Slow Roll, Cleveland Style

CLEVELAND—Given the explosive popularity of Monday night Slow Roll rides in Detroit, it’s not surprising that other cities are starting to take notice. Just across Lake Eerie, Cleveland resident Samuel Willsey heard about the weekly ride via social media and decided that a similar ride ought to take place in his own city.

Cleveland is already home to a thriving Critical Mass ride on the last Friday of each month. However, its largest Critical Mass ride topped out at roughly 850 participants this past July, paling in comparison to over 1,200 riders in the last Detroit Slow Roll.

A Youngstown native, Willsey is deeply entrenched in the Cleveland bike advocacy scene. On top of his full-time day job, he is on Bike Cleveland’s advocacy committee that meets monthly to accelerate the city’s efforts in promoting bike safety and infrastructure.

“There are a lot of people that don’t feel comfortable on a fast group ride, and they’re not into fancy titanium road gear. In Critical Mass rides, if your bike is busted or you’re slow, they leave you in the dust and expect you to catch up,” Willsey told Mode Shift. “My philosophy is never to leave a soul behind. I saw the Slow Roll for Cleveland as a way to get everyone riding—kids, elderly, and everyone in between.”

Willsey joined forces with several other bike advocates to create Slow Roll’s Facebook page and coordinate rides. The first Cleveland Slow Roll ride took place Aug. 26 with 16 cyclists, and the second Sept. 9 with 21 cyclists. The next ride is planned for today, and perhaps there will be a couple more before the it gets too cold. “This winter we’ll be planning and brainstorming to be ready for Spring,” he said.

Willsey aims to replicate the Slow Roll experience as closely as possible: he encourages people to wear helmets; corkers help guide riders; and he brings along extra lights for people that don’t have them. Eventually he plans to bring along extra tubes to repair flat tires. Each ride lasts about two hours and is 10 to 15 miles in length.

Not only does Willsey hope Slow Roll will get more people riding comfortably, he sees it as a unique opportunity to experience their city’s history and explore neighborhoods they wouldn’t otherwise visit. “There is so much history in this city—much like Detroit—it’s easier for people to see it by bike, and use bars or historical points of interest as starting points.”

Perhaps most importantly, Willsey believes that Slow Roll can serve as a means of advocacy for more bike infrastructure (e.g., bike lanes), which Willsey says the city has been slow to adopt, although the numbers of cyclists in the city and inner circle suburbs are soaring. He noted, “Riders are going everywhere now—not just the bars and downtown, but into the neighborhoods. This is a way to show the Mayor that we’re not just here one day a month or one day a week, but all types of people ride everyday.”

The next Cleveland Slow Roll ride will start and end at Porco Tiki Bar. The owner actually reached out to Willsey after hearing about Detroit’s Slow Roll and the crowds it draws. “Monday is usually the most quiet night at a bar or restaurant—this kind of event is really good for business,” Willsey pointed out.

Despite having now completed two of Cleveland’s first Slow Roll rides, this past Monday’s Slow Roll Detroit was Willsey’s first. He drove to Toledo and biked the 5.5 hours to Detroit to make it to St. Andrews Music Hall just in time. “It was pretty cool—I never usually see that many people unless it’s Critical Mass. I was shocked so many people came out on a Monday.”

When asked if he’s worried about Cleveland’s ride getting too big or out of control, Willsey believes the more people on bikes, the better, and he’s not opposed to having a police escort.

In the meantime, Cleveland’s Slow Roll will do what it can to learn from Detroit’s successes and challenges along the way, partnering with founders Jason Hall and Mike MacKool. Who knows—maybe we’ll be seeing Slow Roll pop up in cities across the country.

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