A group of organizers staged what they termed the “Official Southern Heritage Ride and Rally” last Saturday and descended with motorcycles and pickups upon the streets of Hillsborough, their Confederate flags waving in the breeze.
The controversial initiative claimed to espouse a legacy of endangered southern values. Their ride through town was met with dissent from roadside protesters who asserted that the group espoused a legacy of racism.
People from both sides were late for the really official Heritage Tour, which had gotten the jump on everyone by the dawn’s early light.
Hundreds of cyclists participating in the 20th annual Carolina Tarwheels’ BikeFest Rural Heritage Tour rolled onto the streets of Hillsborough and the quiet country roads of the Piedmont. They were met not with dissent, but with sunshine, open roads, and dew-drenched rolling pastures — a local heritage that is neither endangered nor controversial, but it’s perhaps the richest legacy of Orange County.
Ride director and Tarwheels president Mark Olsen said that the only thing that has changed since the event’s inception is 20 years’ more heritage.
“It’s a popular ride, so we really haven’t changed it that much,” Olsen said, “but we still just about filled it up again. With the volunteers, we have almost 800 riders going out.”
Cyclists opted for either a 100-mile ride (English Century), a 62-mile ride (100 kilometers, known as a “metric century”), a 35-mile route, or a family-friendly seven-miler through Hillsborough.
The Carolina Tarwheels are a group of bicycle enthusiasts who organize social rides in Orange, Durham, Wake, Alamance, and Chatham Counties, the organization’s website notes.
“We promote the fun and challenge of cycling and advocate for cycling safety and bike-friendly policies in our communities,” the site stated. “The Tarwheels are affiliated with the League of American Bicyclists.”
“We run between three and five rides every Saturday out of (Carrboro’s) Wilson Park with different speeds and different distances,” Olsen said, adding that the group also organizes its “47 Percent” ride (a retirement reference) on Mondays out of Hillsborough and a Wednesday morning ride out from Union Grove Church, located west of Calvander, which is for all speeds and usually covers 35 to 45 miles.
Olsen observed that Saturday’s cool clouds of early morning gave way to bright sunshine, which would provide cyclists with near-ideal weather for the event.
“It’s perfect cycling weather,” he said. “I even have some people calling me up saying that they were signed up for the metric century (62 miles) and they wanted to move up to the English century (100 miles). I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
A few riders felt safer staying closer to home, however.
“I’m not that hardcore, and this is my first time doing this,” Laura Oleniacz of Durham said. “We signed up for the 62-miler ... but we may not. I think I’m ready, but we’ll see how it goes.”
Longtime Tarwheels member Tom Naesler said he was compelled to help with the seven-milers.
“I’m a league certified bicycle safety instructor, and they said for anybody that wanted to help with the kids to come by,” Naesler said. “You just want to make sure the kids are riding safely. I’ve been a member for 13 years, and it’s time to give back.”
Organizer Randy Heffelfinger said the event itself gives back as well.
“This raises a good amount of money; it’s a great event, and we use the dollars we raise to help bike organizations and those around the community (who contribute) to the biking infrastructure.”
Olsen said the event likely would raise around $15,000 for non-profits. Past recipients have included the Triangle Trips for Kids, Lewis Days (bike restoration for children of need), Kidical Mass, the Special Olympics Cycling Team, and the Carrboro Bicycle Coalition.
Olsen said the event couldn’t have been so successful over the past 20 years without complete support of the community.
“We coordinate this with the Town of Hillsborough, and the mayor loves this,” Olsen said. “I’ve talked with the police on several occasions, and they’ve been nothing but delightfully supportive. We’ve also had great cooperation from churches, so all of our rest stops along the BikeFest routes are at various churches.”
“We also have the Bicycle Chain here, and REI is here supporting us,” he added. “We have our ham-radio guys riding the routes, we have some of our own SAG (support and gear) guys, and we have two people sweeping on bicycles on every route.”
REI’s Lizzie Sodoma said the Tarwheels’ BikeFest was a natural partner for her store.
“This is a grassroots community of riders, and that’s where we wanted to get involved and show our support,” she said. “As far our grants and outreach programs, we’ve given grants to Eno River, Umstead State Park, and a lot of local charities and non-profits, and we thought this was a great fit.”
Olsen said the BikeFest Rural Heritage Tour would be off the roads used by the rally scheduled for later in the day.
“The police segregated the flow as much as possible,” he said.
Most cyclists were off the county roads by 9:30 a.m, well before any pro- or anti-flag demonstrators arrived in Hillsborough, and the flag groups were using different routes from the cycling groups.
Not that the two disparate definitions of “heritage” might ever have been confused.
The Tarwheels’ BikeFest is well known, and it is one celebration whose image isn’t likely to change much more over the next two decades than over its first 20 years.
“This is a mom-and-pop operation,” Olsen said. “As a matter of fact, I think we’ll likely keep it that way.”
And that’s “heritage” on which everyone can agree.