There's no shortage of griping about the woes of social media: It's turned us into sedentary, digital zombies, obsessed with screen time at the expense of face time. But sometimes social media has the opposite effect, bringing people together in a positive, active way.
That's what happened with 30 Days of Biking, a challenge started by Minneapolis residents Patrick Stephenson and Zach Schaap in 2010.
That March, they saw one of their friends start using the hashtag #30daysofyoga on Twitter to encourage people to do yoga every day for one month. The friends decided to create a similar event around biking, and created the hashtag #30daysofbiking.
The challenge was simple: Bike every day in April. Distance and time didn't matter — anything from a five-minute jaunt around the block to a 10-mile commute to work.
"All of a sudden it just exploded," Stephenson said. "We didn't really know what was happening. It was just a rush of people."
Three hundred people signed up to join the challenge in its first year. In 2012, three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond signed up. So did Keith Bontrager — the man behind the modern mountain bike and founder of Bontrager Cycles.
Call it the power of the hashtag.
It's what attracted me. As I saw #30daysofbiking filtering through my Twitter stream over the past month, I was intrigued. It didn't hurt that the last time my bike saw pavement was early November, thanks to this "Game of Thrones"-like winter we've endured. I was itching to get back on the road, and this was the perfect motivation.
"It's just about making it a part of your life," Stephenson said. "As soon as you start to do that and realize how you can fit it in, it becomes more of a mainstay, more of a habit. Everybody needs to start somewhere."
Group rides and a worldwide social media community provide motivation and support, and the group of pledges continues to grow.
"Each year we've gotten bigger, more of a passionate following, and we've gotten better at promoting it," Stephenson said.
And this year, you're not just biking for your own health and well-being. For every 30 pledges it receives, the group behind 30 Days of Biking is donating one bike to a kid in need through Free Bikes 4 Kidz, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit. Sales of T-shirts and other merchandise — designed by Twin Cities artist Adam Turman — and sponsors are helping to pay for the bikes.
More than 3,700 people from more than 100 countries already have pledged to ride this year, and Stephenson expects that number to reach 5,000.
And while Minneapolis is still the heart of the movement, chapters are popping up around the country.
"I think that's one of the big changes this year," Stephenson said. "Now we're saying you should bring this to your own city, too, and we want to empower people to create events in their own cities."
Amber Carter started a North Woods chapter in Wisconsin this year. Carter got to know Stephenson and Schaap via Twitter when she was living in Minneapolis and participated in the challenge there.
Now living in Hayward, Carter hopes to tap into an already-enthusiastic biking community for 30 Days of Biking.
"It's a huge outdoor cycling community — we do the Fat Tire Festival, we just did the Fat Tire Birkie," she said. "I think it's one of those things people need to see other people doing it first, and really getting excited about it, and I think next year it will blow up."
Carter biked as a child, but it wasn't until she joined 30 Days of Biking that it became a regular part of her life again.
"It kind of opened my eyes to so many other people who rode bikes around the city and really loved it, whereas before it seemed like this certain culture of people and not necessarily my kind of people," she said.
She credits Stephenson and Schaap with creating an atmosphere that encourages everyone and anyone to join the pledge — not just avid bike commuters or road-racing warriors.
"They're very hip people, but they've made an event that you don't have to fit into a certain box to do this amazing thing," she said.
Stephenson has noticed a particularly large percentage of females participating, an interesting trend for a traditionally male-dominated sport.
"What's really cool about these chapters is this has turned into a pro-women movement," he said, noting that almost 60% of participants are women, the first two to sign up this year are women, and nine out of the 10 chapter captains are women.
Stephenson, who works full time as a copywriter for Minnesota Public Radio, does all of the work for 30 Days of Biking on the side as a "passion project." And while Schaap is no longer part of the team promoting the event, Stephenson has three other biking enthusiasts who help out.
The team plans group rides and events throughout the month in the Minneapolis area and encourages chapters to plan their own events.
Carter said the North Woods chapter will most likely host a group ride or event sometime during the month, although nothing has been confirmed yet.
"I think the thing that has gotten people in the past and that keeps getting them is the fact that it's been such a long and hard winter and people are just dying for spring, and I think 30 Days of Biking helps usher that in," Carter said. "Even the act of being determined to do it or at least to try it, that mentally makes spring come a lot sooner."
More information: While Milwaukee does not have an official chapter yet, that's not a prerequisite for participating.
Visit 30daysofbiking.com/pledge to join the challenge, and share your biking adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Vine with the hashtag #30daysofbiking.
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