Bike touring in New England spins a history lesson for any rider
who gives a second thought to the passing scenery, natural and manmade --
Colonial-era houses, stone walls criss-crossing woods that used to be farmland,
giant mills harnessing powerful rivers.
So Al Marder thinks "it's a natural" to combine cycling and history along Connecticut's Freedom Trail. Marder is president of the Amistad Committee, which is working with the Connecticut Historical Commission and state tourism officials to promote the "trail," a collection of 78 sites with significance in African-American history.
The roads that connect the historical sites include many scenic country miles, Marder said, so he asked the Connecticut Bicycle Coalition for ways to encourage cyclists to take to the trail.
The coalition was quick to run -- well, pedal -- with the idea, and the result is the Connecticut Freedom Trail Bicycle Tour, scheduled for Sept. 19 and 20. From each of the 78 historical sites, a different cyclist will bike to Hartford, carrying a quilt square depicting the site.
During the following week, quilters will stitch the squares together, and the whole quilt will be presented to the state Sept. 27. Then it will be displayed in four pieces (the whole thing is too big for one wall) in the Connecticut State Museum, Marder said.
On Sept. 20, the day all the cyclists converge on the capital, there will also be a six-mile family bike tour with stops at eight of the historical sites in the Hartford area.
Art Snyder has signed up to bike in from the Thomas Taylor grave in Putnam, a total of 88 miles in two days.
"I really need something to keep me motivated through the season," said Snyder, a runner who first turned to cycling when his back gave him trouble.
The Freedom Trail piqued his curiosity, and he rented the movie "Amistad," about the aftermath of a slave rebellion on the ship Amistad, to begin learning some pertinent background. "I'll learn about some of the Connecticut history as I go," he said. "That's what I'm in it for."
Thomas Taylor, buried in Putnam, was a black sailor who fought aboard the Union ironclad Monitor against the Confederate frigate Merrimack in the Civil War. He died in 1932 at age 84, the last survivor of that famous battle, which ended in a draw and revolutionized naval warfare.
Snyder's next stop will be Canterbury, where another rider, David Dunn, is assigned to pick up a quilt piece from the Prudence Crandall House. Crandall, a white teacher, opened a school for black girls in 1832 that immediately became the target of violence from white townspeople. The hostility eventually forced Crandall to close the school. Her first black student, Sarah (Harris) Fayerweather, went on to become an antislavery leader in Kingston, R.I., and she named her first child Prudence Crandall Fayerweather.
Down the road, Snyder and Dunn will be joined by other riders assigned to historical sites in Griswold and Norwich, and they'll stop for the night in Colchester, then bike 29 miles to Hartford the next day.
Dunn, a board member of the bicycle coalition and a rider with the recreational club Yankee Pedalers, is mapping the bike routes for all 78 cyclists. His master map "has about six different tentacles" snaking toward Hartford. The couriers with the longest routes will spend Saturday night at hotels and reach Hartford on Sunday, while riders assigned to sites closer to Hartford will just ride Sunday.
Each rider will get a custom-designed bike jersey for the ride. "The jerseys just say "FREEDOM,' across the back and the front," said Eloy Toppin, another bicycle coalition board member. "What more do we need to say?"
Last September, Toppin and friends from the Octagon Cycling Club did a one-day Freedom Trail ride to Hartford from Randall's Ordinary, an inn in North Stonington that was on the Underground Railroad, hiding fugitive slaves under the dining room floorboards.
"For next year, we'll develop these routes into more doable loops, distances that people could bike in a day, that'll encompass these historical sites," Dunn said.
About 30 more riders are needed for the Freedom Trail tour, said Patrick Gavin of the bicycle coalition. Riders are asked to contribute $100 each, out of pocket or from sponsors, to pay for the jersey and other expenses. The coalition is also raising money to sponsor youth riders.
For more information on the statewide tour or the family ride in Hartford, contact the Connecticut Bicycle Coalition (860 527-5200).
Speaking of black history and cycling, the Major Taylor Bikeway, Mill Street in Worcester, will be rededicated to the 1899 world champion cyclist during the Tatnuck Watershed Festival on Sept. 12 at Coes Pond. The pond side of Mill Street will be closed to cars from June Street to the Price Chopper, and there will be bike safety inspections and traffic safety and skills sessions.
Proceeds from $5 bike helmet sales during the festival will go to the Major Taylor Humanitarian Association, which aims to put up a statue of Taylor in Worcester, where he lived during the height of his cycling career. The Worcester Black Choir Festival, Oct. 17 at Clark University, also will benefit the Major Taylor effort.
For more information on bike activities at the Tatnuck Watershed Festival, call Dick McNamara, (508) 753-4471.
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