The evolution of Santa Cruz’s Bike Month: Joy rides, street smarts, eco-commutes and cash prizes
Santa Cruz County’s third annual Bike Month begins Saturday, May 1, with workshops, guided rides, safety tours and cash prizes are all en route. Here’s how it all came together — and how it’s changed some participants’ lives.
Santa Cruz Bike Month, featuring friendly competition, workshops, community joy rides and lots of bike gear giveaways, begins May 1, and the local bike community is greasing chains and pumping tires in preparation. Organizers at the local non-profit Ecology Action are expecting this year’s turnout to be the highest yet as the economy opens up and summer draws near.
Community biking events have been a mainstay in Santa Cruz County for decades. It all began when a small group of people at Ecology Action got together in 1987 to create the Santa Cruz Bike to Work Day. The goal: to celebrate human powered two-wheeling, and make biking a social, normal part of everyday life.
“Biking has collected steam as it’s changed socially and culturally,” says Matt Miller, program specialist for Ecology Action. “It’s now showing up in all these different ways in our lives — it’s really taken off.”
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In 2006, the holiday was expanded into Bike Week, so more folks could engage, regardless of whether they biked to work. “We’re trying to get all the people who don’t typically think about biking, to think about it,” says Miller.
Then, in 2019, the training wheels came off and Bike Week became Bike Month.
A countywide competition ... with cash prizes
The Santa Cruz County Bike Challenge, now the centerpiece of Bike Month, is hosted by Ecology Action and the bike advocacy group Love to Ride, Santa Cruz. Riders sign up for the challenge through the Love to Ride website or app, and then log their rides there or on linked Strava or MapMyRide accounts, to earn points. So far, 655 participants and 70 workplaces have registered to compete.
The competition is simple: one point equals one entry in the raffle. Each mile is worth one point, but riding just once a day is worth 10 — and inviting a friend who rarely or never rides a bike gets you 100 points.
“The idea here is that it rewards regularity, not prolific riding,” says Miller. Throughout the month, dozens of $100 prizes will be raffled out, and at the end of the celebration, one Santa Cruz County resident will win $1,000. There’s also a $2,000 prize for local businesses who encourage their employees to get out and ride.
“It’s about making the case for biking,” Miller adds. “Try it out, ride to this destination, go to this event, meet friends and co-workers and family members, have it become a normal part of your day to day.”
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‘Bike boom’ expected to drive record participation
The American Community Survey reports that between 2013 and 2017, almost 70% of Santa Cruz residents drove to work by themselves, and around 10% walked or biked. But those numbers might be changing, at least for Santa Cruz.
The “bike boom,” which refers to the surge in new bicyclists across the nation that emerged from shelter-in-place ordinances last summer, hit Santa Cruz hard, and it hasn’t let up yet. According to data from Strava, a popular exercise logging app, people are biking more than they were in previous years, as outdoor activities continue to provide a low-risk opportunity for friends and family to spend time together — and as more people get hooked on breezing by all the vehicle traffic.
Miller says this year’s cycling celebration is shaping up to be the biggest they’ve ever done. He hopes the event’s timing with this unique moment in history ushers in positive change towards a more bike-savvy community.
“We have maybe the best opportunity in a generation to sustain a large change in behavior,” he says. “Everything was disrupted in our lives — how we perceive the world, our values, our judgments, our sense of self — and with transportation, it’s hard to say ‘you know what, I’m just going to change everything I do normally and just start anew today,’ but I think Bike Month could be a really good catalyst for that.”
Getting people out and about
Pete Kennedy, 44, grew up in Santa Cruz and started biking again when he had kids a few years back. He joined the inaugural Bike Challenge in 2019 as an amateur cyclist, and says the competition’s focus on regular riding made it possible to compete with his coworkers, who he says regularly tackle hundred-mile rides on the weekends.
“They came up with different competitive categories and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m gonna own the drop-your-kid-off-on-a-bike category,” says Kennedy. “Riding a hundred miles would kill me, but I can ride a few miles every day, no problem.” He adds that tracking his rides during the challenge also helped him be more rigorous about riding and has changed the way he looks at biking throughout the year.
“Bike Month got me out there, and I was like ‘This is so beautiful, why do I ever sit in traffic in my car?’ It’s just ridiculous.”
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Get the Bike Month schedule of events
To see the full schedule of events for Bike Month in Santa Cruz County, or to register for the Santa Cruz County Bike Challenge, visit https://ecoact.org/bikemonth/
Kennedy ended up convincing his boss at Bright Green Strategies, a green energy certification firm, to sponsor Bike Month, adding their company name to a long list of local businesses that do the same. “It was the first time we had ever sponsored anything, it was cool to be on that list with the big boys,” he says.
While Kennedy says Ecology Action has done well in organizing the event each year, his one qualm is that the event mostly fosters community among “bike people.” He hopes to see more directed outreach to folks that aren’t typically invited to the sustainability table, especially those across political divides.
For Sam McHugh, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, bike commuting was a new but regular part of life when McHugh participated in the first Bike Month celebration in 2019. “I went to one event and got a bike light and that was really helpful, it definitely makes me feel safe,” McHugh says.
That sense of safety led to frequent bike trips, and a big payday. McHugh was the grand prize winner of the 2019 Bike Challenge, taking home $7,500, cash that McHugh used to update bike gear and enter a couple local races.
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Building bike confidence
For some riders, cycling is their only form of transportation, and for others it can be scary sharing busy roads with cars or not knowing how to navigate across town on two wheels.
So part of the Bike Month mission is to help amateur riders master the rules of the road. Each Saturday in May will feature small, facilitated group rides led by experienced cyclists to teach locals the best routes and best practices for getting across town. The rides will track from Westside to Midtown, Midtown to Capitola, Capitola to Aptos, and one will wind through Watsonville.
Fear and uncertainty around getting from point A to point B is a big non-starter for new riders, but a guided ride can give them the confidence to do it on their own.
“The idea is to expose people to a safe route, but then also to guide people through common traffic scenarios, intersections, and areas that are basically unavoidable if you’re trying to get across town,” Miller says. There is high demand for these guided rides — all four tours filled up in just a couple days, though many folks on the waitlists have successfully clinched a spot. To check schedules and availability for those rides and other Bike Month events, click here.