Classic Amenities, Cool Changes for Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour

Richard Arey literally wrote the book on Twin Cities bicycling, back in 1998, three years after he founded the Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour, a 30-mile tour of the Capitol city via the Grand Round and this year showcasing some of St. Paul’s new protected bike routes.

Now in its 27th year — nothing in 2020, due to COVID-19 — the Bike Classic will be Sunday, September 12, beginning early in the morning with the usual array of coffee, fruit, muffins and bagels, and with musical acts such as the Roe Family Singers and The Eddies entertaining riders of all ages at rest stops along the way.

From children to retirees, cyclists of all ages enjoy the Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour.

Other things are different, for what Arey has billed the “Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour 2.0: A New Ride for the New Post–COVID World.” Changes include:

  • No day-of-ride registration. With only 150 spots left, the Classic is expected to sell out soon.
  • Attendance limited to 1,850 registered riders. That’s a fraction of the 5,500 to 6,000 who showed up in recent years (though the first year, back in 1995, attracted “2,800-some-odd people,” who paid a mere 20 bucks to ride, recalls Arey, the ride director).
  • A new home base, at Como Lakeside Pavilion, with riders able to pre-order post-ride boxed lunches from Dock & Paddle, which also serves Minnesota craft beers and a decent array of non-alcoholic options.
  • No closed roads or parkways, primarily because the Classic will showcase the Saint Paul Grand Round and what Arey calls the “reimagining” of the northern end, including Johnson and Wheelock parkways and Como Avenue between Hamline and Raymond.

Former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and former City Council President Russ Stark — now the city’s chief resilience officer — rode the Classic in years past, Arey explains, “and they realized that they’ve got this parkway system but also what horrible shape it was in. The city put about $60 million into that infrastructure,” he says. “So, we’re going to promote that and give people a chance to experience it firsthand.”

Bike Classic’s not-so-hidden costs

The Bike Classic’s beginnings go back three decades and to Canada, where Arey, now 68, rode the Tour de I’lle in Montreal, the “largest bike tour in the world,” with 40,000 people. “It was a little crazy,” he recalls, “but it gave me the idea.”

Arey won a St. Paul Cos. Leadership Initiatives in Neighborhoods (LIN) grant to fund his exploration of bringing large-scale organized bike rides to Minnesota, where he already was an established writer on the outdoors. Despite his ponytail and plainspoken style, Arey had an expertise and eloquence that got people to listen.

He became adept at wooing corporations, small businesses and various nonprofits to support his vision. The two largest of the 24 sponsors of this year’s Classic are 3M and AARP.

“For the first 12 years of my so-called career, I worked at the Center for Energy and Environment,” he says, ticking off a list of initiatives such as insulating houses from airport noise and creating the first BBOP (Bike-Bus-or-Carpool) Challenge for employers. “We were trying to save the planet, use less energy. The next phase was to get people out and enjoy it while you still can” — the implication being less about age than climate change.

Promotional art for the Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour showcases this year’s new location at Como Park.

This is the first time the 27-year-old Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour hasn’t started and ended at the University of St. Thomas, at a parking lot almost within eyesight of Mississippi River Boulevard. (That saddens me, as the St. Thomas employee tasked with staffing the ride’s home base and helping to greet some 6,000 fellow/sister cyclists.)

Previous year’s rides included major road closures, a selling point of the Bike Classic. That meant hiring 50 to 60 Explorer Scouts to direct cyclists and spending $40,000 on off-duty police officers to keep vehicular traffic at bay. “We spent 12 grand just on tents at St. Thomas. That’s a huge expense,” says Arey. “We spent $15,000 on hiring a company to set up barricades along the route.”

Half of the ride’s profits typically come from day-of registration, and that figure tanked in September 2019 — the last time the ride took place — because of rainy, windy weather. After paying expenses and Arey himself, who counts his Bike Classic work as a half-time job, the ride proceeds benefit the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, which has collaborated on the Classic since 2009.

Annual profits range from $50,000 to $80,000 and go toward Bike Alliance education and advocacy programs, according to Executive Director Dorian Grilley, like the recently expanded Minnesota Walk! Bike! Fun! program aimed at youth.

Arey denies that anything other than expense played into his decision to hire only 32 police officers along this year’s route, compared with 90 in previous years. “The police have been great for us,” he says. “A lot of riders thank them for helping. It did come up that it might not be the best year to go past 90 police officers, but it didn’t cross my mind.”

Big Vision: Get BIPOC people biking

The Bicycle Alliance underwent an ambitious, six-month process to rewrite its latest strategic plan. One of the six statements in its Big Vision is about diversity: “People of color, especially Black and Indigenous communities, have access to vital daily movement.”

One step toward that vision is a BIPOC-only Learn to Ride seminar this fall. Another is a newly designed Bicycle Alliance website that can be translated from English into Hmong, Somali and Spanish. So, how are organizers of the big fund-raising rides — the Saint Paul Classic and the smaller but still robust Mankato River Ramble (scheduled for October 10), which typically draws 1,850 riders — reaching out to solicit and encourage BIPOC cyclists?

“We rely on our partner organizations like the Major Taylor Bicycling Club and Black Girls Do Bike,” Grilley says. “We also have a good relationship with the Latino bicycle group.”

Friends pose before the Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour in 2019, the last year the ride was held.

Arey concedes that the Saint Paul Classic historically has been “pretty white and middle class.” Members of the Black-focused Major Taylor club always participate, he says, and retired associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court Alan Page, a former Minnesota Viking, who is Black, “has been by far our most prominent rider.”

But diversifying the big rides is a challenge, Arey says. “I think anybody in this state who’s trying to diversify their membership or their employees or their customer base — that population is considerably smaller and, especially in Minnesota, they are considerably less affluent,” he explains. “These rides cost beaucoup bucks. You can’t say, ‘Anybody on board for 10 bucks’ anymore.”

The ongoing COVID pandemic may change the Classic permanently, but Arey thinks that could be for the good. “I just see this as the future,” he says, a ride that is less weather-dependent to make ends meet — due to less upfront investment in barricades, ride marshals and police to ensure rider safety on closed-down roads. “Maybe we’ll find that people were really attracted by the closed roads. On the other hand, people should be out there doing this on their own.”

“Maybe the measure of the ride’s success is that people are out biking the Grand Round every weekend, with or without us,” Arey concludes. See you on the road!

About Amy Gage

Amy Gage is director of neighborhood relations at the University of St. Thomas and a member of the Union Park District Council board. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women at midlife: https://themiddlestages.com

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