A community of cyclists

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 17, 2009

NATCHEZ — Natchez is a great destination to enjoy antebellum houses, good food, the Mississippi River and lots of history.

And if a couple of locals have their way, the city will soon be known for its bike trails.

Allen Richard and his wife, Beth, are part of the Natchez Bike Club, a group of approximately 40 local bicyclers who ride the Natchez Trace and around town each week.

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But the couple will soon be cycling instructors as well, thanks to the state of Mississippi.

“MDOT is actually funding it and is behind that effort across the state to get instructors trained,” Richard said. “Then we’ll go back into the community to do a Road I-level training class in basic bike safety.”

The Richards will head to Oxford in June for a four-day instructor-training course led by the League of American Bicyclists, which is training 50 people across the state in Starkville, Ridgeland, Hattiesburg and Oxford.

Those instructors will then speak to cycling groups, schools, youth groups and any other groups interested in learning the rules of the road for cyclists, and for motorists who share the road with bikes.

“We hope to talk to the local police departments as well so they know how cyclists should behave,” Richard said. “Really, a lot of people don’t know what the rules of the road are and what they mean to cyclists.”

Natchez is also part of a statewide initiative to make the roads safer and more enticing for cyclists.

Mississippi jumped to No. 24 in the second annual ranking of Bicycle Friendly States, up from last year’s No. 47 ranking, the biggest improvement in the country, thanks in part to Oxford being named the state’s first Bicycle Friendly Community.

Richard hopes Natchez can also garner that designation, which is given to communities that provide safe and plentiful bikeways, access to convenient bicycle parking and “share the road” programs for non-cyclists.

“It’s probably going to be a one- to two-year process, just getting together and applying and revising the application,” Richard said.

“We will have to plan out designated routes, like what is the safest route through town, or for kids that want to walk or ride their bikes to school.”

Richard said the city is just getting started toward the goal, but Richard’s training is part of that initiative as well.

He said Natchez has advantages over other Mississippi communities because of its size and infrastructure.

“Natchez is a cycling crossroads here,” he said. “It’s where a lot of people either start or end their rides. We’re at the southern end of the Natchez Trace, and from spring through fall there are thousands of cyclists that come through here.”

Once the Richards finish the first course, they are eligible for additional training through Bike Walk Mississippi and the League of American Bicyclists.

Richard has been riding for approximately 25 years, and Natchez’s own bike club gets plenty of riding time in on the Trace.

The club usually rides the trace every Tuesday at 6 p.m., leaving from the armory on Liberty Road, and the members also like to meet downtown to bring the club more visible and to bring business to downtown.

“That’s our recreation and our way of trying to stay fit,” Richard said. “We just see cycling as very accessible for people of all ages, and the benefits are obvious.”