INDIANAPOLIS -- Thirty-one years ago, I spent nine days in Indianapolis covering a U.S. Olympic Committee multi-sports event then called the National Sports Festival.
By the time it ended, I decided death would be a preferable alternative to another stay of more than one day in a soporific burg with a downtown so moribund the city’s nicknames, “India-no-place” and “Naptown” not only were richly deserved but also too kind.
In those days, the dining options were so few the only real choice was whether to have a New York strip, filet or ribeye at St. Elmo, the only decent restaurant in the middle of downtown. (Not counting the wondrous Shapiro’s deli, of course, but its location is not central.)
Five years later, facing the prospect of being marooned in Indy for the two weeks of the 1987 Pan American Games, I thought about bringing a supply of peanut butter.
But things already had begun to change in downtown Indy, a change that continued so steadily over the next quarter-century that a five-day stay in late June was a delight of new experiences.
The only depressing part was to see the legacy of that Sports Festival and the Pan Am Games, which had made Indianapolis the “amateur sports capital of America,” is being forgotten – as the leaky roof at the Indiana University Natatorium, crying out for maintenance, made clear.
Indy apparently figured that luring the Super Bowl in 2012 meant never having to worry again about proper facilities for elite swimmers and runners and cyclists.
Like Atlanta, which essentially told Olympic athletes not to let the door slam them in the butt once the 1996 Summer Games ended, Indianapolis has moved on. It may still be host to events like the recent U.S. Swimming Championships, but there was no buzz in town about that event, and the attendance was very poor.
End of digression. The point of this is to praise Indy.
(Well, not entirely. That a city which has ponied up the bulk of nearly $1 billion in arenas for its two major-league teams let its symphony go begging, endure a lockout and have the musicians take pay cuts is shameful.)
Now where was I?
Oh, yes, cycling the Monon Trail.
It was the reason the bike came along on the business trip from Chicago, my first by car to Indy since becoming a road cyclist.
The Monon Trail is a piece of repurposed railroad right-of-way, which starts just northeast of downtown and continues (as the Monon Greenway) into the suburbs north of the city (about 17 miles in all, as of now). It has to be among the best cycling options of any large urban area in the country.
By using the bike lanes on New York St. and Washington St., then the Cultural Trail leg on Massachusetts Ave. (more later), access to and from the Monon Trail from my centrally located hotel was safe and easy. The Monon Trail itself is paved and, about four miles from the southern end, becomes shaded by a lush canopy of trees that made the summer sun, humidity and 90-degree temperature bearable.
At 9 a.m. one weekday, walking, running and cycling traffic was light enough that it was easy to maintain speeds around 20 miles per hour much of the way (especially going south, with a long stretch that is slightly downhill.) On another weekday ride at noon, the trail was considerably busier, especially in Carmel. The Monon Greenway piece in Carmel has a 20 mph speed limit.
The big issue for those inclined toward a consistently fast ride is the frequent street crossings that require either a full or near stop. But slowing down reveals trailside temptations like the Broad Ripple Brew Pub, Brics Ice Cream Station and, once in Carmel, a plethora of restaurants either adjacent to or close to the Greenway (the smells from Bub’s Burgers were particularly alluring.)
In the interest of safety and fitness, I resisted food and beer until late dinners after the evening swim sessions ended.
Late dinner once was an oxymoron in Indy. Now the choices are considerable. We tried bar food at Mesh – one of several restaurants on Massachusetts near the theater district – with its tasty $2 soft tacos ($2! – go for the tilapia). Then three of us had a shared meal while sitting at the bread bar at Bluebeard, part of the Fletcher Place revivification.
Bluebeard’s grilled octopus with Mediterranean bagna cauda and scallops in mild red curry were sensational, as were the local tomatoes with extra virgin olive oil, salt, pea shoots and parmesan cheese.
There were many more tantalizing restaurants to try and hard-surface trails that connect to the Monon left to ride. A lengthy trip to Indy may once have seemed like doing time – say, a life sentence. Now you can be left thinking your time there was too short.