New Orleans has a nativity rate of 80-percent. Four out of every five people you meet who live in the Crescent City were born in Louisiana, and likely in New Orleans proper. There’s something about that number. It’s almost perplexing. When you begin to meet people here, you find out over and over again that the numbers don’t lie. Worldly people, businessmen, educators, anyone you can imagine, New Orleans natives born and raised—all of them will never leave. It’s a funny thing though, because if you spend some time in the great city at the mouth of the Mississippi, you start to feel its effects, its pull. It feels like she opens her arms wide, gives you a welcoming hug, but then just won’t let go.
At first glance, New Orleans could possibly be the worst place in the world to ride a bike. It’s perfectly flat, there are no country roads anywhere nearby for riding, and the roads are crap—the possibilities for rides can be counted on one hand. I can think of countless reasons why New Orleans is a terrible place to ride bikes. If I’m thinking of a place to go for a training camp, I’m placing New Orleans somewhere along the lines of Baghdad. Yet, I find myself dreaming about riding in New Orleans when I’m away. I find myself retracing tracks through the Bywater, Marigny, Uptown, Irish Channel, the Lower Ninth, St. Charles, the Garden District, Almonaster, the Rigolets, Lakeshore Drive, the Quarter, and City Park. Each of those words likely means little to you, but each is its own world in my mind, a quilt of motley patches, some golden and gleaming, some neon and glaring, some bright and friendly, others tearing at the edges, washed out and faded, but still holding strong.
I found a community of riders. I was welcomed with open arms, like a friend that had been far too long in coming.
Expectations and what I found
I moved to New Orleans in January. I left the familiar, fantastic roads of Athens, Georgia, to move to what I figured was the armpit of the cycling world. I can’t lie, I was not planning on spending much time in New Orleans when it came time for real training. I planned to split my time between Athens and New Orleans to hopefully continue to race my bike. I was prepared for the worst, and instead, I found the best. I found a home.
I found something completely different than I had imagined in my nightmares in the weeks leading up to the move. I found a community of riders. I was welcomed with open arms, like a friend that had been far too long in coming. I found a city with unending possibilities for the adventurous. I found a city reborn out of desperation. I found a city that just won’t lie down and take whatever the latest disaster happens to be, and there’s something about that attitude, that feeling, it’s infectious, it’s defiant, and I came to love New Orleans both on the bike and off with that same defiance. I found myself crowing to anyone within earshot that this is the place to be. It’s almost hard to believe I’m writing this, but New Orleans is a great place to ride a bike.
Most importantly, when I came to New Orleans, I found a bike rider who soon became a tour guide, who not long after became a teammate, who became a friend before I even barely knew his name, and half a decade ago, managed to do something Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, or Mark Cavendish will likely never be able to do: become a hero. Kenny Bellau embodies everything that blew me away about New Orleans. I expected little, but found the world, the same holds true of Mr. Bellau. I had no idea the door that opened as Kenny approached on a sunny January day. It wasn’t long before I began to learn about Kenny and hear of a few very important things: bike racing, New Orleans, and the storm that did its best to wipe the city off the map—Katrina.
Meet Kenny Bellau
The word “hero” is tossed around pretty carelessly, even given over to athletes that ride up climbs really fast (Speaking of climbs, they don’t have those in New Orleans.) It’s like the word “epic.” Every hard day is epic in bike racing it seems, and every rider that sets out on an improbable solo exploit is described as heroic. I’m talking about a real hero, the kind that save lives and do things that we normal people just can’t quite wrap our heads around. Kenny Bellau meets the criteria of a hero. He saved the lives of almost 500 people five years ago. Kenny had just returned from a UCI stage race in French Guyana with his Herring Gas team to find the city of his life underwater, floundering for air.
Like any self-respecting hero, Kenny doesn’t much take to the label of hero, nor does he comfortably accept acknowledgement of the term being applied to him. He returned to his home, left his bike behind, commandeered a boat, and set about doing the right thing. He spent the better part of a month trolling the waters with a list sent to him by his girlfriend, Candy, looking for survivors, gathering them up one by one, and sometimes by the dozen.
After the waters subsided, Kenny took the boat back to its home. The formerly brand-new stallion was battered, but still running strong. Kenny left a Sharpie scrawled note on his companion as he left it behind, it read: “This boat rescued over 400 people. Thank you! Ken Bellau.” That boat, stolen from a looter by a bike racer and used to do nothing but good, now stands in the heart of the French Quarter. It will remain in Jackson Square for ten years in the Presbytery of St. Louis Cathedral, right on the corner of St. Ann and Chartres. It’s a peculiar sight—a motorboat in the middle of the Quarter after all—and it’s a testament to the kind of person that rises to astounding heights in the worst of times. Kenny’s story is the story of New Orleans’s. The two are one and the same. You can count yourself fortunate to know one, and supremely lucky to get to know both.
It’s a ride like no other
Kenny knows the streets of New Orleans. On that cloudless January mid-morning (I firmly believe Kenny and I are the only two people in New Orleans that ride after 10 a.m.), Kenny showed me his city. He showed me the beautiful, the grand, the downtrodden, the terrible, every last bit of it. I doubt I will ever do a ride like that ever again.
We started with the sobering crossing of the 17th Street Canal, the canal that failed mightily in the wake of Katrina’s haymaker. I cross that bridge everyday now. It’s not possible to cross it and not think of the suffering caused by its failed walls in 2005, or the billion-dollar pump station that will supposedly keep anything like that from happening again, but is said to be an abject failure. The ride takes a turn for the pleasant along the beautiful Lake Pontchartrain recreational artery of Lakeshore Drive. After that, you head east over the Industrial Canal and two large bridges, passes the eerie Katrina victim remains of the giant Six Flags amusement park, passes through a section of New Orleans East that makes you feel like you very well could have made an instantaneous journey to Vietnam, as rice paddies share the bayou with alligators. Crossing the border back into the outer reaches of New Orleans, this grand circuit of town even gives a tip of the hat to space exploration as you roll past a NASA facility on Chef Menteur with the gigantic form of one of the Apollo rockets looming out front. From there, it’s into the desolate, lonely lands of a spit of land that separates the brackish water of Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf of Mexico.
The return trip is no less entertaining, a stunning wasteland of dead cars and machinery stand lonely sentry duty along the expanse of Almonaster Boulevard, but now you’re heading into New Orleans proper and the ride changes clothes. As you cross over a huge overpass that seems like it should be clogged with cars (but is wondrously free of them) you get one of the best views of the city, and then it’s into the neighborhoods: the color and fun and life of the Bywater, Marigny, and Treme, then loop around through Uptown and the regal oaks that line the opulence that is the Garden District. Each section of town, completely different from the other, is studded with its own gems whether they are lavish or poor, here, there, and everywhere. And once you’ve had enough, head back to the Mississippi’s crescent bend, and you cross into a world like no other, the French Quarter. It’s hard to believe that on this 60 or so mile circuit, you’ve crossed through more landscapes than you could have ever dreamed of, and yet, somehow, there you are in one of the most famous sections of any city in America, perhaps the world: the French Quarter.
Beautiful in her own way
New Orleans won’t be making any lists as one of the top bike-friendly cities in America, but there’s no question, the bike is the best way to explore and exist in New Orleans. Sure, there’s traffic, but it’s navigable traffic without risking life, limb, and posterity. Sure, the roads are comparable to a paved ocean of five-foot swells, but it’s not impassable by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, there’s nary a hill for almost a hundred miles, but at some point I got over the fact that topographical contours are necessary for grandeur, they’re just normally the most noticeable in your legs. New Orleans makes up for its flatness with a luxurious buffet of sights that is just so … different.
New Orleans is not beautiful like Tuscany or the Alps or even the Appalachian Mountains, but there is just something about her lined, aged face that I find appealing. There is something alluring, something of a come hither energy everywhere you turn. Each street has its own little story, its own little world. No one building or neighborhood will blow you away, but the sum of the parts makes for a truly unique and fulfilling experience. It’s a feeling you get in your stomach, a satisfied, satiated hum from deep inside.
Don’t expect to come here on a bike and be able to leave and, and say, “That spot was awesome, remember that view?” Instead, you’ll leave with countless little pictures in your mind that stand out as memorable—picture after picture, that when put together, make a movie of sorts, a blurry movie though, akin to a dream. I don’t find myself dismissing large tracts of land like I would under normal circumstances. On a good day, each and every structure seems to sing a little song worth catching a verse of as you pass. A row of what would seem to be indiscriminate shotgun houses sing a faint chorus, a lone orange building croons its own tune, while a Katrina terrorized neighborhood plays on. And somehow, at the end of a ride, you find yourself humming the tune, looking back, and trying to figure out just how some everyday buildings managed to take hold of your consciousness.
A day that lives everywhere
I’ve not seen everything in the world, but in America New Orleans seems to stand in a class unto itself through its past suffering and spirit of perseverance. The remains of Katrina have not gone away in the half decade of time that has passed since the city was ransacked by both nature and a careless, some would say, corrupt local and national government.
Katrina was five years ago now, but you can’t go anywhere in the city without brazen reminders of the storm that changed everything. The telltale “X” marks still adorn the doors of innumerable condemned structures, houses and buildings that stand vacant, crumbling. The city has slowly rebuilt itself but the dead, rotting, spray-painted buildings stand starkly next to the living, thriving architecture everywhere else. When you cross the bridge into the Lower Ninth Ward, it feels like you crossed a border. It’s a post-apocalyptic landscape of ruin, and everywhere you look you see open space, lots of it.
There wasn’t a single open lot in the Ninth before the levee broke.
I’ve ridden my bike in the shadow of some amazing sights. I still close my eyes to get a glimpse of the holy peaks of the Dolomites. I wistfully dream of my former stomping grounds in the Alps when we lived in Innsbruck, but there’s just something about riding in the shadow of a giant concrete wall that failed and either ended or changed the lives of thousands. I look at the huge vertical wall faces of the Dolomites with awe just as I look at the sheer concrete of the levee with awe. It is impossible to ride your bike through the Ninth and not feel like you’ve entered another world. It’s not just there though. I rode my bike with Kenny the other day, and he pointed out the repaired levee on the 17th Street Canal. That one spot, 50-yards long, destroyed a vast swath of the city when it too gave way to the storm’s surge five years ago this August 29th. There were 53 breaches in the levees throughout the city, a testament not only to the power of the storm, but also to the rampant disregard for human life shown by negligent governments throughout the years.
The hurricane will live on forever as part of the collective consciousness of its people, and if you aren’t one of the people, but you immigrate to the city, it’ll become a part of your consciousness too. It’s not uncommon for strangers to meet either in New Orleans or elsewhere in the world and the dialogue almost invariably follows: “You’re from New Orleans? Ah, great, where are you from?” The other responds, “I’m from Uptown,” to which the first returns, “Ah, did you get a lot of water there?” Or if you’re Kenny, you ask where in Uptown you’re from, and then he’ll tell you exactly how much water you had in your house.
To feel a part of the city
I feel my face crinkled into a frown, as I try to put words to the feeling. It’s difficult to figure out just what it is that evokes such reverential words. It isn’t about the intervals I’ve done on the levee or on Chef Menteur Highway or back and forth on Lakeshore Drive, it’s not about the Quarter, or Bourbon Street, or Canal, or Magazine, or St. Charles. It’s about every last street, neighborhood, restaurant, streetcar, person, tree, and building, living and dead, in the city. There’s just something mischievously appealing about it all. I ride my bike in a place that’s supposed to be patently against what we as bike riders hold as the values necessary for good bike ride, and yet, I find myself smiling, thinking how lucky I am to be riding my bike here.