By Stan Purdum
The 30th running of the Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure (GOBA) took place June 16-23 this year in central Ohio. This year’s rendition, which was open to 1,500 riders, but which had 1,200 register, was a tour of five cities that together mark the outline of a loop surrounding Ohio’s capital, Columbus. But they were far enough from the metropolitan area that the ride was mostly on quiet, low-traffic roads past fields of corn, soybeans and wheat.
I was one of the 1,200.
Each year for the past 30, GOBA has offered a different loop of cities within the Buckeye State, though with the event reoccurring that often, some cities have been included three or four times. This year’s ride began in Delaware, Ohio, and moved from there successively to London, Circleville, Lancaster, Newark, and then returned to Delaware.
In each location, we camped at a fairground or a school ground. We stayed two nights in both London and Lancaster, with optional rides offered on those layover days. Each day’s ride was about 50 miles, and there was an additional 50-mile loop offered from Lancaster so riders could do both loops that day to complete a century ride if they wished.
GOBA is a program of a nonprofit organization called Columbus Outdoor Pursuits. While the event bears some similarity to Iowa’s RAGBRAI, it’s known for being a more family-friendly affair. During the week, I saw parents with small children using various combinations of tandems, bikes with tagalongs and trailers, and smaller bikes. There was also a Boy Scout group that rode the event with their leaders. Participants this year varied in age from 2 to 81.
It’s not uncommon to encounter riders who have attended several previous GOBAs, including a few who have participated in all 30. I saw one woman wearing a T-shirt proclaiming the event’s 30th anniversary and including these words: “Every year, every ride, every mile.”
This was my ninth GOBA and it seemed to me that while there were riders from every age group, most were in the upper age brackets, and that got me wondering what happens to grand events such as this as they continue year after year.
To find out, I interviewed Larry Jenkins, who is the executive director of Columbus Outdoor Pursuits and of GOBA.
I first asked him about the number of attendees. My maiden GOBA was in 2009, where there were about 2,500 participants, and I heard from long-timers there had been 3,500 in the beginning years.
Did the reduced number this year indicate that interest had fallen significantly?
No, explained Jenkins. Capping the number at 1,500 was a necessary change because the bigger crowds overwhelmed some of the smaller towns visited and created long lines for the participants trying to get into restaurants and local attractions. Even the number of shower trucks needed to serve the moving “GOBAville” tent city when the attendance numbers are that high overtax some of the water and sewer systems in smaller communities.
Moreover, new “density laws,” overseen by the county health departments and fire marshals, require certain square footage per person on the grounds where the event camps, as well as in the associated buildings used at the grounds. “These laws were to keep 10,000 people of out cornfields during rock concerts,” Jenkins said, “but they affected events like ours, too.”
What about the increasing average age of participants? I asked. Was that a harbinger about the event’s longevity?
Jenkins agreed that the GOBA demographic is getting older, and as one sign of that, he noted that the number of participants choosing the car-camping option has increased. But Jenkins also said that GOBA is both a riding experience and community experience. “Many people camp with the same friends year after year,” he said. “They may not see one another throughout the year, but they come back for the friends.” (The GOBA website describes the event as “an adventure on two wheels with your closest friends.”)
Jenkins said that 30 years ago, when GOBA was first launched, “Baby Boomers who came did not have social communities online, and instead, engaged in events for the social experience. But the younger people coming today are not coming for that reason.” He noted that a challenge for the GOBA team is to continue to find ways to attract younger people. He also said that falling short of their maximum 1,500 registrants is another signal that there’s work to be done to keep the event appealing to younger generations.
“We plan to keep offering GOBA as long as there’s interest,” Jenkins said.
What else would you like to say about GOBA? I asked Jenkins. His response: “If you’ve not done a week-long tour, give it a try. And invite someone to come with you.”
I know I plan to come back to ride and camp with the same circle of friends who make GOBA a much-anticipated experience for me.