CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Since 1975, the Mountain State Wheelers have been helping bicyclists of all skill levels connect with each other and the scenic, sometimes challenging roads in and around Charleston.
"The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and 1974 helped get it started," said Dennis Strawn, a former Wheelers president and a member since 1990. At the same time the oil embargo was creating skyrocketing gas prices and long lines at the pumps, Charleston was completing a bike path through the streets of Kanawha City, and St. Albans was creating a bike route of its own.
"A group of Carbide engineers and employees got things started in organizing the Wheelers," said Strawn. "It's been going strong ever since. It's still very relevant to have an organization in the valley that organizes rides and advocates for new and better places to ride."
During the warmer months, the Mountain State Wheelers host rides on Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays. The Wednesday rides start at 6 p.m. from the University of Charleston's pharmacy building and follows bike routes through Kanawha City.
"We have rides for three skill categories on Wednesdays," said Wheelers President Charlie Nutt. "It's when we mentor our new riders and get people used to riding in a group."
"The Wednesday rides help new riders get used to being around cars and other bikes," said Strawn. "People can gradually work their way up to longer rides."
On Saturdays, club-organized rides take to country roads throughout the Kanawha Valley and beyond. "We have rides along the Coal River, in the Elkview area, in Putnam County, in the Flatwoods area -- all over," said Nutt. "We usually have two routes, one with a turnaround point that gives you a ride of about 35 miles, and another that gives you about 50. Both routes start and end at the same place."
Membership in the Wheelers stands at about 130, and has remained fairly steady in recent years. "We added about a dozen new riders last year, which I thought was pretty good," Nutt said.
"I think interest in bicycling, in general, is up a little due to the high gas prices and because people can see how easy it is to get around Charleston on a bike" he said.
With bike racks installed at a number of downtown locations and attached to the front ends of many KRT buses, "you can go multi-modal, these days," Strawn said.
While most members are road cyclists, there is a contingent, which includes Nutt, who also enjoys mountain biking.
"We hold a few mountain bike rides each year, usually on some of the easier trails in the Fayetteville area," said Nutt. "We'd like to do a little more."
During the off season, some club members take part in the Kanawha Trail Club's night hike program in Kanawha State Forest, and others keep in shape through spin classes.
"People are in this for fitness and stress-reduction, but mainly for fun," said Nutt.
In addition to improving fitness and honing cycling skills, membership in the Wheelers can lead to long-time personal relationships. At least six married couples, including Strawn and his wife, Ann, became acquainted during club activities.
Membership dues are $15 for individuals and $18 for families. The club meets formally only twice a year, in March and November.
For more information, visit the club's website at www.mountainstatewheelers.org.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.