Walla Walla draws in road biking tourism

Maggie Allen

Walla Walla draws numerous tourists to its rolling wheat fields and quaint downtown every year. While most come to sample the popular wine, many wine connoisseurs also visit to bike the level terrain, roadways and trails throughout the city.

“There is great riding for all levels,” said Steve Rapp, owner of Allegro Cyclery, said. “You can be in the middle of downtown and then in the middle of a country road five minutes later.”

Paved trails run throughout the city, such as Roots Park near College Place and the Mill Creek Bike Trail. Walla Walla’s residential streets offer a relaxing ride, and the wheat fields and Blue Mountains await the more experienced.

“Some of my favorite rides are longer,” said Rapp. “There is a ride that comes down on Touchet River Road that I love, and another ride on the Oregon side about 80 miles that rides down into Tollgate. Almost every ride has its beauty.”

“I love going up to Harris Park because you get to see the terrain change a little bit,” said Rebecca Jensen, a Whitman alum, Walla Walla resident and cycling enthusiast. “You go from the rolling wheat fields into the trees, and it’s a nice gradual climb.”

“We have some of the best roads for road riding,” said Greg Knowles, the co-owner and president of the Bicycle Barn. “You can go on lots of loops and only see a few cars. We have rides out of the shop during the season and sell about 800 bikes a year.”

Many locals love to take advantage of these numerous bicycle routes, and will often stop by Allegro Cyclery to buy parts or find out what kind of cycling events are occurring in the community.

“We also get a lot of Whitman and Walla Walla University parents that want to either rent a bike for themselves or buy a bike for their college student,” Rapp said. “We also just started renting bikes. In the last six months, we’ve rented 66 bikes, and more people would rent if they knew about it, so the market is definitely out there.”

Since Walla Walla is near the Lewis and Clark trail, many people come through the town.   A strong percentage of people who come into Allegro Cyclery are wine tourists that also stop in to ask for suggestions to wineries.

“We have many cyclers come to Walla Walla who are into wine tasting,” said McKee, the Wheatland Wheelers president.

Many tourists will also travel from far distances to participate in a few races that occur during the year. The biggest race is the Tour of Walla Walla, a three-day race in April that attracts riders from six different states, two Canadian provinces and other countries.

“We had a member from Japan before, and we’re lucky enough to attract a lot of different people. It’s a big event that is well known, attracting close to 500 racers plus their entourages,” Rapp said.

“Because of this huge event, wine tasting and cycling are starting to come together in Walla Walla,” Jensen said. “Even if you’re not a racer, having an event of that caliber speaks to what kind of town this is. It’s been exciting to see that grow and have the city of Walla Walla get behind that event.”

On a much more minor scale, the Cycle Cross Races in mid-October attract riders from eastern Washington, Idaho and a few from Oregon. The race is either a short track in a park or on a closed course setting with varying terrain and obstacles to encourage people to get off their bike and back on again.

Another race is the Grande Fondo, a charity ride that occurs in the fall and is growing by the year. The Wheatland Wheelers hosts the Ann Weatherhill Classic in early summer, named after a cyclist who was killed by a motorist, so the race helps inform the motorists that they should share the road with the cyclists.
When these events are not occurring, there are also a few clubs that meet regularly to enjoy the sport of cycling.

The Wheatland Wheelers is a local club composed of about 100 to 117 members and a racing team of about 15 racers, four of them women.

“We are very active in the community as far as education goes,” said McKee. “We help with bike education at schools and rodeos and hold a few different classes on how motorists should treat bikes on the road.”

The Wheatland Wheelers’ shop trades, sells and buys bicycle gear, and there are group rides that go out nearly every day from March to October. These rides can either be short and brisk or long: up to 35 miles.

However, one should not be intimidated by their large group or their long rides.

“You don’t have to be experienced to join the club, but we are growing in numbers,” said McKee. “The biking community as a whole has really exploded over the last two years because of rising gas prices.”

“I really see potential for growth, especially after being on the Whitman cycling team and seeing it grow from 12 to 40 racers during the four years I was a member,” said Jensen of the biking community.

If the Wheatland Wheelers are still too intense for a beginner, there is a more informal cycling group that meets every Saturday and does not require membership.

“They are called both the Rose Garden Group, after the place they meet in Pioneer Park, and the Hailstoners because they got caught in a hailstone during a ride one time,” said Rapp.

For elderly residents, the Pedal Pushers, a group of women all 70 or older, meets regularly for bike rides around the community.

At the Community Center for Youth, Jensen runs a junior cycling team, and she also helps with a five-week course called Bike Repair, where students learn bike mechanics and can eventually fix up bikes to keep.

“The fact that we have a junior cycling team here really speaks of how many people are interested in cycling in the community,” Jensen said.

This summer, Jensen also hosted Bike Thyme, which were relaxed rides with no spandex allowed.

“People would ride whatever speed they wanted and we never went longer than eight miles,” Jensen said.

“Destinations were local farms and the like. I was consciously trying to start a new culture in Walla Walla that wasn’t just lawyers with expensive rides. This tends to be the trend nationwide, so I’ve been trying to push people’s understandings of what bicycles are made to do.”

Whether one wants to bike 35 miles through the Blue Mountains or simply pedal down Rose Street, there is a group for everyone here in the valley.

“The clubs here can range from people are showing off on their bikes to just riding lazily around the neighborhood streets,” said Jensen.

“There are a certain core group of people who are fanatics, like myself, and people who go out regularly, and then a lot of sporadic riders who just enjoy riding,” said Rapp. “Whether you are a racer wanting a hilly or a flat ride or you just want to do some sightseeing, there is something for everybody.”