There are a few urban legends in our city that have managed to stand the test of time; the haunted railroad tracks, the donkey lady, and, surprisingly, the Thursday night bike ride – a long-held tradition that has a cult-like following.
If it’s a sure thing you’re looking for (along with a little exercise) your best bet is probably this one. But good luck on trying to find answers about its origins, like how long it’s been around or how it all got started. Those details seem to be as elusive as the Yeti himself.
Unless, of course, you happen to run into Tim Tilton. More on him later. First, some details:
The ride is generically known as the Thursday night ride from Bike World, since it starts in the bicycle shop’s parking lot. But the bike shop, which has been around since 1971, neither organizes nor officially sponsors the event; that just happen to be the staging area, which is great if you need to resolve any last-minute mechanical or equipment issues.
People show up as early as 6:45 or 7:00 p.m., even though the ride – which winds its way in and out of downtown – doesn’t officially roll out until 7:30 p.m. sharp.
It’s a truly inclusive group ride. While you never know what the weather might be or how many people will show, what is certain is that the idea has taken off, grown legs of its own and become part of the community for nearly 20 years.
That’s pretty much a full generation – which means if you own a bike in this city, chances are pretty good you’ve either done the ride yourself, know someone who has, or (now that you’re aware of it), will likely jump in some time in the near future.
I jumped back in last week, after taking about a year off. I talked to several people in the group that night, and even asked a few employees at the bike shop about the history of the ride. Everyone had a slightly different story. Until I tracked down Tilton, a bike fit specialist and part of the senior sales staff at Bike World. It was like capturing Sasquatch himself, and all at once my questions were answered.
“The ride actually started on Wednesdays about 19 years ago,” he says. “I had a small group of friends and we were all training pretty hard and racing mountain bikes at the time, but we wanted to do something different – an easy ride that you could invite a friend or girlfriend to. We wanted it to be a fun, casual ride, not a race. So we took our mountain bikes and got them on the road for a little urban adventure. It started out with just four of us, and that was it.”
Pretty soon word got out and the group began to grow, eventually attracting some young hot shots who would try to push the pace, run through red lights, and generally kill the spirit of a community ride.
So Tim and his friend moved the ride to Thursday, and made sure to let everyone know, with the exception of the delinquents. It worked, and the ride has been on Thursdays ever since.
Since that time, the ride has grown and evolved. On the night I attended, there were about 15 of us, including a brave fellow on a longboard.
“The numbers are a bit down from last year,” says Tilton, who recently stepped down as ride leader. “But there were times where we consistently had 60 to 80 people … The biggest crowd showed up after a local TV station featured us on the news. The following Thursday we had 220 people show up!”
Regardless of how many riders show up, the general premise is the same. The ride winds through Alamo Heights, over and around the Olmos Dam, then takes one of two major routes through downtown and into the King William area, before circling the Alamodome and heading back up Broadway – a total ride distance of about 17 miles.
Through it all, the leaders stop at several designated spots along the way, and won’t start again unit the last rider rejoins the group – assuring everyone stays together, knows where they’re going and has no mechanical issues. When there’s a larger group out, ride leaders will even stop and stand in the middle of intersections to alert traffic of the oncoming cyclists.
That’s a welcome change, and in sharp contrast to how traditional roadies approach group rides. They may all start at the same place at the same time, but after that, it’s pretty much every man for themselves. And if you get dropped, or lost or have a flat (like I have in some of those groups) too bad.
Thank goodness there’s still some chivalry and true camaraderie out there among the folks on wheels.
“The Thursday night ride is often the first real group ride for lot of people,” says Tilton. “Up until that point may have been riding alone or only with a friend or two. So it’s a new experience for them and we want it to be a good one.”
To make sure that’s the case, he offers a few tips for any newbies.
“Wear a helmet and make sure to keep a straight line,” says Tilton. “That’s the one thing that can get you in trouble, especially if you don’t have experience riding in a large pack – you have to be aware of all the riders around you all the time.”
This coming Thursday night ride will obviously be a little special since it falls on Thanksgiving. So, the question is, will anyone actually show up?
“There’s usually a core group of three or four people that show up no mater what,” he said. “The ride has become like a living organism; and it’s always going to change and adapt. Some people drop out when it starts getting dark earlier, or when it gets colder. But when I led the group, I remember showing up on Thanksgiving, and even Christmas when it fell on a Thursday.”
True, there are other casual cycling groups out there, even some on the same night; like the folks who rode up from the La Tuna ride. But as far as Tilton and anyone else knows, the night ride from Bike World is the largest, longest running ride in the city.
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So there you have it. And if you happen to show up this Thursday, you’ll have the perfect chance to socialize, burn off some holiday calories, and see the holiday lights downtown, all while partaking in one of San Antonio’s most enduring fitness traditions.
Tom Trevino is a writer and wellness coach based out of San Antonio. His weekly column covers anything and everything related to health and wellness. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio, with certification and training from the Cooper Institute. He has a fondness for dogs, NPR, the New York Times, and anything on two wheels. When he’s not writing, training, or cooking, you can find him wandering the aisles of Central Market.