Above the Waterline: Biking through history, street art and neighborhoods

A Bicycle Tours of Atlanta group poses before the city on the Jackson Street bridge.

“Stop,” shout 10 bicyclists, rather tentatively, in response to a command from Chief Happiness Officer Robyn Elliott. Again, and louder, demands Elliott, the owner of Bicycle Tours of Atlanta, who is giving a safe riding orientation before the group leaves Studioplex in the Old Fourth Ward.

Practicing, we all yell louder – to Elliott’s satisfaction – and then pedal down Auburn Avenue on our high-quality commuter bikes to our first stop near the Eastside BeltLine Trail; here, we learn about the urban redevelopment project and view a wall mural with huge, bright goldfish that I’d never noticed before. It was the first of many surprises that I was to encounter on the three-hour, eight-mile bike adventure that Elliott calls her “Fall in Love with Atlanta” tour.

Farther down the BeltLine, we come upon William Massey’s amazing sculpture of found objects entitled Seen. Known. Created over three months with the involvement of a broad range of people, including homeless adults, this outstanding art piece invites viewing from different perspectives.

A construction inspector who has lived Intown for nearly two decades, Robyn Elliott knew that it was time to find a new career when the Great Recession hit in 2008 and the development industry crashed. On the Sunday following the tornado that struck Downtown that year, Robyn took out-of-town friends on a bike ride to show off her city and check out the storm damage. Her friends, who had been traveling to Atlanta for years, were “blown away by how amazing the city was,” she says, and she realized that lots of interesting venues were within easy biking distance. She had found a new career and a passion.

At 50, Robyn started Bicycle Tours of Atlanta: the city’s #1 Outdoor Activity according to TripAdvisor and the only bike tour company in Atlanta open daily. Eight years later, she has a staff of five and 12 additional workers, one of whom is Richard Turner, a friend who introduced me to Robyn. Her customer breakdown: 70 percent tourists (a third of whom are local) and 30 percent corporate groups.

Robyn’s love of the city – its history, art, culture and people – and her deep knowledge are abundantly evident whether she is in the midst of a tour narrative or talking to a new acquaintance about her work. What does she like most about the job? “The work is so rewarding, especially learning from my customers. I love how much this experience has changed my view of the world,” she says.

Our tour group is diverse: a seasoned cyclist from England, a couple from Germany with their local friend, a family from Ohio and a couple from Atlanta who take bike tours when they travel and wanted to experience one at home.

From the BeltLine, we head to Little Five Points, a shopping mecca for the past century now offering eclectic merchandise, and a brief stop at Junkman’s Daughter, a favorite haunt of my sons when they were teens. But, who knew that the design on the building’s exterior was the creation of a tattoo artist said to have much preferred human flesh as a canvas?

Past small bungalows and huge historic houses, we enter Inman Park: home of Coca-Cola’s Asa Candler who bought the formula for the famous soft drink for $2,300 in 1888 and Ernest Woodruff who bought the company from him in 1919 for $25 million and helped the city weather the Depression. It was Ernest’s son, Robert Woodruff, who played a key role in bringing white and black leaders together during the 1960s.

We talk about the Carter Center, Freedom Parkway controversy and linear parks that now exist. Pedaling on, we visit the Krog Street Tunnel, Cabbagetown, Forward Warrior Murals, Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, Oakland Cemetery, Ebenezer Church, King Center and more. This fall, Robyn will launch a Civil Rights and Social Justice Tour that explores the city’s racial history from the Civil War to present day. I can’t wait to take this new tour.

Since she was a child, Robyn has always had a relationship with bikes. Now, she’s helping hundreds of new friends (with and without biking skills) make connections to our city and a healthy, green mode of transportation every week.

For more information and to schedule a bike tour, see biketoursatl.com.

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper , a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect and restore the drinking water supply for nearly four million people.

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