Michael Charboneau is a New York City-based writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Runner's World, Men's Journal, Newest York, and elsewhere.
Cyclists are now rolling on U.S. Bike Route 66 in Missouri and Kansas, the first stretch of a route planned for the whole length of the historic 2,400-mile highway.
Decades after the interstate highway system wiped it off the map, Route 66 still conjures up images of the golden age of the automobile, when travelers cruised through the majestic landscapes and quaint towns of the American West on a ribbon of blacktop.
Those days are long gone. But the “mother road,” which stretched from Chicago to Santa Monica, has found a new life—as a bike route. The first section of United States Bicycle Route 66, a route that would roughly follow the 2,400-mile course of the original highway, was inaugurated in Missouri and Kansas last month, and it’s already hosting a steady stream of two-wheeled adventurers.
The United States Bicycle Route System, or USBRS, is a national network of bike routes running along roads and trails across the country. So far, more than 13,000 miles have been designated as part of the network; the ultimate target is 50,000.
This first portion of USBR 66 begins in St. Louis and winds across Missouri, passing the cities of Rolla, Springfield, and Joplin before cutting through the southeastern corner of Kansas, closely following historic Route 66. Cyclists travel mostly on rural two-lane highways, and much of the route parallels Interstate 44, which replaced Route 66.
Dan Middleton, a 49-year-old from Joplin who has been road biking for the past several years, rode the route last month during the Big BAM cycling event across Missouri. He particularly liked a forested stretch near Newburg. “It’s really good rolling hills, a lot of beautiful scenery,” he said. “You cross an old iron bridge, and it was like you went back 40, 50 years.”
Riders pass many small towns and plenty of classic Americana from the highway’s glory days: Preserved filling stations, cafes, and other roadside attractions are scattered along the route. (One of Middleton’s favorite stops was Gary’s Gay Parita, a Sinclair gas station west of Springfield, complete with vintage cars parked out front and cold drinks for passersby.)
The process for designating the route began in 2015, when the Adventure Cycling Association, which helps coordinate the USBRS, released maps of its national corridor plan, including USBR 66. Patrick Tuttle, director of Missouri’s Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau, saw a bike route as a great opportunity for his region, and began drumming up letters of support. “We just knew we had to be involved,” he said.
Momentum grew on both sides of the state line, and in early 2018, the Missouri and Kansas departments of transportation submitted turn-by-turn maps of the route to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the organization that sets highway standards and numbering. AASHTO approved the route this summer.
Towns along the way are jumping at the chance to attract more travelers, just as they did in the chromed-out heyday of the original Route 66. Matt Messina, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator at KDOT, noted that one of the reasons Kansas applied for the route was to “help stimulate some of these smaller communities” that USBR 66 passes through.
Across the state line in Joplin, Tuttle is working to make cyclists a bigger part of the tourism equation in his area. He has acted as a bike-friendly consultant for Joplin’s businesses—making sure hotels have places to store bikes and even advising restaurants on what kinds of foods cyclists like to eat.
“It's a new, niche market for us,” he said. “[Cyclists have] always been coming through, but we’ve been more focused on them than we have in the past.”
Farther down the road, other businesses are making preparations for bike traffic. Stephanie Garber owns an RV park in Carthage, Missouri, along USBR 66. Although most of her customers arrive in motor homes or towing campers, so many cyclists now pass through that she created tent camping spaces specifically for them.
But making the route suitable for cyclists was no small task, and choosing the roads to include on the route meant balancing safety, tourism, and history. In addition to assessing factors like traffic volume and speed limits, staying close to the original highway and its Americana was paramount.
“We tried to pick routes that had a connection and were at some point signed with Route 66 where we could,” said Ron Effland, non-motorized transportation engineer at MoDOT.
Although cyclists can ride the route (and many already are), the project is far from finished. A steel truss bridge over the Gasconade River in central Missouri is currently closed to traffic until repairs can be made, forcing a detour onto I-44 or an even longer detour on county roads.
In addition, KDOT, MoDOT, and the communities along the way face the task of securing funding to put up signage. According to a MoDOT estimate, this could cost around $220,000 for Missouri alone. Tuttle has proposed a joint fundraising effort by the Route 66 communities and bike advocacy groups, and Messina said Kansas state highway safety funds could be a potential source of money. Either way, it won’t happen overnight: Messina doesn’t expect signage to go up until 2019 at the earliest.
Designating the full route from Illinois to California is an even longer game. The Adventure Cycling Association is working to rally communities and DOTs along the rest of the route. Arizona commissioned a contractor to develop its section of USBR 66, but work was held up by safety concerns raised in a few counties.
The Adventure Cycling Association’s Director of Travel Initiatives Ginny Sullivan and her colleagues are working with communities and officials in California and Oklahoma as well. Although progress can be slow, “there is a lot of great support for the route,” Sullivan said.
As the route takes shape, cyclists may bring a new wave of appreciation to this storied piece of America’s automotive past. For riders like Dan Middleton, biking is the perfect way to experience the old highway’s history.
“There’s so much out there that is never seen when you’re driving a car,” he said. “But on a bicycle, you get to see so much.”