On an early June morning, a group of spandex-clad tourists pedaled down a the highway out of the tiny town of Prairie City, Oregon.
"All right! Take a left here, and don't take off until you see the ghost town!" said Brad Gordon, a guide for Bicycle Adventures and leader of the nine-day cycling trip. Gordon leads trips all over the Northwest, but he said he loves the roads in Oregon.
"When you get out on the rural roads in Oregon, people are very respectful," Gordon said.
Part of the group's route follows the Old West Scenic Bikeway in Eastern Oregon. Most U.S. states have scenic byways for vehicles, to draw motorists to attractions and special places.
But in Oregon, you also find scenic bikeways: state-designated routes designed for cyclists. Oregon's Scenic Bikeways program is unique in the nation, according to state officials. The bikeways are signed routes along some of Oregon's most beautiful, bicycle-friendly roadways. Some bikeways are short and easy. Others are epic rides designed for three- or four-day tours.
They’re all designed to draw cyclists — and their dollars — to different parts of the state, especially to rural communities.
Cyclists who rode Oregon Scenic Bikeways spent approximately $12.4 million dollars in 2014, according to a
released this week.
“The bicycle scenic portion of the ride, that was beautiful," said Larry DiVito, one of 11 riders on the Bicycle Adventures trip. “A lot of flowing creeks, a lot of farms, a lot of ranches. Oh, we saw the cows on the road. There was a cowboy that was sort of sort herding the cows together in the road. And they were right in the middle of the road as we drove by on our bikes."
That’s not something you see everyday in Chicago, where DiVito is from. He’s part of a growing trend in bicycle tourism. The luxury Bicycle Adventure trip costs $3,595 per cyclist. That includes stays at local hotels and meals at pubs, like the
, in John Day. The group spent several hundred dollars there on one dinner during the trip.
“It’s a huge benefit,” said pub owner John Adair. He said he sees several cyclists a day come through for beers or food. “That’s one of the reasons why my wife and I and our other two partners opened the pub here. It’s something unique and different for John Day."
Jennie Shaw runs the Hotel Prairie in Prairie City. She estimates that cyclists make up 50 percent of her bookings. "It's definitely our bread and butter," Shaw said.
"When we very first started out, it was weird. It was like we were motorcyclists over cyclists, and then the second to third year it was like we hardly saw any motorcyclists. It was all just cyclists," she added.
Part of that business boon is because Prairie City lies along the state-designated Old West Scenic Bikeway, a three-day tour in Eastern Oregon. Unlike the cyclists traveling with Bicycle Adventures, many cyclists plan their own trips. Shaw said she fields calls from cyclists who have questions about the Old West route.
“— Mike Cosgrove, volunteer board chair of the state's Scenic Bikeways Committee.
The whole intent of scenic bikeways is trying to assist small, rural communities in Oregon with economic development from cycling.”
Here’s how it works: Local community members propose a
to the state. They show where there’s support for cyclists, including water stops, restaurants, hotels and camping options. Only about half of the routes qualify, according to the state. If the route is designated, then local communities benefit from the promotion and state support.
“Once you get that designation, it brings in a lot of resources to promote your community, and in doing so, the small communities make additional money from cycling," said Cosgrove, a retired teacher and volunteer for the bikeways program, who worked to get the Old West route designated. “With cycling, we’ve been able to maintain some of the businesses that were on the fringe of being profitable.”
But while dollars from bicycle tourists are welcome, some rural leaders point out that their economic benefits are relatively minor.
"It's scenic bikeway, not an economic bikeway," said Boyd Britton, Grant County commissioner.
"They come here because it's beautiful! But so far as economic activity? Ranching, farming and logging. That's where we're going to stay healthy," Britton said. "We love for people to come and visit, but we want them to come and learn about us, not just cruise through."
Gordon's group of Bike Adventure cyclists rode many other roads which are not designated as scenic bikeways during their nine-day tour. But he said his clients enjoy knowing they're riding a scenic bikeways.
"That's just the icing on the cake," said Gordon. "Today, we turned on the road for the Old West route, and there's a sign for bikeway. When you see a sign like that, it really helps to drive in that it's a bike-friendly area. It's one more way to make the day's ride that much more special."