Sometimes, building community begins as simply as asking, “Hey, wanna go for a bike ride?”
For 30 years, that’s what Judd Larson and Monica Smith have done.
Started as a way to provide a bit of exercise and a “mental break” before tackling the frenzy of Thanksgiving Day with too much food (and maybe too much family), Judd and Monica offer solace by way of two wheels: a group bike ride with friends, and friends of friends, living in their Uptown neighborhood.
“Sometimes it’s hard on the holidays to be with your families,” Judd says. “The ride is a stress release, a way to start with something easy, something to get us moving, get the blood pumping. We’ve done it every Thanksgiving since the mid-1980’s and more people are always included. Anyone can join in.”
Lake of the Isles is the route for the annual ride. Friends, current neighbors, and the former 20-somethings with whom Judd roomed when the idea for the ride was hatched, gather on the grassy Mall in Uptown, along the Midtown Greenway. Old pals reunite. Children and teenagers now populate the group. Some riders come with girlfriends or boyfriends, or newly alone after a divorce. A picture is snapped, a collective “whoohoo!” arises, and off the group goes: single file and in clusters, along the snowy or icy path, in mittens or rain boots, around the public park.
For some, it’s a win just to have geared up and ridden over at a time of the year when bicycles and gear often have been put away for the year. For those new to the ride, or introverts in the group, any early intimidation eases with the slow pace and the promise of hot cider and home baked cookies at Judd and Monica’s place after. It’s a friendly ride, not a competitive sprint.
“Instigator,” Judd says, “I guess I’m an instigator.” That's the word that sums up both Judd’s and Monica’s disposition, and their day to day work as well.
Judd spent his career (now newly “semi-retired” but still active) running an environmental nonprofit where collaboration was hailed and hosted events brought awareness and momentum for the work at hand.
Monica, Judd’s spouse since just a few years into the annual Thanksgiving ride, is a paid neighborhood coordinator who recognizes the power of people. “In my neighborhood work, it is my job to set aside time within our work week to socialize, to share ideas, to build community. Sometimes we gather around a particular issue, but mostly we just gather to connect.”
Forming both formal and informal bonds, gathering in a public space or around public concerns may be something ingrained in Minneapolis. Monica says, “My brother cannot believe how many people we know in the neighborhood. He lives in an LA suburb, on a cul-de-sac where, despite being relatively close to and facing many of his neighbors, he doesn’t really know anybody. In his world, everybody works a million hours every day and don’t socialize with people where the lived. It is the opposite here. We work at knowing each other.”
For Judd, it is more than just the Thanksgiving bike ride. Monica shares, “He hosted a music club at our house for a long time, and we started a couple's dinner club. Now he hosts a Thursday night gathering at a local pub for men, maybe a hundred or so are on the email list, and the group widens each year. Judd is so good at this kind of thing, he makes sure the gatherings happen.”
“It started with the bike ride, and then we got to know everyone at the kid’s bus stop,” Judd posits. “We try to extend invitations where we can for people to join in. We all benefit when we engage. It’s good for the community, for our health. The bike ride is joyful, an event people look forward to. And it takes me about 5 minutes to send an email with a reminder and asking everyone to include others.” Judd pauses and shrugs, “Because, you know, we could just live in isolation.”