It’s late February, which means the Cascade Bicycle Club’s annual Seattle-to-Portland bike ride is sold out.
The rush on registrations for the popular July ride has not changed for Cascade, one of the nation’s biggest and oldest bike clubs and a longstanding advocacy force in Seattle.
The 16,489-member club is emerging from several years of turmoil with a new executive director, Elizabeth Kiker, and almost-all-new staff, and plans for a million-dollar new office space and bicycling center at Magnuson Park.
After years of upheaval
about the club’s direction, Kiker is taking it down a more inclusive path,
with less emphasis on lobbying and a more welcoming tone.
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It’s something of a reinvention for the club as Seattle tries to regain its reputation as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country.
Getting that back means reaching out to more riders, said Kiker, who took over in September after almost eight years at the Washington, D.C.-based League of American Bicyclists.
Membership has taken off since September, with 4,000 new members and 6,000 renewals.
Kiker replaced longtime director Chuck Ayers, who built the club from its beginning as an advocacy group. Ayers resigned in April after a difficult few years of high staff turnover. In 2010, the board of directors fired him, then hired him back and resigned en masse under pressure from the members.
The transition from Ayers’ close-knit and advocacy-heavy club to Kiker’s vision of a more inclusive and metropolitan group has been a rough one. At least 20 staff members have been fired or left on their own in the past two years. Kiker is matter-of-fact about some of the housecleaning.
“Transitions are hard,” she said. “We’re really refocused, and we have a staff that’s recommitted.”
Since Ayers left, the club has added more rides for seniors, kids and the so-called “willing but wary” riders.
Before, “everything was middle-aged men in Lycra going up and down hills really fast,” said Cathy Tuttle, the executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.
Tuttle said the new Cascade is more open to partnerships and more thoughtful in its advocacy.
Over the past several years, the club has lobbied for tougher laws against drivers who accidentally kill cyclists and pedestrians, for bike lanes and road-safety improvements in Seattle, and for a bike-friendly design on the new 520 bridge.
Outgoing board President Daniel Weise said Cascade’s politics got a lot of press over the past several years, especially with bicycling former Mayor Mike McGinn on the front lines, but most people know the club because of its daily rides and popular events.
He and his replacement, Charles Ruthford, touted the club’s new focus on expansion — to riders on the Eastside and women and riders of color.
“Much of our advocacy work is getting safe places for people to ride,” Ruthford said. “All the old programs are mostly there … We want to do everything better.”
Kiker says advocacy will still be important for the club. But there is no question the club has backed off on its lobbying efforts since former advocacy director David Hiller made headlines when he said drivers who accidentally kill cyclists should be hung by their toenails “until the buzzards come and peck their eyes out.”
Hiller was later hired by McGinn to be his transportation adviser.
This year, the club hired a contract lobbyist but is letting statewide partner Washington Bikes do a lot of its lobbying.
“They’re coming to the table not just all the time with the hammer,” Tuttle said. “They’re coming out sometimes with a hammer and a chisel, or even coming out sometimes with a really fine scalpel.”
The club’s staff of 35 is crammed three and four into an office in a tiny, awkwardly shaped building in Magnuson Park. But the club is finishing up negotiations with the city to rent new space a little ways north in the park — an airy, 7,900-square-foot clubhouse with a kitchen and space for classrooms and hanging out.
The details are in flux, but the club expects to launch a capital campaign to raise as much as $1.5 million for the construction.
A group of members and former staffers are upset with changes at the club. They believe the board has too much power and worry that the Seattle-to-Portland ride, which drew 10,000 registrants, is getting too expensive. (The price went up by $10 this year, to $110 for club members.)
Kiker, an amicable manager with no history in Seattle, says she doesn’t think there is a true conflict between Cascade’s dual roles as an advocacy group and a recreational club.
“Everyone benefits when more people ride bikes,” she said. “I think the division between those two is a false division.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or email@example.com. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter