Saint Paul Classic Story
Over 25 Years of Tradition
How the Saint Paul Classic became a Classic
The Story of Minnesota’s Biggest Bike Ride
By founder Richard Fred Arey
On a trip to Montreal in the early 1990s, I rode in the world’s largest bicycle tour ~ the Tour de L’isle (40,000 strong!). As we were riding I thought how great this was. How we should do this in Saint Paul. And I knew just the route. So I recruited friends at the Saint Paul Neighborhood Energy Consortium, United Hospitals and St. Thomas to join in on a ride around Saint Paul. What could be more fun!
As a graduate landscape architect I knew of the vision of Horace Cleveland and how the decades-long work of countless Saint Paul parks workers had produced the 30-mile Grand Round system of parkways. That this would make a terrific route for a big bike ride.We needed a short route and that was born by bringing riders up from the river and having them make the big climb up Ramsey Hill. Hey! Let’s give them an, “I conquered Ramsey Hill” button.
I’ve always loved live music and that quickly became a signature part of the ride. But what really made the Classic a winner from the get-go was the ability to close off the first 15 miles of the route to traffic. The unsung hero in this effort was my friend George Leiter, a popular math teacher at St. Paul Academy, who recruited over 60 students to rise at dawn and patrol the barricades along Mississippi River Boulevard. After that we needed only barricades (thank you Greg Reese, park worker extraordinaire) and about six officers to close Shepard and Warner roads.
Over the years we eventually closed the entire route to traffic with the help of about 90 police officers, over 150 course marshals and Jamie’s crew at Warning Lights, but having that long initial car-free stretch made all the difference.
We had a scenic route, a 15-mile traffic-free start and a fine line-up of musicians ready to play. All we needed now were some cyclists. And for that, my helmet’s off to Jon Ridge. Jon was the ride director of the original Ironman (it preceded the Hawiian version by several years) and he let us use his mailing list to drum up some riders. It worked.
All’s well that begins well. September 10, 1995, was a picture perfect day for bicycling. We had 2,710 registered riders and nearly everyone showed up. Sure there were glitches. Johnson Parkway was open to traffic and a tad hairy, and we ran out of food at Lake Como, but most everyone went home happy. One rider wrote, “The Classic made me want to move to Saint Paul.”
The Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour quickly grew to over 4,000 riders in 1996 and averaged around 6,000 riders until COVID hit. We peaked with over 7,600 riders in 2004. The Classic began as a fundraiser for the Saint Paul Neighborhood Energy Consortium. In 2009, just in time for the 15th annual Classic, NEC decided the ride no longer matched their mission. Fortuitously, my old friend Dorian Grilley was launching the Bicycle Alliance of MInnesota and the timing couldn’t have been better. BikeMN hopped onto a ride with a vast email list and a snail-mail list north of 40,000.
Of course, COVID changed everything. In 2020 we did an invitation only ride on the Sunday after Labor Day (and a summer-long virtual Classic). Fortunately, thanks in large part to the Classic (Mayor Chris Coleman and many council members were regular Classic riders and became acutely aware of the parkway route’s potential and current state of disrepair), Saint Paul was nearing completion of a $60 million reconstruction of the north half of the Grand Round.
In 2021, we launched the Saint Paul Classic 2.0. The tour is now limited to 2,500 riders. We start and finish at Como Lakeside Pavilion rather than St. Thomas. And most importantly, we’re now able to showcase the marvelous off-road trails and dedicated bike lanes and bikeways that grace the Grand Round. We don’t close the roads and can get by with a third of the police officers we hired before.
The parkways are lovelier than ever, the rest stops are more inviting ~ love the stylish new Lilydale picnic pavilion and the panoramic view of Lake Phalen from the pavilion ~ and the live music is just as lively. Of course, we still finish up the ride with watermelon but at Como Lakeside Pavilion you have the opportunity to go beyond our usual bountiful spread. You can sit down, listen to The Roe Family Singers crank out the tunes…. and enjoy a beer. Join us!
If you haven’t already, make “Our Story,” Your Story.
ABOUT THE BICYCLE ALLIANCE OF MINNESOTA (BIKEMN)
The Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota (BikeMN) works to unite and strengthen bicycle advocacy, provide education, and work for a more bicycle friendly Minnesota. We believe Minnesota should be a place where bicycling is easy, safe, and fun for everyone. Learn more about BikeMN here. BikeMN Members save $ on Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour registration. Become a member today!
Amazing Rest Stops
We Support You!
The Saint Paul Classic would not be possible without the help of 100s of volunteers. Thanks in advance to everyone who signs up to help!
Volunteers receive a free T-shirt and enjoy a volunteer appreciation party at Summit Brewery with a picnic dinner catered by Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-Op.