ATHENS, Ohio – I had a bottle of water with me as we pedaled north along the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway.
But what I really wanted was a bottle of beer. Soon, I had that too.
Several years ago, some marketing experts in Athens came up with this brilliant idea: Merge the growing popularity of dedicated bike paths and craft breweries for the perfect combination of (sorta) healthy fun. Athens County’s Brewed on the Bikeway tour was born.
I’d been intrigued by the concept for years, but my daughter’s recent relocation to Athens finally gave me the chance to try it.
There was one hitch, however: I didn’t haul my bike with me to Southeast Ohio, and the region’s several bike rental venues, regrettably, all closed down during the COVID pandemic due to inventory shortages and other challenges.
Enter the Athens County Public Libraries, which offers dozens of bicycles for cardholders to borrow for free through its book-a-bike program.
My daughter is a cardholder, but even if she wasn’t, any Ohio resident can apply for a card and get one on the spot, providing easy access to the library’s 35 bicycles across five locations. We popped into the Athens branch on an overcast Saturday afternoon, and my daughter checked out three Trek three-speed cruisers for herself, her sister and me.
And off we went.
One caveat – the library limits its rentals to three hours at a time. So we didn’t have time to explore all 26 miles of the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway, which extends from just east of Athens northwest to Nelsonville.
Nor did we have time to sample the creations at all four breweries on the trail, although honestly, that was probably a good thing.
Athens on two wheels
We headed west and then north from the library (30 Home St.), pedaling alongside the Hocking River for much of the route. The Hockhocking Adena Bikeway mostly follows the path of the old Columbus and Hocking Valley Railroad, built to haul coal between Athens and Columbus in the 1860s.
We biked adjacent to the leafy campus of Ohio University, passing Peden Stadium, the Convocation Center and O’Bleness Hospital.
The bike path got considerably more scenic as it turned north by West State Street Park, with forested sections on either side.
We traveled perhaps 5 miles before we took a short detour along the Columbus Road spur, to check out my daughter’s new office – conveniently located across the street from Devil’s Kettle Brewing, open in 2015, with nearly two dozen beers on tap.
We resisted the urge to stop in, and instead headed back south toward our primary destination, Little Fish Brewing Company, 8675 Armitage Road, located just off the bikeway.
Another spur off the main trail leads cyclists to the rear entrance of the brewery, but we somehow missed the turn off and found ourselves pedaling along busy Ohio 682 and Armitage Road. It was the only unpleasant part of the tour. I blame the map reader; she knows who she is.
Little Fish quickly took care of my irritation, with a sample of four housemade brews, including an all-Ohio concoction called Marka, “spruced generously in the boil kettle with Norwegian spruce tips from our trees,” according to the brewery’s website. More, please!
Also on our tasting flight: Dear Science, a hazy IPA, Summer Crumble, a quick-sour fruity wheat ale, and Nelsonic Pale Ale. The food was just as good, including a terrific veggie burger and cheese pizza.
Back on the bikes
Our break over – and more than two hours into our three-hour borrow limit – we hopped back on our bicycles and pedaled back to the library.
Nick Tepe, director of the library system, said the book-a-bike program launched in 2016, the first in Ohio (“and possibly the first in the country”). Loaning bikes, he said, fits nicely with the library’s mission. “Libraries have always been about connecting people to information,” he said.
Some Athens County users are borrowing the bikes as transportation, he said, while others are revisiting an old pastime to see if they want to take it up again.
Increasingly, visitors are using the bikes to the explore the community, as other rental options have disappeared.
“This year in particular, we have definitely seen an uptick of tourists,” said Tepe. “There are not a lot of options for bike rentals, not just here, but all over.”
Boone Troyer, executive director of the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he’s hopeful a new commercial vendor will eventually step in to fill the rental void. In the meantime, in addition to the library loans, the Nature Center at Hocking College in Nelsonville has bikes available to rent on Saturdays and Sundays.
“We get a lot of people asking about renting bikes. We’re highly aware of it and we’re on it,” said Troyer, who noted that Athens was recently named one of the nation’s top bike-friendly cities by the organization PeopleForBikes.
Tepe said the three-hour time limit keeps the bicycles available for a wide range of community users, including tourists and residents.
My daughters and I likely would have kept the bikes for significantly longer if we could have. There were three breweries, plus a recently added cider house, that we didn’t make it to.
The day after our bike tour, we did travel by car to a second brewery on the route – Eclipse Company Store, about 5 miles north of downtown Athens, located at the center of an old coal mining town created by the Hocking Valley Coal Company. Eclipse was a terrific, lively spot, with more than 32 beers on tap, most from Ohio, plus some terrific barbecue.
Next time (and, frankly, there may be many more next times), I’ll bring my own bike and pedal there myself.