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An Iowa bicycle booster changes lanes after 20 years of pedaling and peddling to grow the culture.
Mark Wyatt and the Iowa Bicycle Coalition predate Facebook and the iPhone in a world where two wheels are more popular than ever.
Bicycling in Iowa continues to boom. One of the many stewards of this growth has been Mark Wyatt, founding executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition. He leads a nonprofit dedicated to “safe and enjoyable bicycling” statewide.
Wyatt has doggedly crisscrossed our sprawling network of bike trails, mingled among the hordes on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), lobbied lawmakers, and circulated through countless conferences and expos.
But now he approaches the end of his current trail.
In a July 11 blog post and newsletter to his list of 30,000 supporters, Wyatt announced his departure from the coalition at the end of the year. He’s stepping down to focus on his other passion: emergency medical services, where he has served his community for 30 years. He lives in Iowa City and will safeguard his neighbors as a Johnson County paramedic.
“I have the opportunity to go back for two full-time years and retire with a full pension,” Wyatt said.
Well, that seems like a no-brainer. Wyatt, 53, can retire at 55 and dream up his next act.
The surge of casual bicyclists may have cooled since the depths of the pandemic, when everybody was scrambling for outdoor activities to stay sane. But I tend to believe in the forecasts that remain bullish on bikes: “The evidence suggests that our long-term, post-virus future will be one of slightly fewer cars and a modest increase in bicycles.”
So much has changed in the two decades since Wyatt and his allies launched the coalition. Consider that 20 years ago the City of Des Moines was considering banning bicycles on the trails surrounding Gray’s Lake, a major recreation center just south of downtown. If you bike in our capital city, can you even imagine that sort of bland environment today? It boggles my mind that a central civic hub—a key connector for trails across the metro—wouldn’t allow two-wheel traffic.
Thankfully, that didn’t come to pass. Bicycles circulate more freely than ever throughout Des Moines. A statue honoring RAGBRAI founders John Karras and Donald Kaul now stands just across the street from Gray’s Lake in Waterworks Park.
Wyatt has been at the forefront of a bicycling groundswell that consistently pushes for better bicycle access. His coalition formed in reaction to proposed bills to ban bicycles on some Iowa highways and has endured through considerable cultural churn:
The Iowa Bicycle Coalition launched just ahead of Facebook and years before the iPhone.
We’ve seen the rise and fall of Tour de France champion and bicyclist megastar Lance Armstrong.
A friend reminded me how much the craft-beer boom has been intertwined with the growth of bicycling. Throughout the coalition’s lifecycle (pun intended), the number of craft breweries nationwide has surged from fewer than 2,000 to nearly 10,000. Iowa in the early 21st century claimed a mere handful of breweries but now boasts more than 100.
Bike tech is more sophisticated in so many ways: types of carbon frames, electronic shifting, tubeless tires, etc.
Ebikes may be the biggest game-changer—enticing commuters (no need to break a sweat during the office commute) and keeping more people pedaling as they age. Ebike ownership has quadrupled, Wyatt said, in the last couple years of his coalition’s surveys.
I asked Wyatt whether he thought his coalition successor might work to establish a state incentive for ebikes similar to a rebate passed by Minnesota (up to $1,000 depending on income thresholds). That may too progressive a program for the Iowa Legislature, he said, to say the least. But he did offer recommendations for both Iowa and his coalition:
Iowa: Continue to invest in bike infrastructure beyond our largest cities. “It’s important economically for tourism dollars to pull away from the urban cores,” he said. Think of it this way: RAGBRAI is the rare event that lures large crowds to the smallest communities. But how can we draw bicyclists to rural Iowa throughout the year? I used to live along the High Trestle Trail in Story County, so I’m biased to its example: Build an eye-popping combo of rural art and recreation that threads its way through a few welcoming small towns, and people will visit.
The Iowa Bicycle Coalition: “No money, no mission,” Wyatt said. “We’re not short of ideas,” he said. “It’s the resources that we need to move them forward. If I was coming in with an empty plate I would focus on fundraising much more than I do now.” That sounds like a seasoned veteran of nonprofits.
It’s easy to focus on the most sweeping change, or how the coalition has influenced state law in its stalwart advocacy to keep bicyclists safe and welcome on Iowa roads. But I love how Wyatt sees his impact even in the smallest details.
For instance: S-shaped curves at some recreational trail intersections around Iowa. That design feature is meant to slow bicyclists as they approach an intersection and encourage their eyes to scan for traffic. It’s an example of a subtle change that nonetheless makes a big difference in overall safety.
“That was one of those cool things that we taught, and then it proliferated across the state and got implemented,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt and team basically launched the coalition during the 2004 RAGBRAI from Onawa to Clinton. Now on this year’s 50th anniversary RAGBRAI, from Sioux City to Davenport, he will mark the end of his tenure.
“This is my big farewell tour,” Wyatt said. “This year is going to be so unique that I’m really kind of interested in sitting back and taking in the whole picture.”
In the bigger picture I see Wyatt helping to usher Iowans into our transportation and tourism future. Iowa’s agricultural reputation still dominates. Many Americans on the coasts probably still imagine our two-lane rural highways full of nothing but tractors. Today’s reality, however, is that we have fewer farm families and sparser small towns. The tractors and combines have scaled up to become behemoths. But the steady stream of bicycles—including ebikes—may better indicate how rural communities can find ways to rebound and thrive far into the 21st century.
If you pedal up alongside Wyatt on a trail or the RAGBRAI road this year, ring your bike bell and give him a hearty thanks.