No spandex required: Town bikes get rolling

The amateur cyclists in your neighborhoods with Tour de France fetishes don't dare hit the road for a 50-mile spin without encasing themselves in spandex or stuffing their jersey pockets with protein gels and energy bars.

Chapel Hill town planner John Richardson kept things simpler for a quick jaunt up to Franklin Street on Monday. The half-mile ride did not require changing into any form-fitting uniform -- only a helmet and a rubber band snapped around the cuff of his chinos to keep them from rubbing against the bicycle's chain.

Richardson easily could have managed the short walk to scout the site of a new bus stop project, but a new town program encourages municipal employees to borrow bikes to commute to work-related meetings, make lunch runs or even channel the inner 10-year-old in every policy wonk yearning to escape a cubicle.

The Blue Urban Bikes bicycle loan program ( /blue_urban_bikes) has been offering community members who pay a $10 annual fee refurbished bicycles they can check out from downtown hubs such as the 3Cups coffee shop and other locations in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The knobby-tired bikes come with five to eight gears and flat handlebars to accommodate recreational riders not looking to spend an afternoon hunched over in a racer's crouch.

When it comes to color schemes, riders can pick from bikes painted light blue, sky blue or robin's-egg blue, all otherwise known in Chapel Hill as "Carolina blue."

'Step 4 Your Health'

Richardson was one of about 50 Chapel Hill employees who signed up last week to begin using the three Blue Urban Bicycles stored outside Town Hall. The program is free to town employees, who can log their lunch-run bike rides and other two-wheeled trips as part of the employee "Step 4 Your Health" fitness program.

It also allows them to cut the time they spend circling Franklin Street and other busy Chapel Hill streets looking for a parking space.

"If I have a chance, I'm going to walk or take a bike whenever I can," said Richardson, 28, a long-range/sustainability planner for the town.

Portland, Ore., and other U.S. cities have preceded Chapel Hill with their own free-to-borrow bicycle programs, while Paris and many European cities have public bicycle check-out programs. A casual college town such as Chapel Hill, where half the adult population seems likely to be pedaling, appears well-suited for the Blue Urban Bikes program.

Rae Buckley, a Chapel Hill housing and neighborhood services planner, said the bike her husband bought her three years ago has been collecting dust at their Carrboro home. She hopes the new program, however, will motivate her to take a few recreational rides a week from work.

"I've been a little nervous to do that in traffic around here, but I feel like around Town Hall, there are places I can go that wouldn't be that nerve-wracking," said Buckley, 33.

The ReCYCLEry's Chris Richmond, coordinator of the Blue Urban Bicycles program, said there should be three new check-out hubs on UNC's campus by this fall. For commuters or other bike enthusiasts worried about getting their high-priced bikes damaged or stolen, the check-out program offers a cycling alternative, he said.

"So far, this program is being used mostly by locals, but we've had some people visiting Chapel Hill hear about it also," Richmond said. "The idea of the program is just to get people on bikes."

Not including town employees, about 80 people have signed up for the program in the past year, Richmond said. Not every hub has fielded a flood of demand, however.

More bikes available

Tucked in an alley off West Rosemary Street, the dusty Blue Urban Bikes parked outside the Skylight Exchange used bookstore and sandwich stop don't get much use.

"There was a time last month where there was one guy checking one out every day," said Dennis Gavin, the Skylight Exchange's owner. "But it just doesn't seem like there are many people signed up for it."

Richardson was an easy convert to the program. The Chapel Hill planner has a mountain bike and a road bike at his Durham home. Both of those bikes fit his lanky 6-foot 5-inch frame. No such luck with the smaller Blue Urban bike he checked out at lunchtime Monday, but for a short ride up to Franklin Street, it did not slow him down.

The ride started with a gradual incline up Columbia Street, an aggressive warm-up prompting a quick shift to a low gear. A half-mile later, however, Richardson stopped without gasping for breath, pausing to check with employees at a Caribou Coffee shop about plans for a town event.

Looking to avoid the Franklin Street traffic, Richardson turned on a side street and cut through several blocks of residential streets. The baby-blue bicycle offered a quicker commute than walking or hunting for a downtown parking spot, he said on the short ride back to work.

It also offered him the pleasure of an unhurried detour, pedaling alone on the quiet street.