Bicycling is Booming

Bicycling is Booming  —with Princeton at the Epicenter                                                                  By Donald Gilpin

There’s a bicycling boom going on, Princeton is at the center of the action, and there are good reasons for both of these facts.

The cycling industry was already thriving before COVID-19. Then lockdowns and anxiety over public transportation brought about a sharp increase in bike sales and repairs, as people of all ages, whether they’d ridden a bike in the last 20 years or not, were eager to get outdoors and exercise safely. They found old bikes in the garage to refurbish or headed to the bike stores.

The waiting time to buy a new bike can be as much as a full year now, as bike stores struggle to keep up with demand.

This time in the history of our planet, when concerns for the environment and a focus on personal health and wellness impact every aspect of our daily lives, seems to be particularly propitious for a sustained surge of interest in bicycling. Whether for pure fun and fresh air, for sociability, for exercise, for transport, or for commuting and working, bicycling appears to be an activity that will continue to grow.

Princeton — formerly best known as a town of scholars and educators or a bastion of American history or perhaps as an enclave of genteel elegance or a mecca for sophisticated suburban shoppers — was recently designated the most “bike-friendly” town in the state and is well poised to ride the crest of this wave of popularity. Presented with a silver-level Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC) award by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) in December 2020, Princeton is one of only six BFCs in New Jersey and the only one in the state to attain the silver level. Since 2016 Princeton had been ranked at the bronze level along with Hoboken, Lambertville, New Brunswick, Ocean City, and West Windsor.

Blessed by its geographical location and some resourceful, foresighted leaders, Princeton has been developing its Bicycle Mobility Plan for many years. Its recently upgraded Bike Boulevards provide a network of routes that connect the schools, the public library, and the downtown area to other parts of the town; with a variety of different routes ranging from a 16-mile fitness loop around the perimeter of town to the 4.5-mile town and gown loop near the center of town. The recently published Princeton Bicycle Map is available at Kopp’s and Jay’s bike shops and online on the municipal website at princetonnj.gov.

For more ambitious riders the Bike Boulevards connect with the 22-mile Lawrence Hopewell Trail, which meanders from just west of Princeton through the environs of Lawrenceville, Pennington, and Hopewell. The 77-mile Delaware & Raritan Canal Trail goes about 15 miles north from Princeton to New Brunswick, about 13 miles south to Trenton, then from Trenton about 32 miles north along the Delaware River to Frenchtown.

Bike Boulevards

“Biking has completely exploded. There’s no question about that,” said Jerry Foster, recently retired as biking specialist at the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association. Foster, who has logged many thousands of miles locally and across the country, knows the trails and roads of the Princeton area as well as anyone.

He recommended the Bike Boulevards for anyone in Princeton who is just getting started or getting back to biking after many years. “If you’re just talking about getting used to the bike, it’s the Bike Boulevards,” he said. “All around town on quiet roads, you can get used to handling the bike. It’s all very civilized and easy to do.”

The boulevards, according to Princeton Bicycling Advisory Committee (PBAC) Chair Lisa Serieyssol, were designed to go around the whole town, connecting different neighborhoods without having to travel on main streets. “These are low stress, low speed, low volume roads for the most part, mostly going through residential areas with trails or ride paths in some places.”

“We think the Princeton Bicycle Map and these trails will be very useful to a lot of people,” Serieyssol said, pointing out that many other routes are available with connections to the Lawrence Hopewell Trail, the D&R Canal Trail, West Windsor routes, and more.

Princeton Councilman David Cohen cited the town’s Bike Mobility Plan and its adoption into the Princeton Master Plan in 2017 as a major boost for local biking. “Being bike friendly is all about getting people on their bicycles,” he said, emphasizing the importance of people feeling safe on the roads. “The more people on their bicycles and the more dedicated facilities for bikes, the better it is for motorists too. Every bike on the road is a car that’s not on the road.”

In addition to the creation of the Bike Boulevards, Serieyssol noted several other bike-friendly measures that Princeton has initiated, including passage of a bicycle parking ordinance for private development; installation of upgraded “Safe Routes to School” traffic signs; promoting and enhancing bicycle safety education in the schools; and installing much-needed seasonal public bike parking corrals in the center of town.

“During one of the toughest years in recent memory, we have seen so many Americans turn to biking during the pandemic for fun and for necessary transportation options,” said LAB Executive Director Bill Nesper in announcing Princeton’s silver medal award. “It’s so important that communities like Princeton have laid the groundwork over several years to make biking a safe, accessible option for people when we all need as much health and happiness as possible.”

The Garden State Fondo will take place Sunday, September 12, 2021 in Morristown. More than 2,500 cyclists of all levels will participate with a choice of six routes ranging from 18-125 miles. For more information, visit granfondonj.com. (Photo by Bicycle Racing Pictures)

Branching Out

For those eager to venture beyond the in-town Bike Boulevards, Foster, who has ridden six times on the 500-mile Anchor House Ride for Runaways to support the Anchor House in Trenton, recommended the D&R Canal Trail. “If you want to stretch out to trails, you can’t go wrong starting with the D&R,” he said. “You can go north all the way to New Brunswick if you so desire, but basically the idea is to just keep on going until you want to turn around. Then turn around and come back.”

He continued, “Most people will probably not go as far as New Brunswick, but it doesn’t matter how far you go. Whatever is good for you, you go out and back on the canal path. It’s all very low stress, very pleasant and scenic, with water on both sides.”

As a part of the East Coast Greenway, which extends through 15 states from Maine to Florida, the 70-mile-long D&R Canal State Park contains more than 4,000 acres, and crosses five counties (Middlesex, Mercer, Burlington, Somerset, and Hunterdon) and 22 municipalities. It’s a wildlife corridor, with 160 different species of birds, and, with its canal system that remains intact today, it is rich in history.

The D&R Trail meets the LHT just south of Province Line Road southwest of Princeton. The LHT proceeds past the 260-year-old Brearley House, home to the Lawrence Historical Society, through the Bristol Myers Squibb campus and the Lawrenceville School campus (temporarily closed for construction), then through the town of Lawrenceville, through the Village Park, and on to Mercer Meadows, part of the Mercer County Park system.

An optional side path leads into Pennington, with the LHT continuing to Mount Rose, then down Carter Road to Cleveland Road then Province Line again at Pretty Brook, a short stretch of Princeton Pike, then Maidenhead Meadows and back to the D&R Canal path.

Cyclists can download a map of the LHT at lhtrail.org, with the option of moving back and forth from some beautiful area roads to the trail and following as much or as little of the trail as they wish.

“The Lawrence Hopewell Trail was built by the community for the entire community,” the LHT website states. “We encourage all to walk or ride the trail, enjoy its beautiful vistas and the glory of the outdoors. The LHT can bring calm, restore the soul, and help you reach your fitness goals. Get to know and enjoy the LHT — with your family, friends, and neighbors.”

The more ambitious and adventurous may want to take advantage of the LHT’s affiliation with Circuit Trails, an 800-mile network of bicycle and pedestrian trails connecting to places in the greater Philadelphia region. The Circuit Trails network begins south of Philadelphia, extends northeast to the LHT, and connects to the East Coast Greenway, which passes through 15 states from Maine to Florida.

“We have a lot of really very beautiful places to ride a bike,” said Foster. “Whether it’s on a road or a trail or a path, there’s a lot of nice biking in Mercer County, and if people ask their officials to make it even nicer to improve biking conditions, that would cause a huge improvement to help get to the next level of biking.”

Kopp’s Cycle, courtesy of the Historical Society of Princeton.

Bike Shops

Bike stores throughout the country and locally have not enjoyed the benefits of the bike boom as much as you might expect. The demand for bikes of all types continues unabated, but since the beginning of the pandemic more than year ago, the supplies have been scarce.

“Bikes are in really short supply,” Foster said. “Bike stores were hit completely unprepared for the boom because for years bike stores have been losing to online bike sales, and the increase in demand overwhelmed them. So this is good for them, but on the other hand there isn’t any way for them to meet demand at the moment.”

Jesus Tapia, store manager at Kopp’s Cycle on Spring Street, which claims to be the oldest bicycle shop in America, established in 1891, discussed the current challenges. “It’s hard to sell from an empty basket,” he said. “We haven’t been able to get new bikes and new inventory.”

He pointed out that most of their supplies, bikes and parts, come from Asia and that many factories have been closed during the pandemic. “The shelves are starting to look a little empty,” he said, noting that they had started refurbishing and selling second-hand bikes in an effort to give people what they need to ride happily and safely.

Tapia’s advice for riders included a strong endorsement of the Bike Boulevards and local trails. For the road bikers, he offered four observations: 1) “This is a friendly town. Drivers move over and give you more space if you’re riding a bike.” 2) “When you’re wearing a helmet and have a bright light, you’ll get a lot of space from drivers. Have your lights on in blinking mode and you’ll get more respect from drivers, as long as you’re not being that cyclist who’s in the middle of the road for no reason.” 3) “If you want to ride more flat roads go towards West Windsor. If you want to do more difficult rides with hills, you should go towards Hopewell and the Sourlands.” 4) “The best roads are anywhere where there’s not a lot of traffic. Stay away from rush hour and stay away from the main roads, Route 27, and Witherspoon Street.”

“Get out there and ride,” Tapia urged. “Whether it’s 20 minutes or two hours, get out there and enjoy yourself. Have fun. Look up and see the scenery. Princeton is a beautiful place to be.”

Jay’s Cycles on Nassau Street is full of bicycles, but they are almost all there for repairs. The current bottleneck, following bottlenecks caused by tariffs, companies leaving China, and pandemic slowdowns, is caused by two companies that make at least one part on every bike in the world unable to keep up with demand, according to store co-manager Richard Giske.

In the past, under normal circumstances, Giske said, he could order bikes and get them the next day. Recently typical lag time between ordering and delivery has been closer to a year or more. “The shortage of parts is the biggest problem,” he said. “I had to strip down my entire rental fleet to get parts to fix bikes. There are many parts that just aren’t available.”

Giske described some surprising effects of the pandemic shutdowns on Jay’s business. “When it initially happened, we were allowed to stay open. We’re an essential business. Luckily, we decided to keep ordering. But we kept the doors closed, and we did all of our sales and everything over the phone. We sat on these stools 12 hours a day answering phones. We sold through our entire stock of 300 bikes in a month and a half and then had nothing, but the store is filled with repairs. It’s been a whirlwind.”

An avid cyclist, if and when he can find the time, Giske agreed that Princeton is the ideal place for bike riding. “In a town like this where everything is close together, it doesn’t make sense to leave your house and start up your car to go looking for a parking space,” he said. “You can hop on your bike and get across town in half the time.”

He emphasized the advantages of a lot of flat rural roads to the east, all the way out to the shore, and also recommended, “Head out to the Sourlands — or all the way to Lambertville, or New Hope. People come in here, and see the town, and ask ‘Where can I ride?’ It’s simple: ‘Go to the end of town. Turn right on Elm Road, and go forever. It’s all rural roads. You can go all day long. That’s a really great resource.”

(Photo courtesy of Bike Exchange)

The Bike Exchange

A different kind of bike store — one that has been able to keep up its inventory and has both thrived in the pandemic and helped to fuel the bike boom — is the Boys & Girls Club of Mercer County Bike Exchange in the Capitol Plaza Shopping Center on Olden Avenue in Ewing.

The Bike Exchange collects used bikes of all types — more than 2,000 just this year, about 22,000 in total since its founding 12 years ago — to refurbish and sell at a discounted rate, with the goal of promoting health and biking. It donates all its proceeds after expenses, a total of about $1.2 million over the years, to support the Boys & Girls Clubs of Mercer County.

“We have about 50 volunteers, who make it happen,” said Bike Exchange CEO Ira Saltiel, a retired corporate executive who has led the Bike Exchange for the past six years. “Some are engineers, some are accountants, some are lawyers. They like working on bikes. Some are very experienced mechanics. Many come from the Princeton Free Wheelers (PFW) bike club. Just about everybody is an experienced bicyclist.”

He continued, “The volunteers do all kinds of things like pick up and deliver bikes, repair bikes, and harvest parts off of bikes that we use to fix other bikes. And we have salespeople and managers in the store. We also have a coordinator of bike pick-ups and somebody who arranges bike drives. We can have as many as 10-15 bike drives a year. Organizations like churches, religious organizations, temples, mosques, and companies like J&J collect bikes for us — also several towns.”

Saltiel had just received 140 bikes from the Trenton Police Department. “And they’re happy to do it,” he added. “The prosecutor’s office approached us and said, ‘We have all these bikes that we’d like to donate.’ Most of our bikes go back into the Trenton community at affordable prices.”

The Bike Exchange has drop-off points for donating bikes at Jay’s in Princeton, Halter’s in Skillman, Sourland Cycles in Hopewell, and other points in Lambertville and New Hope and Yardley in Pennsylvania. Many people drop off bikes at the Bike Exchange store.

Saltiel continued, “A lot of people in New Egypt leave bikes at their dumpster, so they sort out the better bikes and deliver them to us. We got about 50 bikes from them this year. The Rotary clubs of Haddonfield and Robbinsville have bike drives, and we get maybe 150-200 bikes from them in any given year. So surprisingly, we’re still getting bikes, and a lot of bikes that come in are very nice.”

The Mercer County Park Commission and Mercer County Planning Department recently sponsored the largest ever bike drive for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Mercer County Bike Exchange. They collected 400 bikes.

In 2019 the Bike Exchange donated 300 bikes to children in Trenton, Saltiel said, but this past year they were only able to donate about 50 because the pandemic caused many of the bike drives to be canceled. They’re looking forward to getting back on track in 2021.

The Bike Exchange also has a program to train and employ inmates from the Department of Corrections. “We have three volunteers who work with them at a facility here in Trenton,” said Saltiel. “They are trained in bike repair. We also have interns from The Boys & Girls Clubs who come in and learn how to fix bikes and how to work in the store and interact with customers. Many things come together to make this a very rewarding place to work.”

With the surge in demand for bikes during the pandemic, Saltiel said, he has seen many adults who haven’t ridden since high school, parents with children, and many people who just want to get out of the house and enjoy the fresh air after being locked down indoors for so many months.

Earlier this spring a woman with an ID tag from a hospital in Elizabeth came into the Bike Exchange. “I could see she was tired, and I said, ‘Do you work in a hospital?’ Saltiel recalled. “She said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Do you work with COVID patients?’ She said, ‘Yes. It’s very demanding, and I have to get out and I need some fresh air and I need to clear my head, and I thought biking would do it.’ She hadn’t ridden in years. So, I gave her a big discount on a bike. It was rewarding for me to be able to help somebody. There’s been a lot of that kind of stuff.”

Electric Bikes

In March this year, Bike Exchange founder Russ White, a retired publishing executive who also founded Firehouse Cycles in Yardley and Sourland Cycles in Hopewell, ventured out into what might be the fastest growing area of the bicycle market, electric bikes, or ebikes. He decided to use the same business model as the Bike Exchange, with all profits from his new enterprise, Princeton eBikes, going to the Boys & Girls Clubs.

“The bike market is one of the fastest growing markets of any consumer product in New Jersey and the United States,” White said, noting that his new store is the only store in central New Jersey dedicated to selling ebikes. Princeton eBikes, located in the Lawrence Shopping Center on Route 1, features more than 25 different models.

“Three years ago, no one knew what an ebike was,” White added. “But growth has exploded in the last two years, more than 10 percent a year, and it’s going to continue. Ebikes are fun to ride. People are buying for recreation, for commuting, for errands, for taking kids to school. There are bikes we call cargo bikes for transporting kids.”

He described the ebike ride. “You can still work as hard as you want, but if you’re going up a hill and you don’t want to work very hard, the bike will take you up the hill,” he said. “People do pedal, and they get exercise, but it’s not necessary. It just makes biking a lot more fun.”

The market for bikes used to be mostly seniors, White noted, “but that’s changed now. We’re still getting plenty of seniors, but we’re also getting younger people who are using bikes for commuting. There’s no parking problem. It’s environmentally nice. It’s a fun way of getting to work or running errands.”

With a wide selection of ebikes, ranging in price from $1,500 to about $4,000, Princeton eBikes, open on Fridays and Saturdays and by appointment, plans to continue donating 100 percent of its profits to the Boys & Girls Clubs.

Princeton Free Wheelers Trip to Majorca, Spain. (Courtesy of Princeton Free Wheelers)

Princeton Free Wheelers

At 10 a.m. on a cloudy, blustery Wednesday morning in late March, Ira Saltiel stood in the parking lot at the Mark Harbourt Soccer Complex on Old York Road in Allentown. Saltiel, who is the current president of the Princeton Free Wheelers (PFW), was not on duty at the Bike Exchange that day. He was leading an “easy paced C ride with Ira.” A group of about a dozen riders listened as he reviewed the ride rules, the COVID rules, and the plan for the 22-mile trip to a deli rest stop in the town of Columbus and back.

Ranging in age from about 30 to 85, mostly in the late middle-aged group, the riders were all regulars and knew the routine. They were all serious riders, suitably attired in spandex biking clothes, with road bikes, all prepared to keep up the 14-15 miles per hour pace. But they were also interested in socializing as much as they were interested in riding.

“It’s a wonderful organization, and a lot of fun,” said Saltiel. “You get exercise. You joke around. You talk while you’re riding, and it’s a wonderful social atmosphere.”

In its 40th year of existence, the PFW has about 600 members. It added 19 new members in March and is planning to continue building. “We’re looking to attract younger members,” said Saltiel. “I want to make sure we address beginning riders and offer a lot of slower beginning rides. A lot of people are getting into cycling on the road and also a lot of people want to do off-road riding on trails and gravelly-type pathways.”

The PFW organizes about 800 rides annually, all year long, from different locations in the Princeton area and throughout central New Jersey and into eastern Pennsylvania. The rides range widely in level of difficulty for the most serious to the most leisurely cyclists. The PFW also sponsors several social events throughout the year.

Saltiel has been a serious bicyclist for more than 40 years. “About 1979 or so I saw a movie called Breaking Away, he recalled, “and when I saw this kid riding and the wind was blowing through his hair, I said, ‘Boy, it would be nice to ride again.’ I had young children and I was working in New York and I needed the exercise. I was working for J.C. Penney at the time in their corporate offices, so I bought a bike from J.C. Penney. I didn’t know what kind of bike I was buying. I just bought a bike and started riding and I really liked it.”

Remembering his early biking days, Saltiel continued, “I rode with friends, then I started riding with the PFW, and I started getting a little bit better bikes. I joined the club in 1983 or ’84 and I did a bunch of rides. In 2000 I started leading rides. I wanted to give back, so I joined the PFW board and helped work on the annual event, doing a bunch of different jobs over the years.”

He went on, “I got into cycling to help clear my head for all sorts of things that were going on in my life. It’s good exercise, and I met most of my best friends there.” Saltiel organized many different club events, and about six years ago he was asked to become president.

Other area bike clubs organizing events and advocating for cyclists include Trenton Cycling Revolution and the West Windsor Bike and Pedestrian Alliance.

Towards the end of this summer, on August 28-29, Princeton will be showing off its importance in the world of cycling when it hosts an anticipated contingent of more than 500 riders, who will be camping out in town overnight on their way from New York City to Philadelphia, “from cheesecake to cheesesteak” on the East Coast Greenway Ride. Proceeds from the two-day, 125-mile fundraising ride will benefit the East Coast Greenway Alliance, helping to accelerate the development of the Greenway bike route in New Jersey, New York City, and Pennsylvania.

“Lots of biking around here the last week of August,” Serieyssol reported, noting that the East Coast Greenway riders might be meeting up in Princeton with another ride from Newport, Rhode Island, to Yorktown, Virginia, commemorating the march by George Washington and Rochambeau to end the American Revolution 240 years ago.

“For me, biking is the right speed for exploring,” said Foster, as he shared his current plan for a Great Loop inner coastal waterways trip by boat and folding bike through the eastern third of the country and a future return visit to the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Banff National Park in Canada all the way through Canada and the U.S. to the border of Mexico in New Mexico.

“If you just go by car, you pretty much don’t see anything along the way. You just see the road,” he continued. “If you go by walking — I’ve done the Appalachian Trail— you see it really well, but pretty slowly. Biking is just that nice in-between time. You can bike 50 miles a day and you get in shape and it’s not particularly hard to do. You see great things along the way, and you don’t miss much. You’re not going too fast or too slow. It’s a lot of fun.”