Tonawanda News — If you happen to be near the Erie Canal today, keep on the lookout.
More than 500 cyclists from 36 states will be dropping their automobiles for a one-week ride along the canal, with a stopover likely around 9 a.m. at Niawanda Park in the City of Tonawanda.
The group will launch the ride from Buffalo an hour earlier before making their way through Lockport and over to Amherst, with their sights on the July 15 finish line in Albany.
It's the 14th year for "Cycling the Erie Canal," which Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks and Trails New York, said has transformed from a "somewhat of a ragtag operation" of 60 riders, into a burgeoning example of how the waterway can draw interest beyond the boundaries of New York state.
This year, six individuals from Germany, Australia, Great Britain, Hawaii and elsewhere, will be joining 200 state residents as they weave their way along the canal for a 400-mile, eight-day ride.
Dropkin said 75 percent of the trip will follow a route next to the canal, but that six "trail gaps" that remain along the entire stretch, forcing cyclists to take an alternate route.
One of those gaps, from Lockport to Amherst will soon be connected, as part of a plan now in place to create a continuous trail across New York, which when finished will be roughly 360 miles and considered the longest multi-use state trail in the nation.
Dropkin said the economic impact for the many small canal communities that once thrived, but are now struggling, is significant. According to the New York State Canal Corporation, which conducted a 2007 study on the financial effects tourism has on those communities, similar tourism and recreational activities generate about $360 million annually.
"The New York state canal system and the trail are an economic engine," said Bryan Stratton, director of the canal corporation, which is sponsoring the event. He also added that $42 million of that comes from those who bike, boat, cycle and even snowmobile in some regions fo the state.
Stratton will be participating in the ride along with members of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's cabinet. He noted that state officials realize the potential of the canal from an economic standpoint.
"We know what the canal did for all of upstate New York," he said.
Another study conducted by the State University of New York At Geneseo is currently underway and includes the Tonawandas, raising hopes that it may drive more funding opportunities to the area.
Dropkin said the number of individuals who choose to take their vacations cycling the canal is on the uptick.
"They're people who like to bicycle and like to do it in new places and see the history," she said. "It's also great because the canal trail is mostly flat and a lot of beginner cyclists can handle it."
Dropkin also noted that many newcomers to cycling are also taking part in the event kicking off Sunday, which each year is open to anyone who would like to participate. About 50 volunteers will be tagging along with the 500 participants, setting up make-shift tent cities in various communities along the way including a portable shower.
"We've certainly gotten better at this over the years," she said.
Another, separate ride, The Great Hudson Valley Pedal will take place from July 31 to August 5 and round out the final 200 miles of the canal from Albany to New York City.Contact Reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.