Memphis isn't known as a particularly bicycle-friendly city, but a little marketing and a few fairly simple additions to the riverfront could change that. The model could be New York City's Five Boro Bike Tour, which was held last Sunday.
Twelve Memphians, including myself, were among the 30,000 riders who pedaled from Battery Park to Central Park, across various bridges, and through five boroughs, ending on Staten Island four to eight hours later. It was the 28th time for the tour, and the actual number of participants is anyone's guess. It would have taken a helicopter to see the beginning and the end.
A tour is not a race. Serious bikers in Memphis showed no interest in the e-mail invitation from Memphis organizer Bill Stegall. Kids and out-of-shape folks pedaled along at a leisurely pace, and speedsters were few and, fortunately, far between. The weather was chilly and wet at the start, sunny and warm at the end. There is an invisible pull in riding with a huge crowd that seems to make covering 42 miles and several bridges easier on the pulse than a shorter, more vigorous ride.
If there is any problem with the Five Boro Bike Tour it is that it is simply too big. If 10 percent of the participants send an e-mail with a generally positive review to 10 of their friends, as they surely do, then the growth must be exponential. The wait to get moving from Ground Zero was 33 minutes, and there was a sea of bikes behind us as far as the eye could see. If there was an official start or a starting line, none of us saw it. We moved up the Avenue of the Americas in fits and starts, never more than about 10 miles an hour, then came to a long halt half a mile or so from Central Park, where a wide street funneled into two narrow streets through the park. The wait was about half an hour, but the rain had stopped and no one seemed to mind. After Central Park, the choke points were few and not long.
The scarcity of bathrooms was a big problem. Rest stops every eight miles were nearly overwhelmed by the horde, and they quickly ran out of bananas and snacks. In the scheme of things, that was nothing. The city's gift was itself, along with the closing of streets to cars by the NYPD for one day. It was a New York City reality tour, not a travelogue of the prettiest sights and most famous places, and that is the charm of such events. Spectators, ranging from inner-city kids playing basketball in Queens to Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn to pedestrians patiently negotiating their way across the street, watched without interest or maybe a little curiosity about what would make so many people do such a thing on this day.
It was a sweet piece of America, and Memphis could start its own version. Maybe a "Bike the River Parks," from Meeman-Shelby Forest to the National Ornamental Metal Museum. Diversions could be made past Elvis' former home in Lauderdale Courts, Sun Studio, the National Civil Rights Museum, and The Peabody like the Memphis marathon for runners. Those sights are as iconic as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Empire State Building. It is rare that a month goes by without Memphis or a famous Memphian being the subject of a story in the national media, such as the one Monday in The New York Times about Elvis Week and an upcoming CBS mini-series on Elvis this month.
A marketing expert quoted in the story called it "the re-emergence of Elvis as a brand" now that 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises has been bought by Robert Sillerman and his entertainment firm CKX.
The things that sometimes make Memphis exasperating to Memphians, like the things that make New York City exasperating to New Yorkers, don't matter much to a visitor riding a bicycle. Who knows the state of the school system, or the tax rate, or even the name of the mayor? The point is to watch where you're going, see the big picture, smile at strangers and helpful cops, and celebrate America from the vantage point of a bike. Memphis is as good a place as any to do that.