By Roger Schneider, Associated Press
DETROIT >> Move aside, Motor City, and make way for an export that’s turning Detroit’s auto legacy on its wheels.
Thousands of bicyclists hit the streets on Monday evenings from spring to fall for Slow Roll Detroit, an ultracasual 10 mile or so tour of the city’s best and blighted neighborhoods at speeds of up to 10 mph.
“We didn’t invent riding slow. We didn’t invent group bike rides,” said Mike MacKool, co-founder of the nonprofit Detroit Bike City Inc., which trademarked Slow Roll. “But we just struck the right chord at the right time for our city.”
The family-friendly rides and festive atmosphere have spawned affiliates elsewhere, including Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., and even two in Sweden and one in Iraq, that draw riders into the city streets.
In Detroit, its popularity has soared as the city works to improve services and its image after undergoing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. A population drain since 1.8 million people called Detroit home in 1950 even works in bicycling’s favor.
“We’re flat, we’ve got infrastructure for 2 million people, with a population of about 7 or 800,000 now,” MacKool said. “So that means we have big, wide-open, flat roads made for way more cars, which means you’ve got a lot of space for bikes.”
The space is needed Saturday for the 14th annual Tour de Troit and its expected 7,000 cyclists. Also enhancing the city’s stature as a bicycling hotspot is Detroit Bikes, which since 2013 has made 3-speeds that are ideal for its hill-less terrain.
MacKool and co-founder Jason Hall rode the first Slow Roll with fewer than a dozen friends in 2011. By season’s end it grew to 40. Fast-pedal to 2015, when about 3,000 bicyclists take part most evenings.
This is no Lycra-wearing crowd on expensive race bikes. Anyone is welcome, MacKool says, “from any age from any skill to any bike.” Attire is come as you are. Bikes run from clunker to cruiser to showy custom-made styles, not unlike souped-up automobiles that show Detroit flair.
“Everybody comes together to have a good time,” said Nate Smith of Detroit, 29, on a one-speed, low-rider with a shiny red frame.
Slow Roll has about 5,000 card-carrying members, most of whom pay a $10 annual fee that became a necessity as numbers and liability concerns grew. No one is turned away if they cannot afford it.
The group works with the city and police to avoid dustups with motorists. That includes getting permits, keeping the throngs to the right with a squad of about 50 volunteers, and police escorts to control disruptions.
“We just do as much as we can to be as accommodating as we can to the traffic,” MacKool said.
City leaders support the rides and included a Slow Roll headquarters in redevelopment plans for the Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center, a long-closed facility where heavyweight champion Joe Louis once trained.
One of the Slow Roll offshoots begun with Detroit’s help started last year in Buffalo with three rides. It expanded to every Monday this year and participation surged from 300 to 1,800 in about a month and a half, said its founder Tony Caferro.
He sees similarities between the cities and their Slow Rolls.
“You go through neighborhoods that you probably wouldn’t go through on your own, or wouldn’t even know they were there,” Caferro said.
In Detroit, young and old wave and shout encouragement to riders, who are mostly city residents but also come from the suburbs and other states.
“Slow Roll was started to show off our city,” MacKool said. “It’s what we love. Me and Jason are very passionate about the city of Detroit, and getting people to move back down here.
“If they’ve never been to Detroit, this is a great way to see Detroit.”
Follow Roger Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rogschneider