ASHLAND — Two years ago, a man named Russell Matz learned about something cool a group of bicycle riders was doing in Shelby.
The group, which formed out of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, calls themselves the Old Spokes. They're retired cyclers who more than a decade ago began going on group rides all over Ohio, fixing up old bikes and giving them away to children or people in need.
“I rode with them and then started thinking, ‘If they can do this in Shelby, I can do it here in Ashland,’” Matz said.
And so Rail Rollers Bicycle Adventures was born — at least in theory. Matz, a cyclist who now also happens to be retired, approached leaders of his home church, Dickey Church of the Brethren. He presented the idea as a way for outreach.
The church’s leadership had been searching for an outdoor outreach sort of program, Matz said. They agreed. The first year was 2021 and it became a success.
Matz said the Rail Rollers restored and gave away 23 bicycles in its first year. The group swelled to around 40 and those people went on around as many weekly rides together.
Weekly rides range in mileage, anywhere from 20 to 35 miles on paved or crushed-limestone trails. But riders can discern how long of a ride they take, Matz said.
The group does not have a presence on social media. Instead, Matz keeps track of members’ emails and sends out communication weekly during summer riding months.
The church rents out a small corner in the back rooms of Ashland Bike Company. Matz said he and three others work there periodically to restore bicycles they receive from Associated Charities, Ashland’s Salvation Army and area foster programs.
“And sometimes people come (to Ashland Bike Company) looking for something cheap or used. They need it for work or just to get around,” he said.
The shop’s owner, Tony Bunt, then tells them about RRBA, he said.
He hopes the group grows this year and that they can give away more bicycles.
“They don’t have to come to our church. We do a prayer before we ride. And we bring lunches so we pray before we eat. Other than that, we treat each other well. Actions speak louder than words,” Matz said.
Nevertheless, the church’s outreach program has worked, he said, with some of the riders coming to church.
The congregation of the church, which is located 10 minutes southeast of Ashland along Township Road 655, is around 150-200 people, said pastor Jeff Messner.
Through the pandemic, the church has had to reconfigure what a typical church service looks like, Messner said. There’s an option for people to watch a service from their homes via Facebook. Another option allows people to experience a sermon from their vehicles in the parking lot, listening in over a radio broadcast. And some come inside for an in-person experience, he said.
The Rail Rollers group is just one way the church has tried to keep people engaged and to step out into the community during uncertain times.
“You can go outside, stay socially distanced. You can do that in a relatively safe way and still have fellowship,” Messner said of the Rail Rollers group.
The group has bikes currently that are either ready for donation or getting ready. The group takes any bike in any condition, Matz said.
To donate a bicycle or to learn more about how to join the group, call the church at 419-281-7951.
The first ride of the season is scheduled for April 23 on the Kokosing Gap Trail for a nearly 27-mile ride.