The following story is part of our Stronger Than Steel series, an in-depth look at how the Lehigh Valley has made a remarkable comeback since Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnaces went cold in 1995. Read more about what inspired the series here and check additional Stronger Than Steels stories here.
Many cyclists ride the Lehigh Valley every day. Even people who don’t live here like to come here to jump on two wheels and pedal.
There are over 100 miles of local trails mapped by the LINK Trail Networkready to be explored on the Internet and then outside.
The backbone of the LINK, the Delaware and Lehigh Heritage Corridorinvites cyclists to continue riding beyond the valley borders into three more eastern Pennsylvania counties.
If you’re tired of trails, the Lehigh Valley has some of the most bike-friendly back roads in the country, according to the Lehigh Helmsmen’s Association. The club holds rides almost every day, club president Paul Smith said.
Want to get your adrenaline pumping? Try mountain biking in the hills behind Lehigh University.
Not fast enough? Head to the Favorite cycling center in the valley. Its velodrome has hosted world-class cyclists since the 1970s, including world champions and an Olympic gold medalist.
“It’s all here. We really have it all in the Lehigh Valley,” said Joel Nankman, owner of Saucon Valley Bikesa local bike shop.
When the pandemic forced everyone to stay away from each other, new riders found their way onto the bikes and then onto the Lehigh Valley trail system. The LINK traces a dozen bike trails throughout the region, including the Ironton Rail Trail, the Karl Stirner Arts Trail and the Saucon Rail Trail. You can find routes near you on the LINK website.
According to Scott Slingerland, trails can get you in shape, give you great views of nature, or just get you where you’re going. He is the president of the Coalition for Proper Transportation.
Families love to ride bikes on local trails, he said.
“They are useful for people to visit friends or go on Sundays on local holidays. You can go to an orchard or an ice cream shop,” Slingerland said.
The 265-mile Delaware and Lehigh Heritage Corridor trail system runs through the heart of the valley. The towpaths where mules once pulled riverboats are now paved so that bikes can ride along the local rivers.
“We are working closely with landowners … and supporters to ensure that we can provide the best possible experience for our runners, walkers and cyclists,” said Heritage Corridor spokesperson Gianna Caruso.
Trail counters in Slatington and Easton’s Hugh Moore Park counted around 140 cyclists passing each month in 2022, she said.
You don’t have to limit yourself to the trails. The Lehigh Helmsmen’s Association organizes road rides through the valley for cyclists of all ages and abilities. The more than 300 members of the club take the secondary roads where few cars circulate. The drivers they encounter are generally bike-friendly, Smith said.
“We’re taking advantage of the resources we have in this area to do phenomenal quality cycling,” Smith said.
Visitors rave about the varying altitudes, majestic views, tranquil countryside that make the valley roads a ‘mecca’ for cycling, he said.
“We’ve had people say there’s no better riding in the whole country than the Lehigh Valley,” Smith said.
Cyclists race through the streets during the 2022 Easton Twilight Criterium
The growing popularity of cycling brings together more and more people for group outings.
Greater Easton Development Partnership Executive director Jared Mast said he has seen an increase in group rides in Easton. Long-time cyclists have found people who work for the new editorial staff of Bicycling magazine or the Trek bike shop or who have attended the Easton Twilight Criterium bike race.
They find each other through apps like Ride With GPS or Strava, Mast said.
He participates in a group hike that starts at 7 a.m. on Wednesdays in Easton’s Center Square.
“You just introduced yourself,” he said. “People showed up, they’re from California and they want to ride.”
Joining the Wheelmen changed Smith’s life. The friends he has made over 20 years are as important to him as the memories he has behind his handlebars. He recently celebrated a club member’s 74th birthday with a 74 kilometer ride.
“If you saw a group of us in a restaurant, you would never see a fitter group of people our age,” Smith said.
Perhaps the biggest draw for out-of-town cyclists is the Favorite cycling center in the valley. A community partnership of physicians and hospitals leases the center’s velodrome in Upper Macungie Township to a non-profit organization.
The 2,000-seat grandstand offers views of “the world’s premier weekly professional and amateur racing series each summer as well as national championships,” says Valley Preferred’s website. The website calls it one of “the nation’s most beloved and successful velodromes in modern American cycling.”
Not only can you watch, but you can participate in community programs at the velodrome.
Once the dream of fire Bob Rodale, the velodrome continues despite his death decades ago and the sale of his Rodale Press. Buyer Rodale Hearst Magazines recently opened a new editorial office in Easton for bike review.
Hearst’s office on South Third Street serves as the editorial center and “base for repeatable and auditable testing” when the magazine evaluates bicycles and their components.
“One of the main reasons we chose Easton as our office location was the ability to quickly access some of the area’s best roads, paths and trails for evaluating cycling gear, while also being able to use and test bikes in a real urban environment,” said Bill Strickland, editorial director of Hearst’s Enthusiast Group. Brands in this group include Bicycling, Runner’s World and Popular Mechanics.
Strickland acknowledged the likelihood of lunchtime employee bike rides “that include challenging hills, fast descents and wide open roads for sprints.”
A network of family bike shops has sprung up in the valley, thanks in part to institutions such as the velodrome and the popularity of trail and road riding.
From Cutters in Bethlehem to Bike Line in Allentown, each store has defined its own niche based on the interests of its customer base, said Nankman, owner of Saucon Valley Bikes.
Merchants are invited each year to a roundtable hosted by the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation. Nankman said they see each other more as colleagues than competitors.
“We’re very like-minded people, so we tend to get along,” Nankman said. “It’s such a small industry, you have to get along. Fortunately, most of us do.
Easton’s already bustling town center has been given a boost Last year and again this last may from Easton Twilight Criterium. The leg of Visit of Somerville the cycling series attracted hundreds of fans and participants.
“We had a good mix of the top teams from across the country coming in for the biggest races,” Mast said.
The economic impact of cycling cannot be underestimated. This is one of the main reasons the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor is so popular. Work to support the corridor helps sustain the economy of the Lehigh Valley.
A study 2017 found that the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor had an economic impact of $475 million, generated through direct jobs, wages, consumer spending, and tax revenue.
Now that the Lehigh Valley has developed a healthy cycling culture, volunteers are working to preserve it. Community bike works received a $1.4 million federal grant to renovate its Easton bicycle store. The Allentown-based nonprofit organization provides bicycles to children who cannot afford them. Volunteers teach children how to maintain their bikes and how to ride safely.
The Coalition for Proper Transportation offers similar programs. They teach children the rules of the road. They remind motorists to brake for bicycles and cyclists to yield to pedestrians.
Why not learn from an early age the advantages of cycling over driving? You’ll never be stuck in traffic, Slingerland said.
“In many ways, the Lehigh Valley is a great place to use a bike for transportation if you have a decent bike and take care of it,” he said.
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Rudy Miller can be reached at [email protected].