When CultureMap CEO Stephen Newman asked me to accompany him and Clean Line Energy Partners president Michael Skelly on a mountain bike ride along the Bayou to explore "some new trails," I was skeptical.
Understandably so, if you ask me.
After all, I'm an adventure racer. I've ridden every trail — dirt, rock, gravel, and all ground particles in between — within a 150-mile radius of this city.
What on earth could a pair of businessmen show me about Houston outdoor life that I didn't already know?
Well, we weren't the only ones (by far!) with a vested interest in enjoying the environs within the confines of our city limits. And I was about to find out just how many people care.The entire biking gang poses for a photo in T.C. Jester Park in Garden Oaks, about halfway through the ride.
No, your eyes do not deceive you. It's an entire group of Houstonians — including the likes of Mayor Bill White and Sen. Rodney Ellis — gathered for an off-road ride.
"Michael Skelly is truly responsible for momentum being created in our city," philanthropist Nina Zilkha told me in an e-mail. "He's changing the way our city views using bike trails — as real transportation, not alternative transportation."The group prepares for the 20-mile ride to Jersey Village along the White Oak Bayou with breakfast at Niko Niko's in Market Square.
But there are plenty of bike trails in Houston, aren't there? What made Skelly want more?
"I got sick of packing up my car and leaving town in order to ride," Skelly, shown here in red, said. "So I began exploring the bayous."
Fate had an even better idea for Skelly. In his pursuit of trail satisfaction, he met Tom Bacon, chairman of the Houston Parks Board, speaking in the photo here.
"We had a lot of fun riding along the bayous, so I started organizing rides," Skelly said.
Soon Skelly's casual spins along bayou banks turned into something much larger — the main focus for the Bayou Greenway Initiative.
A collaborative effort of the Houston Parks Board, the Quality of Life Coalition, Harris Co. Flood Control, and many, many other bayou-centric partners, the Bayou Greenway Initiative is a long-range project that hopes to establish the land along the 10 major bayous as "the backbone of an equitable, accessible park system."
"As people get out more, the bayous are an incredible opportunity to turn into an amenity for our city," Skelly said.
The outdoor enthusiast in me rejoiced at the prospect of new, uncharted territory, all within the city I presumed to know so well.
I always thought I was the only one (or, rather, one of very few) that believed Houston could be more than The City Oil Built. But I never realized just how alone I wasn't.
"Parks aren't just a nice thing to have in a major city," said Sanford Criner, member of the Quality of Life Steering Committee. "They're an asset requirement. And Houston is 'underparked' relative to other major cities."
So we pedaled off to see what wonders the White Oak Bayou and its curtilage had in store for us, from downtown to Jersey Village.
Some of it was paved, some of it was rugged, some of it was awaiting cement. But developed or not, it all resonated with the promise of renewed life for Houston's bayou system.
After a bit of an adventurous start (which has since been paved), much of the path is concrete, west of downtown to the Heights. You can thank the MKT/SP Rails to Trails conversion project for that, which turns former railroad lines into multi-use hike and bike byways.
"Contiguous green space along the bayous is the beauty of riding along them," said Criner, "Not to mention the option of safer transportation from point A to point B."
But it's not all contiguous. Yet. Well, the green space is, but the trails cozying up to them aren't. Perhaps one day you'll find yourself cruising along the White Oak Bayou on a road bike, but that day won't be today.
Where the paved trail ended, we simply kept going, our tire treads forging our own paths where hopefully the future will bring uninterrupted ribbons of bayou-hugging trail.
During a quick pit stop to round up the troops, Jim Mackey of the White Oak Bayou Association explained the significance of the old railroad bridge just south of the Heights.
There was, unfortunately, no riding over the dilapidated overpass. A wise move indeed.
Bikeways-in-progress often means revving up only to ramp down at stoplights and intersections, like this one on T.C. Jester.
"Right now, anything that gets a broader group out and supporting ecology and nature is the goal," said Mike Lutomski, a 15-year veteran of mountain biking and volunteer with the Greater Houston Off-Road Biking Association (GHORBA) for 10 years.
Judging by the sizable group that showed up to Skelly's White Oak Bayou ride, inroads are being made as we pedal.
Do you think one day we'll be able to give up our cars altogether in this city?
It sounds lofty. But it's a goal that can be met. No matter how long it takes to achieve it.
"We should be able to move better in Houston on bikes," said Russell Adams, left, vice president of trails at GHORBA. "I see this as momentum-building. I see progress."
Just like bike trails, we Houstonians take our hills where we can get them. Even when they're slippery and might hurt more when you tumble down them.
"Not everything has to be concrete," Lutomski said. "But because of flooding, development seems to favor it."
Unsuspecting Houstonians streaking out to the northwest side of town had no idea that intrepid bikers were doing the limbo underneath Beltway 8 at the same moment.
But it's all in a day's ride when you're blazing new trails in a city like Houston.
"If you build trails, people will join," Lutomski told me.
But it seems that even if you don't build the trails, people like Skelly and approaches like the Bayou Greenway Initiative will make them happen anyway.
"It's a good idea whose time has come," said Adams.The speed demons of the group take a breather and wait for the rest of the gang to catch up just east of Rosslyn Road in North Houston.
But in order to really put the rubber to the road, the city must band together to make it happen.
"We've had support at the top in the past," Lutomsk saidi. "We're hoping it'll continue with Annise Parker."
"With increased collaboration between entities, this is so much more of a reality than it ever has been," Adams said enthusiastically.Sen. Rodney Ellis sends out a tweet from the end of the road — Starbucks in Jersey Village next to 290.
After almost five hours of exploring the banks of the bayou — replete with hopping silt fences, gingerly crossing tricky waterways, and navigating a few flat tires — the wheels stopped spinning, and the biking bunch prepared for the haul back to town at the end of the ride.
Here, Skelly loaded and secured the bikes on the trailer for delivery to their owners in town.
"We didn't lose a single bike!" Skelly said in an e-mail to the group the following Monday.
Once again, Skelly wins.
"We can be a nice place to live, where people want to live — there's no reason Houston can't be that," Lutomski said.
Houston, I think we're on to something.CultureMap CEO Stephen Newman grins next to Mayor Bill White, as part of the group prepares for the return trip downtown.