Dinner & Bikes feeds the mind in Peoria

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For a few hours on May 29, downtown Peoria, Illinois, had a vegan bookstore. And all Bike Peoria President Erik Reader had to do to make it happen was ask Elly Blue, Joshua Ploeg, Joe Biel and Aaron Cynic to add central Illinois to their 2015 Dinner & Bikes tour of the Midwest.

“If it wasn’t for Twitter, I would have never been able to connect with cyclist and author of Bikenomics, Elly Blue (@ellyblue) a few months ago,” Reader wrote on thewhiskeycity.com.

Blue welcomed the Twitter invite. “That’s all it took. And we were able to work out the details with them. They were able to organize the kind of event that we wanted to do, and the city fit into our tour schedule this year.”

IMG_4219The format of Dinner & Bikes is simple. You walk in, linger at the long table holding bicycling-oriented t-shirts, books, booklets, stickers and pins, load up your plate, visit with your neighbors, watch videos separated by raffle ticket drawings and wander back to the table to buy whatever Portland-inspired communications strike your fancy.

It’s over all too soon.

But what you learn during the evening is that bicycle advocacy is about more than improving the infrastructure we all use; it’s about people of all backgrounds discovering the bicycle and, in turn, discovering new things about themselves and their communities.

It’s a positive message and, for the most part, a Spandex-free message, though it’s only fair to note that Spandex had at least a couple of vocal supporters among the sold-out audience in Peoria.

I asked Blue a few questions before she folded up shop at the Dream Center downtown and, the next day, headed to Chicago to catch Amtrak’s Empire Builder back to Portland.

Tell me a little about your publishing company, Microcosm.

What don’t people know about Microcosm? Microcosm is 20 years old, and it started out as a record label. I was only peripherally involved until the beginning of this year when I became a part owner and marketing person, so now it’s my full-time job, whereas before I was observing from a distance. This is my job-job.

To judge by what I read on BikePortland.org, bicycling there is in a bit of a funk. What’s going on?

I was most involved in local bicycling issues in Portland from 2006 to 2008. At that time, there was this really exciting atmosphere that I think other cities are experiencing right now, where everything was possible, everything was changing so rapidly, and like everyone who was involved felt like they were really involved. And that reached a plateau, or even a peak.

And since then, I think there’s been this, sort of like, Portland got all this attention. It was like the number one bike city in the U.S. This cottage industry sprang up promoting how great a bike city Portland was and positive changes have continued happening, slowly, at the infrastructure level, but in terms of the movement of people, the culture of people on the streets, things really stagnated, sort of.IMG_4209

Critical Mass stopped happening, because people were, like, oh, we don’t need it any more, and that actually turned out not to be true. And the local advocacy organizations were caught up in internal drama and turmoil, and only recently things have started shifting in a more interesting direction.

I’d even say in the last month or two there’s been this like sort of coalescing, and unfortunately, it’s happened around tragic accidents. But coalescing is really heartening to see, and there are other things that are exciting. It’s not the same people who were in power the whole time. There are other groups that are doing really cool, interesting, useful stuff.

IMG_4201What’s the most hopeful thing about bicycling in general?

Communities all over the country, especially cities and smaller towns in the center of the country, are starting to get over this idea that, oh, that’s something that happened in Portland, that’s the thing they do in Portland, we could never do that here, and are starting to be, oh, we could do that better, and we could do it our way and then, they’re doing it. So that’s the most exciting thing I’ve seen.