Bend and the Coast, have become hot tourist destinations – and for good reasons.
But Oregon is a big and diverse state.
From the Painted Hills to the Rogue Wilderness and back up to Astoria and out to the Wallowas, the options for the rides are almost endless.
“We tend to make a rotation around the more remote parts of the state. Great bicycling means low traffic roads, so that tends to mean areas that are more out of the way. Plus, with economic development part of our mission, we work harder to ride through smaller towns. That doesn’t take too much work in Oregon with so many idyllic communities,” says Alison.
The work, however, doesn’t end with the route selection. Engaging the communities around the state before the ride, as the event passes through each community, and after they have left are all important aspects of how Cycle Oregon works to promote economic development.
“We work closely with partners, like Travel Oregon and State Parks, to make it easy for riders to return. We promote Travel Oregon’s Bicycle Friendly Business program to the communities we ride in and also incorporate Scenic Bikeways into our routes wherever possible,” Alison adds. “Cycle Oregon actually started the Scenic Bikeways program as a way for anyone to create their own Cycle Oregon anytime. Plus, we are an ambassador for RidewithGPS, where we post our favorite routes and connect to Travel Oregon’s data that includes bicycle friendly businesses, campgrounds and other amenities to make return visits as easy as possible for past participants and those folks looking to head out on their own.”
With typically a 50/50 split in Oregonians and non-Oregonians participating in the ride, Cycle Oregon is reaching out to a broad mix of riders. Close to 75% on average are from OR, WA, and CA, while another 25% are from around the country and world.
And maintaining the uniqueness year after year through route selection has resulted in a high number of returning riders, as Alison points out.
“We have a high number of people who do the ride more than once. We have a handful of people who have done every single Cycle Oregon. This year we have 75 people who have done more than 15 rides and 175 people who have done 8-14.”
But as the ride has grown, the organization knows that there is a limit. The logistics in taking bike riders around Oregon, and the impact the ride has on these communities, is something Alison and her team always take into consideration.
“We have found that the right number is around 2,000. With that number we need 13-14 acres and that can be hard to find in small communities.”
Also, as Cycle Oregon has grown from its roots to what it is today, the team instilled a core focus on sustainability to ensure that as the ride grew, some of the potential negative effects would be negated.
“The focus on sustainability was a practicality issue and we are a ‘leave no trace’ event. We bring all of our own food and water that is consumed while riding, and we take away our garbage,” Alison said. “We started by recycling the usual stuff and over the years it has evolved to include using compostable utensils and plates. We compost and recycle a lot so that we minimize what goes into the landfill.”
Becoming a voice, giving back, and continuing to grow
With an ever-increasing number of riders participating in Cycle Oregon, the economic impact continues to grow. But the staff and board of Cycle Oregon wanted to identify a way to create a more lasting and sustainable impact.
“The grant program started in 1996 (the organization started in 1988). The board wanted to set up a sustainable way of giving back and an endowment was a great vehicle. To date we have made 190 grants totaling $1.6M, and we have about $2M in the fund today,” Alison adds. “We focus our giving in three categories: Bicycle Tourism & Safety, Environmental Conservation & Historic Preservation, and Community Projects. We tend to have higher giving in the communities we have just visited but we accept proposals on a year round basis and from every part of the state.”
In addition to giving back, Cycle Oregon has evolved into an important voice for change too. The Policymaker Ride was born through a conversation between Jonathan Nicholas and longtime environmental advocate, Mike Houck, both of whom were frustrated with the slow pace of change in improving facilities.
They organized the first event to highlight the Scenic Bikeways project and invited policymakers to join in so they could experience the good, bad, and ugly in order to motivate them to make change more quickly.
And it worked.
To date the Policymaker Ride has helped launch the Scenic Bikeway program, shined a spotlight on regional projects like connections in Washington and Clark counties plus the Columbia River Gorge, and cultivated relationships among the participants.
Even with the continued growth of Cycle Oregon and the evolving positive impact it’s having in the state, there are challenges. An aging population, more traffic on the roads and less funding for bicycle safety are challenges that the team at Cycle Oregon know all too well.
But they also see a multitude of opportunities, including events that cater to new populations, creating awareness around bicycle programs and safety campaigns, and more strategic investment approaches.
And Alison knows that Oregon is a special place to do an event like Cycle Oregon, “There is a strong sense of history and community. The story of Oregon — the Oregon Trail, Lewis & Clark, native peoples — is the American story. And it’s still very much alive. So, while the roads and scenery are truly breathtaking, it’s the communities that welcome us with open arms and share their experiences with us, which makes Cycle Oregon such a unique and priceless experience.”
And by embracing the open roads and the sense of community around the state, Cycle Oregon has had an estimated direct annual economic impact of $660,000, and a total of $14,000,000 since its inception.
Which is truly putting pedal power to work.