From Duke Chapel to Irish pub: Ride around Durham with a biking group started by a Duke grad student

<p>Riders gather at the Duke Chapel before their weekly bike ride around Durham. Courtesy of David Turner.</p>

Riders gather at the Duke Chapel before their weekly bike ride around Durham. Courtesy of David Turner.

A taco, a banana and a skeleton cross the street.

No, seriously.

In a special Halloween edition of Ride Around Durham, a Durham-based recreational, no-drop biking group, participants gathered in costume for their yearly Boo-nanza ride. 

It's Thursday night. It’s dark aside from the lines of bike headlights breaking up the night. We’re 6 miles into the ride and someone yells:

“Are we having fun?”

“Yes!” all of nearly 80 group members yell back. 

***

For the past two years, on nearly every Thursday evening at 7 p.m., a ragtag band of bikers from the Durham area has claimed the driveway in front of the Chapel as their own, gathering for their weekly ride. 

The group, founded in August 2021 by a Duke graduate student, Israel Golden, began amid slow post-pandemic openings to help reconnect members of the Duke community. It is modeled off an Asheville-based social ride, ‘Mountain Haulers,’ Golden said. 

RAD has grown beyond the Duke community into a Durham-based group, adding to a growing biking culture in the Bull City. This club joins the ranks of other prominent groups, including the Ponysaurus Ride and CCC Ride, to name a few, serving hundreds of cyclists in Bull City. 

***

We stand at the Chapel steps, listening to ride leader Kelsey Graywill, a primary leader of RAD who took over after Golden’s departure, lay out the evening’s route. 

“Thanks everyone for coming!” 

And with that, the group is off, riding past students waiting at the bus stop and riding onto Chapel Drive to cruise down the hill. The group circles the roundabout several times, gathering its numbers in an incredible display of mass as more and more cyclists join it coming off the downhill. 

“The buses don’t hate you guys?” I ask about the cars waiting on the streets surrounding the roundabout.

Henry Hébert, a conservator for special collections at Perkins Library and one of the RAD group ride leaders, doesn’t miss a beat. 

“Oh, they totally do,” he says.

‘You just go there and bike’

RAD attracts anyone with access to two wheels and a helmet — local musicians, teachers and Chapel Hill researchers.

“The people are from all different sorts of backgrounds. Half of them, I don’t even know what they do for work,” said Graywill. “It's amazing to be in a community where you’re all enjoying what you’re doing so much that you don’t even ask the basic…questions.”

Some use RAD as a leisurely social ride for the week, and others find RAD as an accessible introduction to getting familiar with biking in the city. While there are several rides in Durham, not all are friendly to newcomers; the Ponysaurus Ride and RAD are two of the most prominent no-drop recreational rides. 

Ride Around Durham 2
Courtesy of Eross Guadalupe.

At the first stop on the spooky tour, we enter Maplewood Cemetery. There, I meet Andrew Whiteman, a local musician, and we fall into chatter over our mutual love of guitars as we take circles through the cemetery. 

Ben Pearlstine, an experienced rider involved with RAD, rides past in their rock band outfit, their speaker blasting old hits. 

Rounding the corner, I finally run into one of the brave riders wearing a head-to-toe taco costume the entire ride, Eva Suzanne. She’s an elementary school teacher who recently moved from Ohio.

“It's kind of hard to make friends once you’re out of a school setting,” Suzanne praises the community she found in RAD. The group provides consistent weekly rides offering a reliable gathering of community. 

As the sun sets, we enter the back half of the cemetery. There we see high grass-covered gravestones, bikes slowly avoiding the graves as they move through the grass and crowds of bikers waiting in the opening to creep into the street. 

John Tallmadge, executive director of Bike Durham, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable and safe transportation in Durham, moves through the grass next to me. It was also Tallmadge’s first time on the RAD ride, though he frequently rides through Durham on his own. 

“The nice thing about this one [RAD] is that the leaders change every week,” Tallmadge said.

The leadership of the ride reflects the decentralized leadership model of the group itself. Among 35-40 regular riders, each ride distributes the marshaling, sweeping and leading roles, creating a distributed structure. The marshalls block intersections while riders pass through, and the sweeps stay in the back of the group to ensure no one gets left behind. 

RAD isn’t dissimilar to other social rides in Durham, but offers its own mix of community, riding and fun. Eross Guadalupe, leader of the Ponysaurus Rides has attended many RAD rides himself, agrees. 

“It doesn’t matter what you do [for work]; you just go there and bike,” Guadalupe.

***

Onlookers watch us glide past. One pulls Graywill aside for a moment just as we are crossing Broad St.

“This is cool.”

Out of the cemetery, we take to the streets, squeezing two into a bike-lane row until we are forced to spread out on the narrow bike path, passing East Campus and the Family Fare gas station. Durham looks different from here:

We are protected by fellow bikers acting as marshals to guide us through intersections, cars are perched high above the ground next to us, and the rush of a vehicle next to you sends a massive wave of sound. 

True to the group's no-drop commitment, we pull into an apartment parking lot, allowing any stragglers to re-group and prepare for the ride ahead. 

“Car … car … car,” echoes through the crowd as we moved, like cattle, to the side of the street and let them pass. This form of echo communication is used frequently on the ride to pass back warnings of cars, pedestrians or hurdles in the path. 

Once the group re-gathers, we ride to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, turning into the entrance and circling the roundabout in front of the school. 

In the pitch dark, all that was visible were rows of dim lights moving in quick circles and hundreds of wheels lit up by glowing indicators rapidly spinning.

Onlookers stop to observe the scene.  

The final stretch is through the Ellerbe Creek Trail. The trail went in and out of darkness and I have to separate from my biking partners to stay on the path. Under the cool winter night, aside from the crunching of leaves under a trail of bike wheels, all is silent. The ride feels freeing. 

We wheel under bridges filled with graffiti and alongside the trailing Ellerbe Creek. The trees beside us shrouded any external light, so we rely solely on bike headlights to show the way. 

Riding up through downtown Durham, the ride comes to a close. 

We pull into Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub, and almost immediately, bike chains descend on the fence surrounding the outdoor seating deck which becomes filled with bikes: RAD has arrived, and they are hungry. 

The ride’s over. Now, time for a beer.


Jothi Gupta profile
Jothi Gupta | University News Editor

Jothi Gupta is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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