Howard Neckel was one of the original members of Different Spokes when it was founded back in 1982. I recently found out that Howard was no longer a member and wanted to find out why after 32 years he no longer was a part of the club. In his own words here is what he related to me—
It’s been a while since I’ve realized that I’m just not in the kind of shape I was when I was younger. As much as I’d like to ride with other gay cyclists, I just can’t manage to keep up with the ones in DSSF. A great many of the posted rides are in the 70+ mile category, but even when I try the shorter ones I get dropped. The core group of Spokers are very strong riders, and weaker riders like me get left in the dust. After a few repeats of that scenario, you ask yourself what the point is of participating in a club ride because you’re essentially riding solo after a quick hello at the start. It’s a sad fact of life but I have deal with the fact that I’m 67 now and not the rider I was even ten years ago, and certainly not when I first joined the club. I simply don’t “qualify” for DSSF rides anymore. It’s a shame since they’re right here in town and it’s a gay club—two big pluses. But almost all the club’s rides target the core group of really strong riders. The club doesn’t have a contingent that accommodates older, slower folks like me. That may also hold true when it comes to slower-but-NOT-older riders, for example those new to the sport who might not yet have built up a lot of speed and endurance. As a result I’ve been riding mostly with Western Wheelers. Their club is large enough that the guys who really like to burn rubber plan their own separate rides; those who like to go at a more leisurely pace with social regroups plan theirs. Actually, many rides manage to accommodate multiple skill levels simultaneously by having a slightly earlier start time as well as longer routes for the stronger riders. The multiple routes will often intersect either for lunch midway or for snacks at the end. Personally, I tend to ride with the middle (and sometimes low-middle) skill range and that allows me to talk to folks along the way and at regroups, several of whom I am happy to count as good friends now.
Unfortunately Howard’s experience seems to be shared by quite a few members and participants. Over the years I can’t count the number of times I’ve spoken with cyclists about why they didn’t come back to a Different Spokes ride or rejoin the club and with them expressing the same frustration as Howard’s: they were dropped at the beginning of a ride and ended up riding alone or riding at a faster than comfortable pace to keep up, and otherwise just didn’t get a chance to socialize with other Spokers. In fact you have only to look back to 2012 on this very blog to see the same comments mentioned by others. Those new riders who do keep up perhaps get the kind of social experience we are all looking for and consequently they might come back. They get positively reinforced because they are stronger (or more stubborn) riders. Similarly for women cyclists, they might come on a ride, see that there are very few or no other women, and then not come back. Perhaps given the dearth of dirt rides over the past ten years mountain bikers also eschew coming to Different Spokes. The result is the same: we end up with a club with the same kind of members it already has, i.e. fairly fast, or at least very avid, male road cyclists.
This wasn’t always the case. When Chris LaRussell was President, it was no surprise that having a female leader helped raise the club to near gender equity with about a 40% female membership [I believe this may also have been the case when Cathy Cavey was President in the ‘90s]. There also used to be a very active dirt contingent—why it has faded away is not clear to me. But dirt riding ascended in the early late ‘80s precisely because there was a core, active group of riders including the President at the time, Dennis Westler. It may be lost on the current membership that the original core group of Spokers were touring cyclists, not racers or wannabes. Those early club rides for the most part took place at a friendly pace with just a few animals off the front. However one aspect that has changed over the years is the age distribution. In the ‘80s the club was heavily skewed towards the twenty- and thirty-something cohorts. The number of older cyclists (older than 60) was very small—who remembers Gene Howard or Walter Teague? But those younger riders have aged up and gone grey and like many clubs, cycling or otherwise, the age distribution has shifted upward. Even our current President is a retiree!
Howard is right though: the club’s rides target the faster riders precisely because they have stepped forward to lead more rides. When a free weekend day to ride is a precious commodity, you want to do rides you enjoy and not rides you might do out of a sense of obligation. You can’t fault folks for doing what they want to do; after all, being a club member isn’t like your job (or your family!) where sometimes you just have to do things even if you don’t like it. And being a small club naturally makes it harder to cater to and invite the kind of diversity we’d like to see. The general rule of thumb for volunteer organizations is that ten percent of membership will step forward and do the work. That means of our 130 members about 13 people are club officers, ride leaders, and volunteers who do the work that makes a club run and survive. That’s not a lot of people to cover all the bases, is it?
Yet the quandary is that we’re all the worse for it. The club is supposed to be an umbrella for all LGBT cyclists, not just fast ones. How can it welcome all of us if it offers nothing to the majority of cyclists? The club takes on an increasingly one-dimensional mien that just turns off other riders and drives them away rather than towards us. At some point this becomes a self-replicating process. Think about it: it takes a abnormally committed and perhaps somewhat crazy person to come to the club and say, “Well, this club doesn’t offer what I want, so I’m going to jump in and change it!” Yet that’s what we seem to be saying, i.e. “If you don’t like it, well then roll your own!” A normal person would walk away and keep looking, and that’s exactly what most new riders (and now some old-timers) seem to be doing. Fortunately for Howard he’s found another club where he feels welcome and that seems to have embraced him with open arms. The irony and sadness is that we, a LGBT club, don’t have something to offer the Howards out there. Of course, if you’re happy doing the rides that the club currently offers, the answer is you do nothing because the status quo is perfect in meeting your needs. So nothing changes.
But for those on the margins of the club or even for those of us more actively involved but disturbed by this trend, is there a way out of this quandary? There’s a part of me that thinks that not only does it not have to be this way but that we as a club actually do have a responsibility to change it. I don’t believe that our current state is an inevitable step in the evolution of our club. I ride infrequently with Different Spokes, but I do manage to show up on a few B or C rides every year and even the very infrequent A rides (I mean, other than the ones that Roger and I lead). Occasionally there are new faces that I never see again, and I wonder why. Were they simply “bees” that flit from flower to flower all the time or did they just not have a good time with us and why? We rarely get post-ride verbal feedback from those who *don’t* come back; of course, not coming back is feedback, n’est-ce pas?
I don’t know what the solutions should be. For the Howards out there, their solution is more clear: roll up one’s sleeves and try to change Different Spokes or move on to a club that offers rides that meet your preferences. Unfortunately there aren’t any other LGBT clubs in the Bay Area, so you end up riding with “straight” clubs. It would be lovely if some in the club were just to step forward and say, “Okay, I’ll do it.” But I think that’s not likely to happen given the current lethargy. However if you are a member and want to see things change, it doesn’t hurt to take the initiative to make it so. If you want to see more leisurely paced rides, why not volunteer to lead one? Perhaps those of us who’d like to see more “A” rides on the ride calendar should start talking to each other about planning and co-leading rides. You don’t have to do it alone. It won’t change unless either we do it or we luck out and the Messiah miraculously shows up to lead us. If you’d like to see more diversity in our ride listings, give me a holler, speak out on the blog, or comment on the DSSF Yahoo! group site.