Bill Burke knows a thing or two about cycling.
Though he once was overwhelmingly associated with road races, Burke branched out and started a company that produces multiple-sport events — many of which include cycling. He likes cycling so much that when he and his wife were married, they honeymooned overseas to see the Tour de France in person.
But when Burke looked around his hometown of New Orleans, he didn’t see much for cyclists. So, he set out to do something about it.
Eighteen months of planning will culminate next weekend with the Entergy Bike the Big Easy Tour. About 1,300 people are expected to take to the streets of New Orleans on Saturday for a bike ride that will begin downtown and lead participants on either a 20- or 40-mile tour of nearly every part of the city.
The cyclists will ride through the city at no more than 18 mph, and police will lead and trail the riders in cruisers, temporarily blocking traffic at major intersections as the group rides through. Both rides will begin at 7:30 a.m. at Poydras and La Salle streets, by the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Burke expects that 80 percent of the riders will have completed the 40-mile tour by 11 a.m. The 20-mile ride should take no longer than 90 minutes.
The idea of the Bike the Big Easy Tour is to call attention to cycling safety, create awareness of the need for “sharing the road” and promote fitness in a town where eating only half a roast beef po-boy is considered dieting.
“I’ve been to the Five Boroughs Bike Tour in New York City,” Burke said, “and it’s the only day where that city says, ‘OK, we’re turning the streets over to the bikes.’ They do it for eight hours. We’ll be doing it for 5 ½ hours. … This is not a timed event, so if we need to stop the tour and let traffic through at major intersections, the police can do that. It’ll be a rolling closure as we come through, and it’s going to be quick.”
Cycling safety has been a hot topic recently. In April 2014, a rider preparing for an Ironman New Orleans triathlon was killed when he was hit by a vehicle on Chef Menteur Highway. And according to Dan Favre, executive director of the advocacy group Bike Easy, five recreational cyclists have been killed in wrecks with motor vehicles this year in New Orleans.
“It’s been a really rough year for cyclists,” Favre said. “So (Bike the Big Easy) is going to help bring attention to safety and communication.”
Favre noted that New Orleans recently received a “silver level” ranking by the League of American Cyclists, meaning that the city is bike-friendly but could use improvements. The city has created nearly 100 miles of bike lanes since Hurricane Katrina.
“There still are some challenges, and there have been some horrific incidents,” Favre said. “So clearly, we have a ways to go. But as far as climate, being a flat area, this is a really great place to bike. … More people are biking for recreation, and as that number increases, well, there’s safety in numbers. People see them out there. They know they’re out there. That’s what this tour is helping and encouraging.”
The course has been divided into four zones, with rest areas sprinkled throughout. Each zone will have bike technicians as well as water and sports drinks for riders. EMS will be on-site at each, as will a shuttle that can return riders downtown should they decide not to finish the tour. Course marshals on mopeds will use radios to keep tour officials abreast of anyone in need of assistance.
Burke stressed that Bike the Big Easy is a “tour,” meaning it’s a way to take in the sights throughout the city.
“This is a fun ride,” he said. “It’s a ride, not a race.”
Christian Vande Velde, a retired American professional road racing cyclist, will lead the 20-mile ride as honorary grand marshal. He has competed all over the world and, according to Burke, will be making his first trip to New Orleans to participate in the tour.
Vande Velde will have a question-and-answer session with cyclists and sign autographs at an expo Friday at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Numerous vendors will be on hand, and participants will pick up packets for the tour there.
A party will follow the tour in Champions Square on Saturday.
Parking for Bike the Big Easy will be available at the Superdome for a discounted $10 rate on Saturday.
Riders must be at least 5 years old, and those younger than 10 must be accompanied by an adult.
No registration will take place the morning of the race.
To register and for more information, visit www.bikethe bigeasy.com.