As I’ve done in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis, I find out first-hand the important work of bike advocates in Tulsa. This city doesn’t yet have bike sharing, but Tulsa Hub is a more unique program. I arrange a meeting with two Hub volunteers at Soundpony, a legendary bicycle-themed bar next to the storied concert hall Cain’s Ballroom. My Soundpony sticker was recognized as far away as Joshua Tree, CA.
That day (October 20th, 2015) is the high-water mark of my journey. I’ve come off an amazing week on the Katy Trail where I built enough confidence to consider biking back to New York despite not even being halfway across the first time. I then survived three hard days biking to Joplin. I crossed into Kansas and Oklahoma and reach Tulsa, my favorite stop of the trip.
Mike, the bar’s cycle-driven owner, and a patron known as Bikey, gift me Soundpony socks and a sweet jersey that makes me look like a European ambulance. Previously I felt somewhere in between a lone wolf and ugly duckling, but in Tulsa I bask in the embrace of the bicycling community. Adding new threads to my meager road wardrobe, including first-ever pair of cycling socks, is a confidence boost. I also get a branded beer koozie, iron-on patch and stickers, making this better than a loot bag at a kid’s birthday party.
I also received cycle swag way back in Pittsburgh where John lives. Riding solo, John ran into three other cross-country cyclists at a Walmart outside of town. They joined forces and rode in together an hour ago.
Here at Soundpony I finally meet other cross-country bikers. Reinforcements, what a relief! I'm not the only crazy person out there doing this. In their early 20s, these four are full of impetuous energy. Three are friends from school and could be brothers with their boyish looks and electric blond hair. They’re full of jokes and carefree energy like big kids but on adult touring rigs. They like to bike fast, far, at night, and eat peanut butter nonstop.
That’s not how I roll, but I’m glad to finally meet two-wheelers who understand what I’m going through day after day. Mutual interest and respect define our interactions. Bikey orders everyone a shot and a brew.
They’re planning to roll out tonight, but Bikey delays their departure by taking them under his wing, regaling them with stories of when he was on the road back in the day. The boys follow Bikey around the bar like happy penguin chicks.
I can’t imagine getting to a great city like Tulsa, throwing back a few brews, and then pedaling away the same night just to tack on 20 miles before making camp. Although I’m going slowly, I’m glad I leisurely sample cities along the way.
Yet maybe I should have moved a little faster. Tomorrow at 1 PM fate will place me in the wrong place at the wrong time. Twenty miles west of Tulsa my onward movement is savagely stopped. I end up in the emergency room in Sapulpa, then return to Tulsa where the trip will be saved thanks to the warmth and support of Mike and others in the Tulsa community.
After the attack, my lip is stitched but my confidence is in smithereens. Soundpony feels like sanctuary. One benefit of returning is that I meet Jason, a Tulsa native and San Francisco-based professional photographer who snaps complimentary shots of me in racing poses on a Citi Bike. The juxtaposition is all kinds of ridiculous, but nonetheless it’s fun to pretend that I’m an athletic competitor instead of a bike share commuter in baggy shorts on a clunky blue bike.
The difference in mindset becomes clear when Jason makes me turn the bike around to the “drive side.” Huh? Apparently it’s protocol to photograph a bike only from the side that faces away from the road. I suggest otherwise because cool stickers are on the left side, which is apparently the wrong side to put them. I never knew.
“People will give me grief if I don’t do it this way,” he says. Professionalism rules the day.
Before meeting Jason, and on the eve of my bloody redneck rendezvous, I chat with Tulsa Hub program manager Stephen and volunteer Matt to learn more about their bicycle resource center.
This volunteer-staffed non-profit (website) was founded by a woman who saw disadvantaged residents in need of transportation while the privileged class was tossing out bikes as part of our throw-away culture when something breaks. These bikes could be salvaged and repaired for those who need them most.
What started as a garage operation in late 2008 has expanded to its own shop. Anyone is welcome to receive free bike repairs. Patrons learn mechanic skills and volunteer to work on other bikes to pay it forward. More than 100 people a month come through the shop for maintenance, and free bikes can be earned as a reward for volunteer time.
“Our shop downtown is close to social service agencies and homeless shelters,” Stephen says. “But we also help other people who use bikes for transportation, and with just a little bit of a tune-up we get them back on the road.”
Tulsa Hub works with the homeless, those treated for alcohol and drug abuse, the mentally ill as well as formerly incarcerated adults. In fact, Oklahoma has the highest female incarceration rate in the world.
“We hope to empower these people and, through biking, bring them to a better social condition,” Matt says.
Kids are another focus because public transportation to schools doesn’t exist. Tulsa Hub targets schools in high poverty areas and provides students with bikes. However, not all clients are economically disadvantaged. A couple who totaled their car and needed an option other than the bus came to rely on the Hub’s services while they saved up for a new one.
“The city was built around the automobile, and public transit here is really inadequate. It’s always late, doesn’t run often enough, doesn’t run at night, and doesn’t run on weekends,” Stephen says. “It’s not dependable for job seekers to rely on.” (Sounds like the G train in Brooklyn/Queens!)
Matt adds, “Our people would go to interviews, but couldn’t get jobs after they said the bus was their only transit option. Employers know that’s unreliable.”
Stephen concludes, “The city’s not huge, and if you put your mind to it you can get around on a bike.”
For more about Tulsa Hub, check out this video below (link also here) in which Stephen is featured.