Friday, March 26, 2010

Ronde de Rosey: Stop Calling Me "Serious"

My Most Enjoyable Ride of Late

Preamble: I’m NOT a “Serious” Cyclist

Sorry this took so long to post. Crazy week.

By now, many of you have heard about this thing the Ronde de Rosey. Before I describe my experience I have to state how much I have come to hate being called a “serious” cyclist. Too often I go to things called “fun” rides and everybody is pissed off or suffering or miserable or broken down. And if you offer somebody advice they sneer and say, “Look, I’m not really a serious cyclist like you.”

Funny, I didn't think I was all that serious.

Folks need not confuse being competent with being serious. If anything, this competence makes us more joyful. I think of this when I watched the film Man On Wire, about Philip Petit, who walked the tight rope between the World Trade Center towers. He simply had a ball doing what looked so hard.

But he did it with joy!

This competence proved most joyful at this ride.

If you will endure my report and get to the end, you’ll see a link to Natasha McKittrick’s photos of this event. They’re real good. Some others are on my Facebook page or you can read the blogs of others on my page. Chip Baker (who has helped me with my blog, thank you) writes a great account and Rosey has some equally entertaining materials.

The one thing that stands out about the pictures is that everybody is smiling!Even guys fixing flats are having fun!

The Ronde de Rosey
OK I’ll start with a confession. On the day I was born Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. In short, this means I’m eligible to race the 50-plus category this season. And given the outcome of my riding on Sunday in the Ronde de Rosey, a five-hour, 65-mile cyclo-cross epic in the burbs and bogs of Boston’s “MetroWest” region, I may just pull a license to race.

This whole episode has given cause for hyperbole. I believed this to be one of the greatest 10 rides of my life. Mind you I’ve been riding a lot for more than 30 years.

I believe I am allowed some degree of hyperbole due to my age. Men hit this age and suddenly every experience – athletic, professional, personal, and emotional – receives extra importance as it may be their last great whatever. You fill in the blank. It’s why tough men hit 50 and weep uncontrollably at elementary school plays.

On March 21 I did the inaugural Ronde de Rosey. This was a 65-mile outlaw race organized by a guy named Scott Rosenthal and I must say it proved to be the most fantastic ride I've done in a long while. I can say his name because nobody got hurt or lost, well, all that badly.

This thing would be a cyclo-cross tour. Teams of 3-7 riders were sent off in waves every five minutes, loosely handicapped so the fastest guys went last. Each squadron was given a cue sheet and forced to take a no-whining pledge. In short, you charged down the road and every 5-10 miles you were routed into assorted trails, boardwalks, conservation lands, aqueducts, etc. You had to figure shit out. Check out the photos and you’ll see all sorts of problems being repaired on the fly. Again, this event was NOT for beginners.

Here’s another confession. I really just talk the talk; most of these guys on the ride know me only as an announcer. Few have ever seen me ride, let alone compete. And five hours on a borrowed ‘cross bike would not be easy. To worsen things, I stood for three hours the night before at the Equinox Fund Raiser and had too much to drink. My legs felt like concrete at the start and I predicted bad things at the end of this ride.

As the first few waves rolled off, I only had a single goal. Catch the guy riding the thing on a single speed and wearing suspenders.

I'm an off-road sissy, but this thing proved nothing short of FANTASTIC. We were calf-deep in water several times. There were extended stretches of flooded, muddy abandoned rail beds. This event proved a testament of gratitude for all the hard work done by Conservation Commissions, railroad engineers, public works crews, groundskeepers, and Scout troops who built boardwalks and cleared and marked trails.

We would ride as a unit on the road, mashing about on ‘cross tires on the road and then – where the legions of motorists saw nothing but the cyclist saw something else – dive between two glacial boulders that mark a trail head and dissolve into a wooded trail network.

Island Hopping

The first few trails were patches of woods before we turned in Newton into Cutler Park. We had to sign in. “Go out, do a lap of the island, and come back the way you came” said the marshal.

“Island?” In fourth grade I learned that meant surrounded by water. Sure enough we came to a long boardwalk submerged by recent rains. We roared around the island and when we returned, Team Hupcake Express had passed every team; this included the guy with suspenders. But as we left we saw the real fast guys entering the park, guys like Cort Cramer, Peter Sullivan, Peter Bradshaw, and Pete Smith, all elite level ‘crossers.

We had to get on it hard. The collection of trails were secret ribbons – sometimes right up against Interstate highways – that few people glazed over in automobiles realize even exist.

I just lit up with joy surfing on the Weston rail bed – an abandoned line that those folks refuse to convert into a bike path for fear of some scruffy element coming in to town – and dashed through the final 200 yards in a foot of water. Rosey met us there and confirmed our fear; we were the leaders.

As a promoter the beauty of this event is that we made zero traffic impact on anybody. No motorists ever realized a cycling event unraveled in their neighborhoods and on their roads.

The highlight of the day would be the group of us splattering onto the pavement, dripping wet from the knees down, speckled with mud, and overtaking a road poser – this is written by a true roadie, mind you – as we entered Concord. Having been overtaken by six mud-splattered crossers with 50 psi in the tires, this ninny chose to attack us on a downhill. Only Chip Baker’s calm demeanor kept my sword in the scabbard.

Riding with the “Hupcake Express” as a guest, I assumed I would be a deterrent to their progress. But as it turned out, each of the five starters brought a unique skill set to this potluck of pain. Ronnie, a former BMX racer, set the trails; Chipster would be the navigator; Mark, a former hockey player, could pound on the roads; Eli would be the ‘roleur” or all-arounder who glued the thing together. We stole Rich from a hapless group of guys on road bikes to serve as our own Mark Trail of singletrack sections. And I would kick in and drive the pace inside of Route 128 in the urban environment. This would be like the Oceans Eleven, the MI Force, of cycling on this event.

Our squad only had to overcome a single puncture in Wellesley College. And the Chipster went over the front once in Cutler Park. (I’ve never seen a guy smile while he’s crashing.) But the he-man of the day would be Eli. In the fourth hour of riding, and clearly a bit bonked, he took a digger off a board walk. What would have been a simple dab on a trail would be a five foot drop into slop. He bounced up, announced the entire episode had been planned for my in-flight entertainment, and re-mounted.

Only afterwards did this he-man confess that two weeks earlier he had separated the same shoulder on which he just augured into the dirt. And on Tuesday I learned doctors had him in a sling.

A Test and a Triumph

In the fourth hour Colin Reuter and company caught us. But he admitted to dumping half his team, some navigational discrepancies, and then announced in Lexington Center that he had to stop for food.

When he pulled off, we drilled it.

Pounding down Massachusetts Avenue, all of us spattered in mud, we ground into an unusual headwind, drawing some unique stairs from the preppies and hippies. Guys on bikes would roll up to us at stop lights, look up and down, and just have to ask: “Where the hell have guys been?”

With this route as my daily commute, I took the flag for the regiment and brought the guys right through all the Harvard Square traffic, occasionally dropping back to check on Eli, and over the river into Boston.

Triumphant, we spun up to the host tavern, The Washington Square Tavern, to discover nobody else ahead of us.

Beers and tall tales followed. Just check out the pics here:

I would like to propose we consider doing a similar ride on Monday, Oct. 11, Columbus Day, after our cross event in Roger Williams Park event, starting and ending in the park. I may ask for a good entry fee with proceeds going to the Bikes Belong Foundation, totally earmarked for a grant to support the East Coast Greenway Alliance’s work in New England.

We can do the whole thing in Rhode Island.

Comments sought.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bike Lane Bliss: The Rift

Bike Lane Bliss: The Great Rift

NOTE: This blog entry is the first of five straight days of blogging on bicycle advocacy, as I head to the National Bike Summit in Washington, DC. This is my third trip to this most encouraging of events in American cycling.

BOSTON, Mass. (March 8, 2010) - Anybody who has ever laughed at Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” would have to chuckle over the locally vicious divide in our world of bicycle advocacy. This infighting is comically similar to the fratricidal hatred between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea.

This past week I discovered an online debate about my local advocacy group, MassBike, having the audacity to take a position to officially support the development of bike facilities and bicycle specific infrastructure.

I realize the reader is twisting up their heads like Nipper, the dog in the RCA ads. Seems kinda like the bleeding obvious stance for a bike advocacy group to take, right?

Wrong. And here is what frustrates so many truly enthusiastic cyclists about advocacy. People who may be lifelong commuters, bike industry leaders,

The world of bicycle advocacy divides into two basic camps: “Vehicular cyclists” and - if I may take the liberty of creating a label – “Infrastructure cyclists.”

This past week MassBike posted on its site a decision to stand on the “Infrastructure” side of the aisle. You can read it here:

As innocuous as this statement reads, I found the venomous comments to be most revealing.

This rift is also why I developed this blog.

Let me give a broad overview of this rift. Vehicular cyclists argue that bikes should simply be part of the flow of vehicles on our roadways, subject to the same rules as automobiles, and deserving of the same rights. The Infrastructure cyclists argue that cyclists should ALSO have facilities – bike lanes, bike paths, bike boulevards – dedicated to cycling.

Look folks, right now just one percent of all trips in America are done by bike. To return to the Monty Python metaphor, I feel the real issue is with The Romans. We need to address how the 99 percent of the population perceives bicycling and stop quibbling.

I happen to believe that both sides are right and all of them are wrong. In my own 30-plus years of cycling, I’ve always subscribed to the basic tenant of the vehicular argument. What helps is that I raced for 20 years and have no trouble operating smoothly and safely within the mix of automobile traffic. I do not confine my riding to a prescribed lane, especially where that lane features the danger of doors, delivery trucks, and distracted pedestrians on their phones.

That said, I’m also a father of three and reside nearby a popular bike path, The Minuteman. I also commute daily through Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston where I routinely ride in designated bike lanes and see a growing number of beginner commuters employing those facilities. And these beginners include my older sister, who became an urban commuter well in to her 50s.

Overall, however, I believe the locus of most American bike advocacy is wrong. Not because they aren’t good people, or devoted cyclists, or smart. The vast majority of bike advocates are hard working folks doing a thankless and important job.

This does not mean I give up on them. I believe every cyclist should be involved in advocacy. I’m certainly not giving up on bike advocacy. I just want them to adjust their aim. I believe change is marketed more than it is legislated.

That said, I honestly believe that the best thing to do for American cycling would be to put many of our established bike advocates in charge of marketing automobiles.

I’m not joking. Having sat on a few boards and enjoyed a lot of advocacy discussions and meetings, I have come to believe that advocacy leaders would be well served to read a bit less NHTSA data and watch an occasional episode of Mad Men.

You see, I don’t believe we have a problem in engineering; I believe we have a problem in marketing.

One of the greatest mistakes of cycling advocacy may be its constant emphasis on safety. There’s a basic principle of marketing: safety equals fear. If you’re constantly discussing how to make your product safer, you’re constantly telling people that your product is dangerous. When Volvo introduced the three-point seatbelt in the early 1950s, Detroit car companies resisted that product’s introduction in American models. They were not concerned about cost; they did not discount their efficacy. But they did not wish to give the impression that their product was dangerous.

Any bike commuter who has ridden an office elevator can recite all the times people have questioned them about the safety of their enterprise. Then those same skeptics of cycling confidently march to the parking lot and partake in an exercise that kills more than 40,000 people each year in America.

They have been brainwashed to believe that cars are safe and bikes are dangerous.

But carmakers do not aim for the minds of the market, they aim for the heart. They use sex, status, speed, power, and convenience to sell their product. Only after Ralph Nader did they start to occasionally advertise the safety of their product, but were cautious to only show their product in clean labs with dummies inside sterile cockpits to convince customers these products were safe.

Those guys are brilliant. Here they have a product that is deadly, ruins the environment, destroys the quality of communities, economically cripples families, fosters an addiction to foreign oil, and spawns global warfare. And they have people lining up to buy more. If 40,000 people died in plane crashes every year, the entire fleet would be grounded.

Here is the bicycle, arguably the most perfect of all inventions. This product is environmentally benign, improves communities, is proven as means of weight loss, improves one’s sex life, saves households thousands of dollars, and requires no fossil fuels to operate. These guys have the fountain of youth to sell and all they can do is bicker about how to use the product correctly.

What’s the most important thing a cyclist can get to make a bike ride safer?

Reflective straps?
Body armor?

No. It’s another cyclist.

Even if it’s an incorrect cyclist, it’s another cyclist. Every cyclist carves out a little bit of the collective attention span on the roads to look out for cyclists. Multiply that by 100 and your entire traffic grid slows down and starts paying attention.

I believe in bike paths and bike lanes and boxes and such, not because they get us road share, but because they get us mind share. They’re constantly reinforcing the notion to pedestrians, motorists and cyclists that bikes are part of the transportation grid.

Are there mistakes in engineering? You betcha. In the development of highways for automobiles all sorts of mistakes were made – and some with tragic consequences – in the process of constantly improving the system.

But demand preceded supply. Nobody went out and advocated and engineered and constructed our Interstate highway system and THEN encouraged folks to drive. They built that amazing system – love it or hate it, the Interstate system is a spectacular achievement – because the cars and drivers had overwhelmed the existing system of roads.

My bike path, the Minuteman, provides a good example of how vehicular cyclists do not appreciate rules of marketing. When first constructed, this rail trail drew some concerns that cyclists would be exiled from roads. The motoring public, the argument went, would not tolerate cyclists riding along the parallel route, Massachusetts Avenue.

What happened, however, was a derivative of the gas station principle in marketing. We assume that the market is a given size and if there is a single gas station at a crossroads, the creation of a second gas station at that crossroads would split the market in halve. When in reality the original gas station sees an increase in their business.

The same held true with my bike path. The cycling traffic on Massachusetts Avenue actually increased, despite the fact that the Minuteman Bikeways saw traffic blossom to an amazing 10,000 users per day.

Are the users on that path a touch wobbly? Yes, but every cyclist is a work in progress. Today’s wobbly beginner is tomorrow’s hardened commuter.

One of the most amazing facts about cycling, borne out by a recent study of traffic safety in the Netherlands, is that as more people take to cycling the entire system becomes safer. And not only do more cyclist make it safer for more cycling, they make it safer for EVERYBODY, including motorists, pedestrians and transit users. That’s opposite of what putting more cars on the road creates, which is a more deadly system for every user.

And although I’m grouchy about the conduct of advocates, I’m deeply grateful to all of them for the hard work done over the past 30 years to get us a small degree of respect on the American roadways and trails.

By practice, I’m a vehicular cyclist. By preaching, I’m an infrastructure cyclist. By observing, however, I’m a marketing guy. We need to sell cycling as sexy, as fun, as healthy, as economical, as quick, as independent, as convenient.

But to date, cycling advocacy has been like an army – if you’ll pardon the military metaphor – operating strictly with infantry. I’m not saying we stop worrying about transportation policy and engineering. But we’re operating without any of the artillery of marketing and the cavalry of lobbying that the folks who built a car culture used to win.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Of Fistfights and Flowers

Bike Lane Bliss:
Of Fistfights and Flowers

What has perplexed me for years is that the same person who would hold a door for me at a coffee shop is the same person who would maniacally drive into me for causing them less delay than I created in the line at Starbucks.
And yet consider this inventory of hardware:
· One Craftsman 9/16 box wrench
· One empty Southern Comfort bottle
· Countless lit cigarettes
· One Lipton ice tea plastic bottle half full of tobacco spittle
· One cup of beer
· One heavy gauge steel chain with engine hook attached
All this has been tossed at me by motorists. Nothing has ever caused bodily injury. But it certainly wounds one’s pride. And I must say that the vast majority of that inventory came at me before Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France.
And the roadside scuffles have been too numerous to list. Most of the altercations are simply shouting episodes with empty threats. On a few occasions carloads of young men have emptied out of cars and attacked groups with whom I’ve ridden.
I would be lying if I did not confess to particular joy while catching one such driver, who had swerved, honked and not-so-politely instructed me where to go. Finding him mired in beach traffic, I drew up to the man’s car with his girlfriend next to him and got my helmet fully inside the passenger side window to ask what he wanted to say, giving the middle-aged guy a Flomax moment right there.
But upon reflection, I realized that win, lose or draw, I achieved little from those altercations. And the residual impact would be a negative regard for every cyclist those people encounter thereafter. The result of all those altercations between cyclists and motorists fostered the creation of the Facebook page “There’s a Perfectly Good Path Right Next to the Road You Stupid Cyclists.” Right or wrong, that page had nearly 40,000 “friends.” (The group urging Facebook to remove the page, mind you, had 46,000 friends).
To be a cyclist in America requires enormous patience with people. One has to draw a lot of lessons from folks like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. There is one key difference. Those folks did not choose to be subjugated to discrimination and cruelty; they were simply born into a bad situation. Cyclists choose to be minorities. And if the horns and epithets and projectiles of anger prove to be too much, they can simply quit cycling.
For nearly 30 years I had ridden bikes with a brazen defiance. With a bit more speed and a lot more confidence than most cyclists, I never display cowardice while riding in traffic. I hate day-glow green. That is not to say I have no judgment. Yes, I wear a helmet. And yes, I ride with full-on lights at night and have reflective straps. But I also don’t festoon myself in so much reflective garb and accessories so as to advertise fear.
It’s a fine line between riding in a deliberate, confident fashion and riding in an arrogant and aggressive style.
Really decent people have been known to fly off the handle when motoring behind cyclists. Consider the case of Michael Bryant, a former Ontario attorney general once touted as a front runner to serve as Ontario’s premier. This guy made prosecution of road rage a cause célèbre during his service as the top law enforcement man in that Canadian province. And then last summer he snapped on a cyclist, striking the guy and then purposefully dragging this young father repeatedly into lamp posts and obstacles, and then leaving him to die.
So what unlocks that mentality? What turns a mild-mannered professional into this homicidal maniac?
Conversely, what changes that seething person behind the wheel of a 3,500-pound weapon, into the same jovial person willing to politely wait for the potato salad at a company picnic?
One day I discovered the answer.
Upon riding home from my Boston office I had cause to get my wife some flowers. After picking up a bouquet, I hopped back on the bike and pedaled north on Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington, a broad roadway made famous in April of 1775. Cradling the flowers in my left arm, I kept to the right and out of the way of rush hour traffic. As traffic stacked up to turn left, I felt a car press up behind me, swerving right to continue straight. The engine revved and then shut down, apparently due to my presence in the roadway. I could feel the irritation of the driver behind me and braced for yet another conflict. I refused to change my line; I refused to be intimidated. I was just a guy trying to get home.
The car swerved to reveal a Subaru Forester with a suburban mom wearing an exasperated look. In the back seat sat a small girl with her window half down. She pointed to my colors and my bike and smiled upon spying my flowers.
The mother’s entire expression rinsed into a warm grin and something about the flowers connected me to something human. The flowers told the world I had somebody at home and a nice personality.
She backed off the accelerator and calmly passed by, even offering a little wave of support as every motorist behind passed me with a smile.
I have read that in designing spaces to control large crowds – such as town squares and stadiums –flower beds are always respected and never trampled on.
I saw that in an instant with that driver.
Realizing I cannot always ride with a bouquet of flowers, I had cause to reflect on how can I, as a cyclist, create that reaction with others.
So I have developed 10 basic and somewhat broad rules that have since served me well. I will touch on each in future blogs but for now I find that when I break these rules, bad things happen. My rules for riding include:
1. Be Nice
2. Be Deliberate
3. Use the Magic Word (And it is not “please”)
4. See and Be Seen
5. Say Nothing Mean
6. Please and Thank You
7. Yield Down
8. Pay it Backwards and Forwards
9. Have Compassion
10. Forgive
To read the list takes less than a minute - to fully integrate these rules into one’s cycling requires a lifetime of practice.
I’ve been cycling for nearly 30 years when – by accident – the power of those flowers revealed themselves to me. Like Thomas Merton’s revelation, I had been given this gift. And like Merton, these lessons blend elements of Christianity and Buddhism. But unlike Merton, I choose to pray on a bike on Sundays.