Down with the cause: Jamar Woods put together a special band for Bike Love that he says will get people dancing. Photo by Morgan Ford.
Asheville on Bikes is on a roll.
Since its birth in 2006, the organization has been a key advocate for a more bicycle-friendly city. And it seems poised for growth as it prepares to celebrate Bike Love -- a fundraiser and membership drive featuring a range of speakers and musical acts.
What began as an informal group of friends who got together to ride in the holiday parade has blossomed into an organization that mobilizes thousands of people to push for education initiatives, bike lanes and greenways. The group is known for doing it in style too: Festive community rides regularly fill local streets with costumed revelry.
But AOB founder Mike Sule says they're just getting started. The organization recently agreed to become a fiscal sponsorship of the Western North Carolina Alliance, a long-established, local environmental nonprofit. Rather than vying to file as its own 501(c)(3), the move gives Asheville on Bikes many of the same legal benefits.
"That work of getting a nonprofit up and going and then managing it would take away from the direct work that we want to be doing in this city," says Sule. "The fiscal sponsorship enabled us to keep going with our advocacy work, providing us with some support and structure and expertise."
The group is also tuning itself up by offering formal sign-ups for the first time, hoping to turn its legions of volunteers and social-media fans into card-carrying members. "We want people to share that pride in the organization with us -- for them to be able to say, 'Yes, I have a membership,'" says Sule. Having hard numbers on file could also make it easier to get grants, he adds. "We want to be able to say who we represent, how many people we represent."
Also on the horizon: The former elementary teacher is hoping to transition from being a nearly full-time volunteer to a paid executive director.
"When I wake up in the morning, I am on Asheville on Bikes. That's primarily what I do," he says. "I really love to work on bicycle advocacy. I want the job."
AOB Founder Mike Sule. Photo by Jake Frankel.
The organization recently joined the Chamber of Commerce, and Sule says an important next step will be seeking out partnerships and alliances with more businesspeople. "I'm really excited to reach out to and work with the business community," he says. "We're going to need members of our business community to make some of the changes."
The group has already received significant support from New Belgium Brewing Co. In fact, brewery officials have often noted that cycling is central to their business culture, citing Asheville on Bike's work as one of the reasons they decided to invest $150 million in a new facility in the River Arts District. Last year, the company flew Sule to its Fort Collins, Colo., headquarters to attend a conference it hosted on bicycle boosterism. "It was awesome," he reports. "I was at a crossroads in terms of where I was going with bicycle advocacy. ... I got some really good advice on what to do."
Sule also wants to build stronger partnerships with Buncombe County and the N.C. Department of Transportation. The county adopted a Greenway Master Plan in 2012 that calls for building roughly 80 miles of pathways. But Sule laments that implementation is yet to even start, saying the plan needs a "champion."
He sees hope in the renewed discussion over the DOT's plans for restructuring Interstate 26 and nearby streets. "I see it as a grand opportunity to advance bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure," Sule says. "We all need to be pushing for a bridge that connects downtown and West Asheville via biking and walking infrastructure."
Party with a purpose
At Bike Love, Sule will be joined by a range of multimodal allies from the Land of Sky Regional Council, Asheville Design Center, Friends of Hominy Creek Greenway and New Belgium, which will all deliver presentations on a variety of projects and aspirations. Each speaker will have 20 slides and 20 seconds to talk about each one, "So it's designed to be informative and engaging, but also fast and furious," says Sule.
Then musicians will take over the stage.
A special group of local notables called Jamar Woods and the Broken Spokes is hoping to get everyone's gears cranking with a variety of live dance covers, from Aretha Franklin to the Jackson 5. "We'll be playing music from a mixture of time periods -- some modern, some older -- soul, funk, rock, music that gets people moving, gets people dancing," says Woods, who's best known locally as the keyboardist in The Fritz. "We're definitely a group that's schooled in the art of improvisation, so there will be be some of that too."
He'll be joined on stage by his bandmates from The Fritz -- Jaime Hendrickson on guitar and Mike Evans on percussion. Drummer Joey K and bassist Rob Geisler, who play in several local bands, including The Business, round out the group. "Basically," says Woods, "I handpicked some of the best musicians in Asheville."
Woods also performed at last year's Bike Love event as a keyboardist in Jim Arrendell and the Cheap Suits. And he says that coming back is more than just another gig. "I'm a supporter of Asheville on Bikes. It's always good to play for such a worthy cause," he says.
Another repeat performer who believes in the mission is Marley Carroll, who will close the night with a DJ set that's sure to have the crowd bouncing. A longtime local favorite, Carroll has been garnering well-deserved national attention in recent months from the likes of Pitchfork and Rolling Stone for his latest album, Sings. He also happens to be Sule's former housemate.
"Asheville on Bikes generally happens in my living room where I'm hunched over my laptop, so Marley lived in the thick of Asheville on Bikes for years," Sule recalls with a laugh. "The poor guy would come home from the end of his day and walk into an Asheville on Bikes meeting. They're not the quietist of meetings -- there's lots of passion."
He adds that he's very thankful to have his friend's support: "Our crew loves to dance, and Marley brings the party."
It's a party with a purpose, says Sule, who hopes Bike Love and the evolution of his group will continue to help build "a groundswell of support for active transportation improvements." The group's mission of "cultivating the culture of urban and commuter cycling through advocacy and celebration" has "really become a community endeavor," he adds.
"It's a result of the passions of the cycling community. And I've been sort of like the tender of that fire, and sometimes the agent of acceleration to push it." Bike Love is Saturday, Feb. 22. Presentations begin at 8 p.m. and music starts at 9 p.m. $15 advance/ $20 day of show.