Nativity rate is an interesting statistic. It’s the percentage of people born in a certain place that never leave. New Orleans has a nativity rate of 80%. 4 out of every 5 people you meet who live in the Crescent City, were born in Louisiana, and likely in New Orleans proper. There’s something about that number. It’s almost perplexing. When you begin to meet people here, you find out over and over again that the numbers don’t lie. Worldly people, businessmen, educators, anyone you can imagine, New Orleans born and raised, never gonna leave. It’s a funny thing though, because if you spend some time in the great city at the mouth of the Mississippi, you start to feel its effects, its pull. It feels like she opens her arms wide, gives you a welcoming hug, but then just won’t let go. It’s not a bad hug, in fact, it’s one of the best hugs you’ll ever get, but she pulls you in, closer, tighter, into a warm, humid womb, content never to leave again.
***DISCLAIMER*** New Orleans isn’t for everyone. Some will look at this article with disdain and think, how can you like that? For some though, it’s their own version of paradise. I side with the latter.
Last winter, when we were planning to move to Europe, we had to deal with the conversation – do we really want to leave? We could leave at some point further down the road, right? It’s at once exhilarating to feel the pull of the nearly 300 year old city and frightening to realize that that question was just asked.
At first glance, New Orleans could possibly be the worst place in the world to ride a bike. It’s perfectly flat, there are no country roads anywhere nearby for riding, the roads are crap, the possibilities for rides can be counted on one hand. In short, I can think of countless reasons why New Orleans is a terrible place to ride bikes. If I’m thinking of a place to go for a training camp, I’m placing New Orleans somewhere along the lines of Baghdad. Yet, I find myself dreaming about riding in New Orleans when I’m away. I find myself retracing tracks through the Bywater, Marigny, Uptown, Irish Channel, the Lower Ninth, St. Charles, the Garden District, Almonaster, the Rigolets, the levee, Lakeshore Drive, the Quarter, City Park, each of those words likely means little to you, but each is its own world in my mind, a quilt of motley patches, some golden and gleaming, some neon and glaring, some bright and friendly, others tearing at the edges, washed out and faded, but still holding strong.
The Difference In My Expectations And What I Found
My wife, Ashley, and I moved to New Orleans in January of 2010. I left the familiar, fantastic roads of Athens, Georgia to move to what I figured was the armpit of the cycling world. I can’t lie, I was not planning on spending much time in New Orleans when it came time for real training. I planned to split my time between Athens and New Orleans to hopefully continue to race my bike.
I was prepared for the worst, and instead, I found the best. I found a home.
I found something completely different than I had imagined in my nightmares in the weeks leading up to the move. I found a community of riders of which I’ve never encountered before. I was welcomed with open arms, like a friend that had been far too long in coming. I found a city with unending possibilities for the adventurous. I found a city reborn out of desperation, I found a city that just won’t lie down and take whatever the latest disaster happens to be, and there’s something about that attitude, that feeling, it’s infectious, it’s defiant, and I came to love New Orleans both on the bike and off with that same defiance. I found myself crowing to anyone within earshot – this is the place to be, and it’s almost hard to believe I’m writing this: a great place to ride a bike.
Most importantly, when I came to New Orleans, I found a bike rider who soon became a tour guide, who not long after became a teammate, who became a friend before I even barely knew his name, and half a decade ago, managed to do something Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, or Mark Cavendish will likely never be able to do: become a hero. Kenny Bellau embodies everything that blew me away about New Orleans. I expected little, but found the world, the same holds true of Mr. Bellau. I had no idea the door that opened as Kenny approached on a sunny January day. It wasn’t long before I began to learn about Kenny, and if you ever get the chance to learn about Kenny, you’ll hear of a few things: bike racing, New Orleans, and the storm that did its best to take a city off the map, Katrina.
The word hero is often applied carelessly, even given over to athletes that ride up climbs really fast (speaking of climbs, they don’t have those in New Orleans). It’s like the word epic. Every hard day is epic in bike racing it seems, and every rider that sets out on an improbable solo exploit is described as heroic. I’m talking about a real hero, the kind that save lives and do things that we normal people just can’t quite wrap our heads around, at least I can’t. New Orleans’s, Kenny Bellau, for instance, meets the criteria of a hero. He saved the lives of almost 400 people in the storm that’s approaching its six year anniversary in just 12 days time. Kenny had just returned from a UCI stage race in French Guyana with his Herring Gas team to find the city of his life underwater, floundering for air.
Like any self respecting hero, Kenny doesn’t much take to the label of hero, nor does he comfortably accept acknowledgement of the fact. It’s just one of those things, it comes in the little pamphlet you get in the mail after a series of great deeds. He returned to his home, left his bike behind, commandeered a boat, and set about doing the right thing. He spent the better part of a month trolling the waters with a list sent to him by his girlfriend, Candy, looking for survivors, gathering them up one by one, or sometimes by the dozen.
After the waters subsided, Kenny took the boat back to its home. The formerly brand new stallion was battered, but still running strong. Kenny left a Sharpie scrawled note on his companion as he left it behind, it read: “This boat rescued over 400 people. Thank you! Ken Bellau.” That boat, stolen from a looter by a bike racer and used to do nothing but good, now stands in the heart of the French Quarter. It will remain in Jackson Square for ten years in the Presbytery of St. Louis Cathedral, right on the corner of St. Ann and Chartres. It’s a peculiar sight – it’s a motorboat in the middle of the Quarter after all – and it’s a testament to the kind of person that rises to astounding heights in the worst of times. Kenny’s story is New Orleans’s story. The two are one and the same. You can count yourself fortunate to know one, and supremely lucky to get to know both.
The dedication ceremony – that’s Kenny’s long-time girlfriend, Candy, in green…and that’s Saint Louis Cathedral in the background.
It’s A Ride Like No Other
When I think of great places to ride, I think of the great mountains of Europe, the Rockies, or even rural Georgia, but they’re all more or less similar in that the feel you get on a ride in any of those places does not change much from start to finish. The feel is great, mind you, but it doesn’t change much. A ride around New Orleans, however, is a journey through innumerable worlds. It’s a visual feast with nary a beautiful peak for hundreds of miles. If I’m looking for adventure, for a journey, I can’t help but aim for a few hours spent meandering through the soul of one of America’s great cities.
My first ride.
Kenny knows the streets of New Orleans better than I know the way around my bed to get to the bathroom with the lights turned on, he knows it like you know the familiar pathway of the route from the light switch to your welcoming bed after you turn the lights off. On that cloudless January mid-morning (I firmly believe Kenny and I are the only two people in New Orleans that ride bikes after 10am), Kenny showed me his city. He showed me the beautiful, the grand, the downtrodden, the terrible, the every last bit of it. I doubt I will ever do a ride like that ever again.
Summer in New Orleans? Expect some wild afternoon weather.
Before you cancel this ride as my own little piece of hype, this is New Orleans after all. Ask yourself: where else can I do a ride like this? That day, we started with the sobering crossing of the 17th Street Canal, the canal that failed mightily in the wake of Katrina’s haymaker. I crossed that bridge multiple times a day when we lived there. It’s not possible to cross it and not think of the suffering caused by its failed walls in 2005, or the billion dollar pump station that will supposedly keep anything like that from happening again, but is said to be an abject failure.
The ride takes a turn for the pleasant along the beautiful Lake Pontchartrain recreational artery of Lakeshore Drive. After that, you head east over the Industrial Canal and two large bridges, passes the eerie Katrina victim remains of the giant Six Flags amusement park, passes through a section of New Orleans East that makes you feel like you very well could have made an instantaneous many thousands of mile journey to Vietnam, as rice paddies share the bayou with alligators.
Crossing the border back into the outer reaches of New Orleans, this grand circuit of town even gives a top of the hat to space exploration as you roll past a NASA facility on Chef Menteur with the gigantic form of one of the Apollo rockets looming out front. From there, it’s into the desolate, lonely lands of a spit of land that separates the brackish watered Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf of Mexico.
The return trip is no less entertaining, a stunning wasteland of dead cars and machinery stand lonely sentry duty along the expanse of Almonaster Boulevard, but now you’re heading into New Orleans proper, and the ride changes clothes. As you cross over a huge overpass that seems like it should be clogged with cars, but is wondrously free of them, you get one of the best views of the city, and then it’s into the neighborhoods: the color and fun and life of the Bywater, Marigny, and Treme, then loop around through Uptown and the regal oaks that line the opulence that is the Garden Distric.
Each section of town, completely different from the other, studded with its own gems whether they be lavish or poor, here, there, and everywhere. And once you’ve had enough, head back to the Mississippi’s crescent bend, and you cross into a world like no other, the French Quarter. It’s hard to believe that on this 60 or so mile circuit, you’ve crossed through more landscapes than you could have ever dreamed of, and yet, somehow, and it’s always a surprising entrance, there you are in one of the most famous sections of any city in America, perhaps the world: the French Quarter.
Ordering beignets at Cafe Du Monde – the perfect way to finish off a ride.
It wouldn’t be New Orleans without beignets…
Since I started that game, it wouldn’t be New Orleans without Mardi Gras, right?
Beautiful In Her Own Way
New Orleans won’t be making any lists as one of the top bike friendly cities in America, but there’s no question, the bike is the best way to explore and exist in New Orleans.
If you get tired of the traditional rides, you can go on what I call the ferry ride and head downriver to Belle Chasse and beyond.
Fog on the Mississippi on the Belle Chasse ferry.
Sure, there’s traffic, but it’s navigable traffic without risking life, limb, and posterity. Sure, the roads are comparable to a paved ocean of five foot swells, but it’s not impassable by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, there’s nary a hill for almost a hundred miles, but at some point I got over the fact that topographical contours are necessary for grandeur, they’re just normally the most noticeable in your legs. New Orleans makes up for its flatness with a luxurious buffet of sights that is just so…different.
I love Live Oaks.
New Orleans is not beautiful like Tuscany or the Alps or even the Appalachian Mountains, but there is just something about her lined, aged face that I find appealing. There is something alluring, something of a come hither everywhere you turn. Each street has its own little story, its own little world. No one building or neighborhood will blow you away, but the sum of the parts makes for a truly unique and fulfilling experience, it’s a feeling you get in your stomach, a satisfied, satiated hum from deep inside.
Riding in New Orleans sometimes requires some creativity.
Don’t expect to come here on a bike and be able to leave and say oh that one spot, that spot was awesome, remember that view? Instead, you’ll leave with countless little pictures in your mind that stand out as notable, picture after picture that when put together, make a movie of sorts, a blurry movie though, akin to a dream. I don’t find myself dismissing large tracts of land like I would under normal circumstances.
On a good day, each and every structure seems to sing a little song worth catching a verse of as you pass. A row of what would seem to be indiscriminate shotgun houses sing a faint chorus, a lone orange building croons its own tune, while a Katrina terrorized neighborhood plays on. And somehow, at the end of a ride, you find yourself humming the tune, looking back, trying to figure out just how some everyday buildings managed to marinate into your consciousness.
August 29th, 2005: A Day That Lives Everywhere
I’ve not seen everything in the world, but New Orleans seems to stand in a class unto itself in America in its co-existence with past suffering. The remains of Katrina have not gone away in the half a dozen years that have passed since the city was ransacked by both nature and a careless, some would say, corrupt local and national government.
Katrina was over two thousand days ago, but you can’t go anywhere in the city without brazen reminders of the storm that changed everything. The telltale x’s still adorn innumerable doors, houses stand vacant, crumbling. The city has slowly rebuilt itself but the dead, rotting, spray-painted buildings stand starkly next to the living, thriving architecture everywhere else – advertisements for the manmade disaster’s liquidation sale.
When you cross the bridge into the Lower Ninth Ward, it feels like you crossed a border. It’s a post-apocalyptic landscape of ruin, and everywhere you look, you see open space, lots of it.
There wasn’t a single open lot in the Ninth before the levee broke.
I’ve ridden my bike in the shadow of some amazing sights. I still close my eyes to get a glimpse of the holy peaks of the Dolomites. I wistfully dream of my former stomping grounds in the Alps when we lived in Innsbruck, but there’s just something about riding in the shadow of a giant concrete wall that failed and either ended or changed the lives of thousands. I look at the huge vertical wall faces of the Dolomites with awe – just as I look at the sheer concrete of the levee with awe. It is impossible to ride your bike through the Ninth and not feel like you’ve entered another world. It’s not just there though. I rode my bike with Kenny the other day, and he pointed out the repaired levee on the 17th Street Canal. That one spot, 50 yards long, destroyed a vast swath of the city when it too gave way to the storm’s surge six years ago this August 29th. There were 53 breaches in the levees throughout the city, a testament not to the power of the storm, but to the rampant disregard for human life shown by negligent governments throughout the years.
The hurricane will live on forever as part of the collective consciousness of its people, and if you aren’t one of the people, but you immigrate to the city, it’ll become a part of your consciousness too. It’s not uncommon for strangers to meet either in New Orleans or elsewhere in the world and the dialogue almost invariably follows: “You’re from New Orleans? Ah, great, where are you from?” The other responds, “I’m from Uptown,” to which the first returns, “Did you get a lot of water there?” Or if you’re Kenny, you ask exactly where in Uptown you’re from, and then he’ll tell you how much water you had in your house.
Mardi Gras fun.
To Feel A Part Of The City
I feel my face crinkled into a frown, as I try to put words to the feeling. It’s difficult to figure out just what it is that evokes such reverential words. It isn’t about the intervals I’ve done on the levee or on Chef Menteur Highway or back and forth on Lakeshore Drive, it’s not about the Quarter, or Bourbon Street, or Canal, or Magazine, or St. Charles. It’s about every last street, neighborhood, restaurant, streetcar, person, tree, and building, living and dead, in the city. There’s just something mischievously appealing about it all. I ride my bike in a place that’s supposed to be patently against what we as bike riders hold as the values necessary for good bike ride, and yet, I find myself smiling to myself thinking, wow, I’m so lucky to be riding my bike here.
If you manage to make it more than ten minutes without seeing a Fleur de Lis in New Orleans, you’re sleeping.
I can’t quite put my finger on the pulse of my love for riding my bike in this city, maybe it’s not quite like other cities in that there’s not a pulse to feel – you become a part of the beating heart of the city when you’re here, and only when you leave, can you really recognize the pulse. It’s there alright, it always will be, it’s somewhere however many miles you are away from the city that man or nature can’t kill.
First off – For lots more information on riding in New Orleans and all the information you could ever need, head to the excellent New Orleans Bicycle Club website: www.neworleansbicycleclub.org.
New Orleans has a fantastic riding culture. Group rides roll every day of the week…just be prepared to rouse yourself from a deep slumber extremely early if you’re planning on riding with anyone but Kenny.
Levee rides roll at 6:15 in the morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but you can count on an extra 25 minutes of sleep on Wednesdays and Fridays, as the group leaves at 6:40. Every minute counts, right?
On the weekend, you get a further extra 20 minutes to get yourself in order to meet for the legendary Giro. The free for all kick ass sufferfest starts at 7am from the Kona Cafe at the far western end of Lakeshore Drive. From there, it’s a gentle rollout along arguably the most pleasant road in all of New Orleans. Once you cross the bridge, however, get ready for some stem biting, leg searing fun.
You get many opportunities to enjoy the sunrise in New Orleans if you partake in her group rides.
Speaking of Lakeshore Drive… Lakeshore has been under construction for years. When we lived in New Orleans, it was virtually useless, down to a stretch of road that was perhaps a mile or so long. Of course, as soon as we left, it opened back up – it’s now a solid stretch of five perfect lakefront miles.
What does this mean? It gives New Orleanians two main traffic free options: the levee and Lakeshore. It also provides the stomping grounds for hot summer Wednesday evenings – Kenny Bellau stages time trials and races on Lakeshore on an alternating basis. Wednesday Night Worlds circuit races are followed by time trials. Time trials are all well and good, but like everything Kenny, he likes to keep it interesting – they started as solo affairs, then he tried a two-up format, and this week, he’s gone all out with a four-man team time trial. Attendance has been incredible – up to almost 100 people.
Questions? Comments? Email me!
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