Bicycle Collective turns former St. George diner into a hub for everyday riders like me
By Judith Rognli — St. George is known for great mountain biking. It hosts road and multisport races through gorgeous landscapes. Thousands flock to the region to enjoy mild shoulder-season weather and great trails. But if you venture off the trail and into town, you’ll see far fewer bikes on the road than on the hitch-racks of (oft-idling) SUVs.
When I moved to town from Germany in 2016, I had little time for recreational riding thanks to the trans-Atlantic relocation, a 6-month-old son, and a husband starting a new job. Instead of cycling for sport, I I strapped my son in a bike trailer and rode for transportation. This is what most of us do in northern Germany, for no special reason other than getting around by bike is more practical, and cheaper than stepping into a car.
Our initial move to Utah’s Dixie landed us in a short-term rental in the sprawl just North of I-15. Riding to get groceries and to my son’s daycare presented emotional and mental challenges. It was clear that this was an environment that was not built for cyclists or pedestrians. At times, there were no shoulders, no sidewalks, and no environment that would encourage anything in the way of awareness or consideration from drivers.
But I kept at it. I rode because I was not willing to give up the freedom to move my body for being stuck in a car and in traffic.
We escaped I-15 with a move to an apartment in Ivins, a good bike-commuting-distance from my husband’s office, and close to beautiful trails. We enrolled my son in a different daycare at the edge of Santa Clara and I started pulling him there 4 miles in his trailer, almost every day of the week.
Bike trails in that area are great, but when summer approached, I hit more and more open consternation from drivers, especially driving parents. Despite UV protective trailer covers, plenty of water, and wet washcloths, I was finding it difficult to keep my son cool. How could I put my son through this. This is much too hot. What you are doing is dangerous. I found chewing gum stuck to my saddle outside my son’s daycare. Twice.
Talking about my experiences with friends, neighbors, or acquaintances in the suburbs, I rarely got any reactions beyond blank looks and changes of topic.
This is when I realized that my default way of living was in fact activism. And a much needed form of it. Southern Utah was becoming home to me and I was well aware of the epidemics that the country was facing, and the effective mitigation that cycling offers.
Fast forward a year to summer 2017, my husband and I decided to buy a house in downtown St. George. Ivins was pretty. But by trying to keep the car parked and rely on our bikes for transportation, we’d managed to isolate ourselves at the edge of a burgeoning suburban community that was built to connect people via their vehicles. Streets and playgrounds were often empty. A big box grocery chain served as the de-facto town square.
Downtown St. George (up-and-coming we rationalized) filled our wish to experience social and cultural life, trail access and stores without ever having to use a car. We wanted to get to know the bicycling community better, and bike to rides and trails.
Only days after our move, I found out about the St. George Bicycle Collective. The St. George Bicycle Collective had to this point been a group of volunteers building tremendous amounts of bikes for people in need out of the yard of L&L Mechanical, an air conditioning company located outside of St. George. The group had started off as the ‘Bike Kitchen’, building bikes for clients from the local homeless shelter and the soup kitchen. The volunteers had worked hard and collaborated with city officials to get a community bike shop started in the center of town. When I first met the group, the City of St. George had agreed to donate the lease for the old Hospital Thrift Store building (itself an old motel diner) on 70 W St. George Blvd. All the local bike shops were already actively supporting the volunteers’ efforts. The Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective 501(c)3 had agreed to take St. George under its wings and hire a full-time Location Director for the new shop.
Walking into this diner-turned-thrift shop-turned-Collective for the first time one Saturday morning that August, all off a sudden, I felt at home. Volunteers, among them many city officials, were painting walls. This was finally a community where folks could relate to and understand my concerns about our dystopian but rapidly improving cycling infrastructure. People were open to discussing questions of bicycling infrastructure and trail accessibility and I did not get the usual blank looks I was used to when bringing up these topics in the past.
I was not looking for a job. With ambitions to complete my PhD and to plant a garden in our new yard, and with our newfound ped-friendly access to a social life, I was finally feeling settled and happy. But the chance to work with the cycling community was too tempting. I applied for the Location Director position. My motivation letter was by far the most passionate I ever wrote.
Fast forward another two months, in October 2017 we were celebrating the Grand Opening of the St. George Bicycle Collective. The Mayor and other city officials, the Chamber of Commerce, and a great deal of local friends and supporters were present. After all the consternation I received riding around town with my son in a trailer, I expected to spend the first months, if not years, of my job as the Location Director just trying to drum up support for the idea of a community bike shop. But I’d underestimated the community. Right from the beginning, support was overwhelmingly strong from all walks of St. George life and beyond. The local bike shops, the City, local businesses, media, churches, Boy-Scouts, you name it. The idea of a community bike shop, of bicycling, and of making bikes accessible and affordable for all turned out ot have huge appeal to many Southern Utahns.
Fast forward to April 2018, we had grown to 4 employees, a database of about 400 supporters, and 20 plus regular volunteers that helped us provide educational opportunities and bicycles to adults and children. More and more people learn about us and decide to pick up a bike to ride down one of the cities beautiful paved trails. We provide bikes to people in need, almost 50 this year to date. We also sell used parts, some higher end road and mountain bikes, childrens’ and BMX bikes. Our workbenches are open and free to the public, and we offer free repair help to people who can’t afford to pay for getting their bikes fixed.
Since this was my first spring living in downtown St. George, I can’t tell you whether we are seeing a surge in transportation and leisure cycling around town. But it feels like it. It feels like a lot more people than ever before are choosing to go by bike. St. George recently launched its bike share program with a better-than-anticipated surge in ridership, and the mild and dry winter has helped create some tail winds as well. I’d like to think of the Collective as part of a cycling-friendly change in the transportation climate.
My mission and the mission of the Collective is to put more bikes on the road and to enable everyone to enjoy the freedom of going somewhere under your own power. I am seeing the Collective turning into a meeting place for people excited about bikes and biking. For me, this sense of community means that I no longer feel alone. More and more bike-packers and -tourers stop by as well, bring stories from the road, use our services, grab a drink and lend a helping hand.
But while the cycling climate may be changing, driver courtesy does not seem to be warming. Far too many drivers are on their cell-phones, failing to see cyclists at a stop light or elsewhere. We are in a transition period. The Bicycle Collective is a huge step in the right direction to make bicycling a cornerstone of our community, but we cannot stop here. Together, we must create the infrastructure and the conditions that make it common sense for all of us to pick up our bikes and ride, to build a city that allows parents to ride with children, and without constant fear of distracted drivers. I cannot wait for the day when bike paths, riding to school, to work, or to Bear Claw Poppy along the beautiful paved Virgin River trail, are no-brainers, and am more than grateful to be able to work with the St. George Bicycle Collective to build a town with more bikes on the road than on hitch racks.
To find out more about the St. George Bicycle Collective, visit us on 39 South Bluff Street, Saint George, Utah 84770, find us on www.bicyclecollective.org, facebook, twitter, and instagram, or call or text us: 435-574-9304
Judith Rognli was the Location Director of the St. George Bicycle Collective from September 2017 to November 2019. This article was originally written during her tenure. The Bicycle Collective continues to grow and serve the community of St. George and surrounding areas and has moved to a new location in St. George: 39 South Bluff Street, Saint George, Utah 84770.