Whether you’re bicycling for family time, exercise or simply to take in the local ?scenery, Hilton Head Island offers no shortage of routes, paths and options.
The island boasts more than 50 miles of public bicycle paths, and the private communities contain many more (Sea Pines alone has 15 for your pedaling needs). The beach is rarely more than a few miles away, and at low tide offers so much space that you can feel like the place is yours alone. For these reasons and countless more (amenable weather, abundant sunshine) you can see why Hilton Head Island has carved out a reputation as an unofficial bikers’ mecca.
But these days, it’s a little more official.
This April, Hilton Head was awarded a silver-level designation as a “Bicycle Friendly Community” by the League of American Bicyclists — an honor that had been heavily sought by town officials and local biking groups. The president of the League of American Bicyclists is coming to Hilton Head Island to formally announce the award on Aug. 2.
The bike paths have become such a draw for Hilton Head Island that the Chamber of Commerce estimates that one million people come here to bike annually.
“Biking is a big part of the Hilton Head experience for visitors,” said Charlie Clark, spokeswoman for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce. “We’re fortunate to have a town that’s committed to providing miles of pathways for both visitors and residents.”
More Monthly: Five great off-the-beaten-path bike trips
But the road to those pathways hasn’t always been smooth. The first island bike paths were built in Sea Pines and Palmetto Dunes in the 1960s, and as the island grew over the next 40 years, more were regularly added — in keeping with the town’s commitment to remaining eco-friendly. Still, as time marched on, maintenance of those public paths was overlooked, and some of the trails fell into relative disrepair.
Enter Frank Babel.
“The biking attitude here is about freedom and exploring,” said Babel, an avid rider and one of the island’s foremost advocates for bicycling safety and awareness.
Babel moved to Sea Pines permanently in 1999, and quickly found himself frustrated by the lack of connectivity on the public paths and the damage caused by debris and tree roots. “I also realized there were no bike maps, except for mimeographed ones that you could hardly read,” he said.
Duly motivated, Babel helped the town draw up new maps — ones that covered pathways, roads and beaches — and pressed hard for additional changes. “I really felt I could make a difference,” he said. “I really care about this place and I really care about biking.”
Babel says the town really came through, increasing the bike path maintenance budget, building more connecting paths over the past decade or so and putting an increased focus on safety issues. The town has also built kiosks on island bike paths to provide maps and locals’ information for bicyclists.
“The town has really stepped up and connected the dots,” said Babel. “The engineers did a dynamite job with the paths.”
But Babel didn’t stop there. He formed an advocacy organization called Squeaky Wheels, which pursues improvemenst in bike safety and awareness on the island. He’s taken his quest to the state level, having been elected one of four Lowcountry representatives on the board of directors of the Palmetto Cycling Coalition. He’s instrumental in helping to organize the annual Pedal 4 Kids ride, a recreational event staged in conjunction with the Boys and Girls Club, that has raised more than $140,000 in donations over the past four years — and will return Sept. 24 of this year for a fifth. But his vision of Hilton Head as a bicyclist’s haven continues to evolve.
“Whether you’re young or old, you can ride a bike,” he says. “If you’re in a car you’ll miss so much of this spectacular jewel of an island.”
In recent years, the Lowcountry has also seen a tremendous increase in its number of bike organizations, such as the Kickin’ Asphalt Bicycle Club (www.kickinasphalt.info), a highly active nonprofit touring club founded and headed by Ron Knight that you’ve probably noticed on their weekend drives around the Lowcountry.
“When my wife and I moved here from Ohio we searched for a biking club,” he said. “We finally formed our own in 2006.”
These days the club boasts more than 100 members and is affiliated with the Palmetto Cycling Coalition of South Carolina and the League of American Bicyclists, which in 2008 named it one of the best biking clubs in the country. (You can see many of the club’s rides and events by searching for “Kickin’ Asphalt” on YouTube.)
The group rides every Saturday morning at different locations throughout Hilton Head, Bluffton and Beaufort. Each ride is coordinated by a “ride leader,” who plans the weekly route of 35-40 miles at about 15-18 mph. (The group also offers more recreational divisions for more leisurely riders.) For more descriptions about the club’s rides and skill levels, go to www.kickinasphalt.info.
RULES OF THE ROAD (OFFICIAL)
- State law requires bicyclists to follow all the rules of driving a vehicle.
- Never ride against traffic.
- Ride single-file, and keep a safe distance from other bicyclists and pedestrians.
- Obey all traffic signals and pathway markings — including the small stop signs on the bike paths.
- Ride on the pathways at speeds that allow for the safety of pedestrians and others.
- When resting or stopped, move off the pathway to allow others to pass.
- Most pathways are not illuminated. If you bike at night, wear light-colored clothing or carry a flashlight. Bicycles must have a red rear reflector and a headlight when biking at night.
- Always pass on the left. When approaching slower pathway users from behind, call out “Passing on your left.”
- Bicyclists should always wear a helmet — especially children 12 and under.
RULES OF THE ROAD (UNOFFICIAL)
- Assume other bicyclists and motorists don’t see you. Make eye contact and use hand signals. And not those vulgar ones!
- Avoid riding on the main roads, such as William Hilton Parkway. Seriously, it can be dangerous, and the roads are currently filled with people who don’t live here.
- Check the tide charts before heading to the beach. It’s not fun to bike on soft sand. Once out there, watch for jellyfish, people who are surf fishing, people flying kites and little kids, who will almost certainly wait until the last minute before darting out in front of you.
- When riding on the beach, avoid the water. Saltwater is tough on bikes.
- Lock your bikes. If you rent, ask about their policy on stolen bikes.
- When you’re on a path beside a divided roadway — such as Pope Avenue — and are approaching a vehicle entering the road, the driver will be looking to his left only waiting for a break in traffic. If you cross in front of the vehicle from the driver’s right side, you stand a good chance of being hit.
- While listening to your iPod may make your trip more enjoyable, the American Academy of Family Pediatricians warns bikers to always be alert when riding. Drop the volume in crowded environs, or hit pause until you’ve cleared out.
The best bike rides on Hilton Head
... as selected by two experts: Ron Knight of the ?Kickin’ Asphalt Bicycle Club and Frank Babel of Squeaky Wheels.
Most scenic ride: The boardwalk at Barker Field overlooking the marsh is simply amazing. If you’re on the south end, visit the “toe” of the island on the beach looking at the entrance to South Beach Marina. You’ll see Harbour Town in the distance, Daufuskie Island dead ahead and the Atlantic to the left.
Best beach to cycle: Start at Palmetto Dunes, hit the beach and travel south to the tip of the island at South Beach — preferably with the wind at your back. Assuming cooperation from the tides and tourists, this is as good as it gets.
Best family ride: Start at Coligny Circle and take the pathway west along Pope Avenue to New Orleans Road. Then turn right along the pathway and follow Arrow Road across the William Hilton Parkway to the Palmetto Bay Marina and back; you’ll stay off the main drags and discover a lengthy hidden ribbon of trail behind the shops and restaurants. For an alternate route, turn onto the William Hilton Parkway from New Orleans Road, follow the pathways all the way to the Shelter Cove Marina and back.
Best nature trail: The rice dike trail in Sea Pines to the horse stables and into the Sea Pines Forest Preserve is incredibly rich in natural beauty, and it’s often almost empty.
Best exercise: The Bike Doctor’s organized rides provide a great workout; riders leave the shop on New Orleans Road at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Best picnic spot: Jarvis Park, Chaplin Park and Coligny are great spots to picnic — as is, you know, the beach.
Most romantic: The beach at sunset or sunrise is just right for those romantic moments.
The road warriors
It just takes one afternoon drive to see that Hilton Head is filled with devoted, intense riders. Here are just two of them.
The Lowcountry might not yet be known as a cycling mecca, but that’s how Josh Barrett sees it. A member of Hilton Head Cycling, a nonprofit with a mission to keep “community first in (its) passion,” Barrett joins anywhere from 40-60 cyclists of all ages and skill levels who participate in weeknight rides and serve the community through events like the “Ride For Niklas” with the No More Diabetes Foundation.
Having ridden semi-professionally all over the United States, Mexico and Canada, Barrett now works full-time at BFG Communications, coaches through The Ride Fit (find him at theridefit.tumblr.com) and competes with Team Robson ForensicRoadfish, recently earning a bronze medal in the State of South Carolina Time trial.
Barrett encourages those interested in cycling to first and most importantly resist the urge to order something online and instead visit a local bike shop. “Roadfish, The Bike Doctor, Go Tri Sports — they all offer something unique to the island’s cycling culture,” he says. “Explain what you’re looking for and build a relationship with the people in the shops.” All cyclists should wear a helmet and ride single-file to the right. All drivers, meanwhile, should be cautious, understanding that cyclists should use the road since their speed poses a danger to pedestrians on leisure paths.
Aside from the exercise and health benefits, Barrett says the lessons of sportsmanship are the ones he hopes his cycling will help him pass along to his three children. “I’ve done great and I’ve done poorly,” he says. “You can’t teach your kids sportsmanship from watching TV. The only way my kids are going to learn it is first-hand.”
And having traveled all over the country, Barrett finds the Lowcountry an ideal place to both live and ride. “When I’m not riding, I’m with my family,” he says. “We’ve got it made here. It’s a little piece of heaven.”
Born and raised in the Lowcountry, Butler now divides his time between Greenville and Lucca, Italy. Both locations are ideal for training, he says, rich in trails and mountains. Butler describes Lucca as a quintessential Tuscan town with good elevation, 5-foot wide roads with little traffic and a positive vibe. “It has a really ancient feeling to it,” he says. While his daily training routine varies, he rides about 80 miles a day, spending anywhere from 2 to 6 hours on the road.
Next on Butler’s calendar is the Tour of Austria, an 8-day stage race through Austria that begins in early July. He’s one of the youngest members of his team, but he’s already planning for the future. “I’m not even close to hitting my peak, I hope I have twenty more years of this,” he says.
When visiting friends and family on Hilton Head, Butler enjoys boating, fishing, golfing and learning Italian through a Rosetta Stone course. “I have the best job in the world,” he says. “I plan on keeping it for a while.”