Man on Wheels: Cyclist Ron Leland's 729-Mile Spin in Forest Park

  "I arrived during the Arctic Vortex (c-c-cold)."

"I arrived during the Arctic Vortex (c-c-cold)."

A native of Los Angeles, Ron Leland works as a brand architect for Real Life Branding, building and sculpting brands for a variety of clients. In 2014, he took St. Louis for a year-long spin when he came here to work with Wells Fargo Advisors on a new website.

Though he depended on regular doses of espresso to adjust from Southern California’s winter temperatures in the 70s to St. Louis’ polar vortex temperatures in the 20s and below, Leland wasted no time in hopping on his single-speed Bianchi as soon as weather allowed. 

Between May and November, Leland cycled 729 miles in Forest Park. He watched the wildflowers bloom in the spring, he witnessed the July 4th preparations and Muny events in the summer and he rode trails cloaked in golden brown leaves in the fall. 

Leland was kind enough to answer my questions about his experience in Forest Park and to share some of his photography from his time on the grounds. Our conversation is below.

When did you start cycling? Do you train for cycling events or is it strictly a hobby?
I’ve been cycling since I was a kid — think Schwinn Stingray. I’ve raced road bikes and mountain bikes and I’ve ridden from great distances with my friends, both here in the U.S. and in London. I prefer to have some sort of ‘event’ on my calendar; otherwise it’s a challenge to get outside when it’s really cold.

Do you have a regular biking schedule? How did you choose which Forest Park routes to take?
I try to cycle two to four times per week — more during the summer months, as daylight affords more opportunities. Of course, riding on the street can be a little dodgy with cars and drivers who don’t pay attention to cyclists. Forest Park felt very safe to me. I began by cycling only on the paved paths, then switched over to the gravel paths, then explored the various roadways. Ultimately I mixed and matched a little from each and created a new route every time I rode in Forest Park. This kept it interesting.

What was your perception of St. Louis before you came, and how does that compare to your perception now?
I only knew where St. Louis was located prior to arriving, but I dug right into historic research once I arrived. The Missouri History Museum in Forest Park was part of that research. Then friends at work shared their local knowledge with me, sometimes while cycling to places like the Chain of Rocks Bridge or while driving me around the city to point out various neighborhoods.

How much did you know about Forest Park before you came here?
Zero.

I cycled in Kennedy Forest. This was also the best place that felt like I was away from the city. Lots of trees. Sounds of birds that then transitioned into cicadas. There’s an area of wildflowers that looks and feels very natural. I watched that area evolve from spring to winter. The light in the late afternoons was wonderful. I video chatted with my 11-year-old daughter so she could see the wildflowers, too.

As someone who’s not from St. Louis, what’s your perspective on Forest Park and the role it plays in the city?
I’m a big fan of public parks and gathering spaces in cities with high urban populations. They’re meant to be significant for residents who need to have open space available to them, as well as meeting places for community socialization. I was able to see Forest Park two to three times per week, and I watched the inflows of people who came for daily exercise, picnicking or to attend events that the Park hosted. In addition to attending The Muny’s Billy Elliot the Musical — which was fantastic — I cycled by the theatre on evenings to hear Porgy and Bess. The Saint Louis Art Museum was also a favorite. I brought my family out during spring break and we walked through the Saint Louis Zoo, Art Museum and down to the Boathouse.

What part of the Park did you come to know the best? Did you tend to appreciate the less-occupied spaces or the Park’s institutional hubs?
In my early riding efforts of Forest Park, I made a goal to ride every rideable surface during one ride, which I did — and it was about 34 miles. After that I felt I knew which areas of the Park I liked to cycle most. If I was looking to train hard, I would stick to the streets and ride mostly the south side of the Park — fewer cars and people. If I wanted to get my ‘mountain bike’ fix, I cycled in Kennedy Forest. This was also the best place that felt like I was away from the city. Lots of trees. Sounds of birds that then transitioned into cicadas. There’s an area of wildflowers that looks and feels very natural. I watched that area evolve from spring to winter. The light in the late afternoons was wonderful. I video chatted with my 11-year-old daughter so she could see the wildflowers, too.

What was your experience of getting to know Forest Park? Did you feel overwhelmed at first? Did you ever find yourself hopelessly lost?
I loved getting to know the Park. I’m sure I had made a wrong turn in my early rides — I can’t remember anymore. But once I knew — or thought I knew — every path in the Park, a new one would present itself. Like the small bridges near Art Hill that meander through gravel garden paths, and a pond or stream would open up as I rounded a corner.

Did you see any work being done while they were resurfacing the paths last year?
Yes, I was aware of, and experienced the repaving. It was great. I purchased a steel-frame, single-speed bike from Mike’s Bikes, and the old paving was a bit rough. Once the new paths were installed, it made for a very comfortable ride. 

 Leland mapped his 33.5 miles of cycling, which would take him 2:10.

Leland mapped his 33.5 miles of cycling, which would take him 2:10.

Can you tell me about your cycling gear? How was your experience with Mike’s Bikes?
I have a few bikes in my garage — the formula among my friends is n+1. I rode a Bianchi, Pista, steel-frame, single-speed (46x16). I bought a tasty little bike bell to alert joggers that I was approaching. I really liked the urban-ness of this bike. It was perfect for St Louis. The boys at Mike’s Bikes were a great addition to my experience in St. Louis. They shared stories or suggested bike routes, talked about the local cycling scene — and, of course, they helped me get dialed in. 

What do you miss most now that you’re back in L.A.?
Quiet time by myself while riding in Forest Park. The architecture around the Park. The leaves. Art Hill. And that patch of wildflowers.