West Side Ride or Die

Cincinnati’s western-most neighborhoods aren’t always easy for cyclists, but numerous gems make them worth it

May 4, 2016 at 11:13 am
click to enlarge Nick got lost in Mount Airy Forest and enjoyed it immensely.
Nick got lost in Mount Airy Forest and enjoyed it immensely.

Big roads. Big hills. Fast traffic and nary a bike lane.

Some cyclists, including yours truly, find riding Cincinnati’s West Side daunting. But there was plenty to enjoy on two wheels between Riverside and Mount Airy on a recent sunny Saturday.

I launch my West Side odyssey from the Kentucky side of the Anderson Ferry, which travels between KY Route 8 and Cincinnati. The ferry has been carrying folks across the Ohio River since 1817, and it only costs a buck to get my bike onto the smooth, slow-moving craft. 

On the Ohio side of the river, my placid floating is replaced by feverish cranking. The ferry lands at the highway-like River Road, which runs along the southern edge of Cincinnati’s Riverside neighborhood. Riverside feels very small-town Ohio, with well-worn older homes lining the river.

It makes up most of the distinctive tail you see on city maps, and we also have it to thank for another Cincinnati icon: Reds hit king Pete Rose, who was born on Braddock Street here in 1941.

If cars whipping by you at 50-plus miles an hour isn’t your thing, River Road isn’t the best ride. In the future, cyclists may have another option, though: the Ohio River Trail West, a proposed 20-mile stretch along the river from downtown to the Indiana border.

But there’s no trail yet. I choose to turn off at Sedamsville, where the small-town feel quickly changes to a denser urban environment. Amazing row houses, grand Queen Annes and a gothic revival church crowd the hills above the river.

Sedamsville was incorporated in 1869 and once bustled with German and other immigrants. The one-two punch of the 1937 flood and a 1940 re-routing of River Road sparked the neighborhood’s decline, and now fewer than 700 people live there.

I turn onto Fairbanks Avenue and, finally, I’m in the West Side I always picture in my head. On one side are big yards and neat rows of ranch houses. On the other, a line of trees angles toward the sky, interrupted only by the occasional empty lot. In one, a long-abandoned boat sails through a high sea of weeds, defiant of a “No Dumping” sign next to it.

As it crosses into East Price Hill, Fairbanks goes up. And up. And up. The sidewalk looks plenty tempting as I move along in low gear, but drivers are gracious as they pass me.

Finally, I hit Warsaw Avenue, near the heart of East Price Hill. I pass by the historic firehouse home of MYCincinnati, a music education initiative for elementary and middle school students, and DIY space the Warsaw Room.

A friend recently claimed that East Price Hill is what Northside was in the 1990s — an under-the-radar spot with lots of interesting things happening. As I pedal toward the neighborhood’s Incline District, I turn that comparison around in my head. Some of the stuff happening here is very organic, but some is slick, including the Incline Theater, Incline Public House and other recent developments nestled along one of the best downtown views in the city. The place has its own feel, or multiple feels, really.

I pop into nearby Bloc Coffee, just off Hawthorne Street, for a quick refresher. From their comfy couch, I debate my lunch options. MYCincinnati maestro and Price Hill resident Eddy Kwon has raved to me about a Guatemalan spot in West Price Hill called the Maranata Store, so I decide to glide down Eighth Street deeper into the West Side.

As Eddy promised, Maranata is sublime. It’s a small Guatemalan grocery with a food counter to one side. I get roasted chicken tacos with radish slaw and tomatillo salsa and a pineapple agua fresca. They also have lots of seafood choices, pupusas — a big favorite of mine — and seven kinds of hot sauce on each of the small tables near the counter.

I’m all fueled up, which is good, because I’m about to face the most arduous part of my trip. Maranata is just off Glenway Avenue, a busy West Side artery. I take it for just a bit before ducking onto side streets.

Rows of big houses with rich clay-tile roofing exude warm, suburban vibes from yards full of shady trees in Westwood, the city’s largest neighborhood in both area and population.

Westwood’s maze of side streets eventually forces me back onto a main road, this time Boudinot Avenue, where traffic is intense. Fortunately, I have a role model. Up ahead, a man on an off-brand mountain bike loaded with racks and bags cranks on. He’s speeding along in the middle of the right lane as big trucks whiz by.

Eventually, he turns off and ducks into an apartment building, leaving me alone in the rapids of cars and trucks. But that’s fine. I’m very near Mount Airy Forest, which is another world entirely.

Like everything else on the West Side, Mount Airy is big — the largest of Cincinnati’s parks at 1,459 acres. I pull off Westwood Northern Boulevard onto a serene paved path that soon dwindles into grass and then into a wooded trail.

Now I’m hiking with the bike on my shoulder, skipping across creeks and climbing over fallen trees, the rushing sound of traffic replaced by chirping birds. An hour into the looping trails, I begin to wonder if my eagerness for a less-traveled route has derailed my trip entirely. And, with that, my journey risks becoming a tired allegory for philosophical questions I get on my bike to avoid.

Eventually, I emerge on a private drive about halfway through the park, and then it’s a quick jaunt to West Fork Road, which bisects the forest.

West Fork is a road biker’s dream: mostly smooth, gently curving, and all downhill. Even the traffic is mellow as my wheels hum and the sun streams through the trees on both sides of the road. A silver Corvette slowly passes to my left, the driver smiling and extending a friendly wave through the car’s T-tops.

The road is great for another reason: It ends at Putz’s Creamy Whip, my final destination for the day. The quintessential roadside ice cream stand, Putz’s has been dishing out the cold stuff since 1938.

I order some blue soft serve with a cherry dip and watch as people of all sorts — black, white, young and old — crowd around the white cinder-block ice cream stand at the foot of the West Side. I kind of wish I lived around here. At least my hill-weary legs would have a shorter trip home. ©