The bike king
Avid cyclist helped put Chico on the map as a bike-friendly town
Ed McLaughlin hasn’t owned a car since 1982, when he gave up four wheels for two.
If that’s not telling enough about his dedication to cycling, just look at what he’s done for biking in Chico. Bike paths? Thank McLaughlin. Bike racks on the B-Line buses? McLaughlin again. He’s been a dedicated bicyclist and bike advocate for years. Ask those who know McLaughlin, and they’ll likely say the same thing: He’s pretty much the undisputed king of cycling.
A tireless advocate for a greener, bike-friendly, community, the 63-year-old McLaughlin is known by countless Chicoans, from the pedestrians he’s passed on the street to the movers and shakers in local government.
So it was a huge shock when the news came that McLaughlin had been downed on Dec. 21 of last year while riding his bicycle, resulting in a severe spinal injury. But it wasn’t surprising when McLaughlin’s cycling friends came together to help the guy responsible for making Chico arguably one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country.
Affectionately dubbed the “Tour de Ed,” a bike ride organized by the Chico Velo Cycling Club will be held Saturday, Feb. 23. The event will raise funds to help pay for McLaughlin’s ongoing medical care and other needs such as the house remodel needed to make his Chico home handicapped-accessible.
Ed McLaughlin moved to Chico from Eureka, Calif., in 1976 after a stint in the Air Force, and began working in the SSI division of the local Social Security office. He paid serious heed to a doctor’s advice to lose weight and quit smoking and drinking, and began cycling in 1977.
“I guess the bicycle became his addiction,” said Steve O’Bryan, who has ridden many times with McLaughlin since the days of “Mellow Velo,” the precursor to Chico Velo.
O’Bryan, who owns Pullins Cyclery, met McLaughlin in the early ‘80s when he came into the now-defunct Chico Bicycle where O’Bryan was working at the time. He praised McLaughlin’s tireless efforts to help make Chico a bicycle-friendly town and said Chico Velo became civically engaged under McLaughlin’s leadership.
“Ed stood up and represented bikers,” O’Bryan recalled. “[Chico Velo] folks got on park, ARB and planning commissions. The City Council started to become interested in making Chico a bike-friendly town.”
McLaughlin worked at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. in 1983 as a brewer before starting “Ed’s Cargo” (a play on “escargot"—Francophile McLaughlin also led guided bike tours through France), his bicycle messenger business in 1987.
Sierra Nevada owner and cyclist Ken Grossman echoed O’Bryan, succinctly describing McLaughlin as “a great voice and advocate for cycling in this community” and “the most influential factor in Chico being the bike city it’s become.”
McLaughlin has been executive director of Chico Velo Cycling Club since 1985, and is almost single-handedly responsible for Chico’s being named “Best Bike Town” in 1997 by Bicycling magazine. Thanks to McLaughlin, Chico was also given a Bronze Award in 2004 by the American League of Bicyclists for commitment to bicycle-friendly projects, competing with towns across the United States.
Under McLaughlin’s guidance, Chico Velo’s Wildflower Century grew from a small ride with about 100 in attendance to one drawing thousands of people from around the world, resulting in its being recognized by Bicycling magazine as one of the top 10 centuries in the country.
McLaughlin was heavily involved in the creation of the first city of Chico bike plan. He even ran for City Council—twice, in 1997 and 1998—on a platform of “common sense in growth,” but was defeated.
“The city has consulted him for eons,” said Billie Kanter-Monfort, cyclist and longtime friend of McLaughlin’s. “Everyone consults him. People contact Ed about making the air quality healthier—Butte County Transit, the Lung Association, the League of Women Voters. If any organization in town wants an expert on transportation other than cars, Ed’s the go-to guy.”
Scott Chandler, McLaughlin’s friend and longtime associate at Chico Velo, calls McLaughlin “the citizen authority on bicycle transportation” in the Chico area.
“The city would not finalize any bike plans until they ran them by Ed,” said Chandler. “He’s also very into growth issues. Under the guise of bicycling, you see Ed’s bigger interests expanding to raising the quality of life for everybody. That’s really how Ed worked.”
All that changed on Dec. 21, 2007.
Linda Zorn was one of the riders pedaling ahead of McLaughlin on that fateful ride through Bidwell Park, when she heard “a loud crashing noise.” That loud noise was McLaughlin colliding straight-on with a bollard (a metal pole set in the middle of the bike path to keep cars out) after the pack “compressed” to avoid a pedestrian.
The impact sheared the fork off McLaughlin’s bicycle and threw him to the ground, causing a severe cervical spine injury. McLaughlin, who was wearing a helmet, was airlifted to San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, which specializes in care and rehabilitation of spinal-cord injuries.
The accident left McLaughlin with limited use of one of his arms and little movement in his toes and feet. He recently underwent surgery to stabilize his spine to prevent further injury if he falls or is accidentally dropped by a caretaker.
Suzanne Hanson, McLaughlin’s partner of four years, has cut her work down to part-time in order to make weekly visits to be with McLaughlin in San Jose, where he remains in the hospital.
“Ed can’t even write to sign his name,” she said. “[Helping him] is a distraction that makes me feel useful, because I can’t make him better.”
Hanson makes regular, detailed entries about McLaughlin’s condition on the hospital’s Web-based CarePages, and has helped McLaughlin deal with the huge pile of paperwork involved in getting him the care and special equipment he needs.
“You feel different strong elements of grief,” Hanson said. “You lose a portion of your life in relation to that person. It’s a little hard to see the silver lining in it right now.”
The irony is not lost on McLaughlin and his friends—that the previously auto-less bike enthusiast will soon be relying on a gas-guzzling handicapped-equipped van to get around.
“His carbon footprint has just gone through the roof!” joked Chico Vice Mayor Ann Schwab.
Schwab, a cyclist and longtime friend of McLaughlin’s, visited him recently in the hospital, where they “took a bike ride together” on a stationary cycle.
“I’m surprised at the amount of progress he’s made,” she said. “At Christmas, Ed couldn’t feel the touch of a hand on his skin, but now he can. He’s lost none of his wit, interpersonal skill and joking mannerisms. Ed has a goal, and that goal is to get back on his bicycle.”
Scott Chandler is organizing the upcoming “Tour de Ed,” a fundraiser to help raise money for the Chico Cyclist Care Fund to help cyclists who sustain injuries while bicycling.
The tour follows the old Almond Blossom route—a ride that had to be scrapped because it became too popular and unruly. The classic Ed-approved 20-mile ride to Durham and back will take riders down quiet country roads when the almond orchards are in full bloom. There will also be a casual six-mile loop through Lower Bidwell Park geared toward families.
Chandler said the tour is only a small part of helping get McLaughlin back in action.
“With Ed, his determination has been extremely strong,” Chandler said. “We are talking about finding a new Velo office that has handicapped access to the streetfront so he can continue his job. And if at some point he wants to take on handicapped issues, so much the better. If Ed does that, God help the city when it comes to issues about handicapped access!”