By FRANCIS BOGAN/ecoRI News contributor
NEWPORT, R.I. — About 50 cyclists and volunteers gathered recently under cloudy skies at Brenton Point State Park to celebrate the inaugural Elliot’s Ride for Safety and Wellness. Participants biked a 3-mile loop that rounded the city’s southeastern tip and circled inland, then repeated the course or stopped to mingle in the oceanfront park, where they enjoyed free food, live drummers and a “kids zone” for the youngest riders.
Bike Newport organized the ride to promote safe biking on Aquidneck Island. The bicycle-advocacy organization sought to expose riders of various levels to safe road bicycling in the scenic corner of Newport and to raise money for community bike programs run by Bike Newport and the Newport County YMCA.
The June 11 ride was a new take on the Elliot Kaminitz Father’s Day Ride, which was held from 2013 to 2016 and featured 6-, 10- and 25-mile loops. The ride was founded in memory of Elliot Kaminitz, a local resident who was an avid cyclist and such an enthusiastic advocate of safe biking that many friends and family members referred to him as “Mr. Bike Safety.” A motorist struck and killed Kaminitz in June 2012, while he was biking on Memorial Boulevard across from Easton’s Beach.
This year, organizers renamed the event, shortened the distance, and publicized it as a “ride for everybody” to attract riders of varying ability and experience, according to Bari Freeman, Bike Newport’s executive director.
“What we really wanted to do was focus on getting more people out riding,” Freeman said. She emphasized that the route on Ocean Avenue “doesn’t just belong to people in Spandex and with fancy bicycles.”
Freeman, event coordinator Niko Merritt, and participants and volunteers agreed that the changes brought many new faces to the event. Freeman noted that some of “the people in Spandex and with fancy bicycles,” who were regulars in the Elliot Kaminitz Father’s Day Ride, brought less-experienced bicyclists this year.
Many participants also shared the desire to encourage others, especially children, to bike.
Peter and Jamie Kapur, who moved to Newport last year, rode with their 4-year-old son David, who completed the ride on a tricycle. The couple participated in part, Peter said, because they want to pass on the fun of biking to their children.
Betty Bourret, an experienced cyclist who drove from Smithfield to ride, said she was happy to see so many children on bikes. She and her partner, Trisha, stopped on their second loop to cheer on some young riders struggling up an incline.
Bourret said promoting biking is especially important in Newport, a tourist destination with narrow, crowded streets. Freeman agreed.
“We have serious challenges in the summer with the volume of traffic and all of the parking and traffic management stresses that come with the huge influx of tourists,” Freeman said. “All of this can be relieved by people biking and walking.”
For their part, Bike Newport staff and supporters have provided bicycles and bike racks to the community, educated members of the public about safe biking and driving, and advocated for infrastructure improvements to make cycling safer, including the planned construction of Aquidneck Island’s first bike path.
Providing bicycles to community members is one of Bike Newport’s top priorities. Staff and volunteers facilitate the restoration of old bikes, mainly donations, which are distributed to the local community. Community members also frequently help restore or build a bike in Bike Newport’s open garages to “earn” it. This experience helps imparts a basic knowledge of bicycle mechanics and some experience maintaining and repairing bikes.
“We’re redistributing bikes from people’s basements and garages to people who don’t have them,” said Liza Burkin, the nonprofit’s education program coordinator.
The number of bikes distributed has risen during the past few years, especially in the months since Bike Newport’s main location moved into a larger building. According to Freeman, Bike Newport gave away more than 150 restored bikes in the past month alone, a record number.
Bike Newport staff educates cyclists on safe riding practices through classes, events like Elliot’s Ride, and social-awareness campaigns such as “Newport Waves,” which encourages motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and others to wave in recognition of each other to decrease accidents.
Education for safe bicycling is especially important in Newport, bike advocates say, because of the crowded, narrow streets and a lack of bike infrastructure.
“To ride in Newport, to ride in Aquidneck Island, is to ride with cars,” Freeman said.
Jamie Bova, an at-large Newport City Council member who participated in last Sunday’s ride, has noticed that cyclists and motorists seem to have a better understanding of how to interact safely on shared roads than they did five years ago. She attributes much of this change to the efforts of Bike Newport.
Bova also noted the effects of Bike Newport’s political advocacy, which helped the city acquire $1 million of Rhode Island’s $35 million Green Economy Bond, to build the mile of a proposed bike path, Aquidneck Island’s first, that will run from the city’s north to the south ends.
Renee Kaminitz, Elliot’s widow and a member of Bike Newport’s board of directors, said bike infrastructure in Newport lags behind similar New England tourist destinations such as Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. She said she would like to see a completed bike path, and hopes that Elliot’s Ride and similar events can help bring that about.
Freeman believes these events do help encourage the development of a biking infrastructure. She said public events like Elliot’s Ride and an increase in the amount of cyclists on the road help biking advocates secure more support and funding for infrastructure projects.
Aside from the $5,000 Freeman estimated the event raised and the progress events like this make for bike safety, both she and Kaminitz were pleased that the event brought new riders out to enjoy one of Elliot Kaminitz’s favorite spots.
“A lot of people you saw here haven’t been here before,” Freeman said. “People will think about coming here, parking their car, and going for a ride.”