When the League of American Bicyclists released its annual Bicycle Friendly States Rankings on May 1 there were few surprises near the top, with bike-happy states like Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Minnesota taking top spots.
But down there at the bottom, just behind Alabama, sits North Dakota. The largely rural, conservative state scored dead last in each of the five categories used by the organization to rank.
We made a few phone calls to find out what’s the deal with NoDak, a state we know to have some epic mountain biking, long gravel roads, and beautiful Great Plains scenery.
“The main goal of the rankings is to motivate states to do more for cycling,” said Nicole Wynands, a program manager at the League of American Bicyclists.
States near the bottom are poorly ranked because they lack laws protecting cyclists, including safe passing distances by cars, as well as a shortage of dedicated cycling infrastructure outside of major metropolitan areas.
Off of its roads, North Dakota has some pretty amazing bicycling, including the famous Maah Daah Hey Trail. It offers more than 160 miles of singletrack through the wild and remote countryside of the Badlands.
Said Jennifer Morlock, owner of Dakota Cyclery and Mountain Bike Adventures, “What the state lacks in paved roads it makes up for in natural beauty and mountain biking.”
She added that bikers in North Dakota are working on legislation for safe passing distances but that, even unregulated, most drivers in the state are courteous to cyclists.
“Shoulders are an issue,” she conceded.
Wynands agreed that many states near the bottom of the list have the potential to become great bike destinations with the enactment of regulations to protect cyclists and education.
“There are other rural states that are doing very well, like Maine, Iowa and Vermont,” she said. “They do more, they appreciate cyclists more and make it a policy priority.”
With a sparse population but one heck of a great offroad trail, North Dakota seems like a place with plenty of potential for improvement if residents ever make cycling a priority, which seems a little unlikely.
Alabama, New Mexico, Kentucky and South Dakota round out the bottom five.
“Most of these states near the bottom are beautiful. A poor ranking doesn’t mean it’s not pretty to bike there,” Wynands said.
—Sean McCoy is a contributing editor based in Denver.