Pedaling the Pandemic

On Any Sunday

With San Mateo and Santa Clara counties now open for outdoor group recreation, Roger and I decided we’d go check out the scene. We headed over to the north end of Cañada Road and rode south, then went around the Portola loop and continued through Los Altos before heading back.

After not riding at all at the beginning of the shelter in place, we’ve slowly been riding more and more. Foregoing riding was not due entirely to fear of COVID-19 (but it was a big part admittedly). COVID-19 just became a good excuse to focus on the non-pedaling aspects of our complicated lives. Cycling was easy for us to give up for a short time and the shelter in place, which was initially expected to be in place for about three to six weeks, appeared to be shortlived. Then it continued. We occasionally ventured out on bike for very short rides to see what the real world was like beyond the doors of our house/hideaway/prison. Things sure were quiet—lots of people walking but not a lot of cyclists or cars. As time and the shelter in place went on and the house repairs and garden got taken care of, we started to ride a bit more. Now it’s evident that the pandemic is not going to be controlled nor will the shelter in place be short. Not ride for a couple of years? Uh, no. So now we are almost back to our riding frequency pre-pandemic but we’d been keeping with the spirit of the SIP by staying close to home and only in our home county. So going to San Mateo and Santa Clara was a big step for us as we hadn’t travelled anywhere since February when we went into the Central Valley to ride a couple of metric centuries.

The Midpeninsula has always been a hotbed of cycling and even more so after cycling became the new golf for all the techies in Silicon Valley. Cañada Road was swarming with cyclists even though Bicycle Sundays have been cancelled due to the pandemic. I didn’t expect the pandemic to have any measurable decrease of the number of riders on the road; the opposite may even be true as we saw a lot of bikes out and about. The parking lot and the shoulders were just packed with cars. What was a little bit different was the variety of cyclists. Usually it’s full of young bike bros and “pro” recreational cyclists but today there were also a fair number of “regular” cyclists—you know, people without helmets wearing casual clothes instead of bikie drag and riding all sorts of bikes including BMX, hybrids, old Univegas, and a lot of e-bikes. And they weren’t all white (or Asian) either. Oh, and lots of women cyclists and a few kids. I heard a fair amount of Spanish being spoken and there were more Black cyclists than I can ever remember seeing for such ultra-white suburbs. Apparently this pandemic-induced bike boom is for real.

In all respects it was a typical weekend day with lots of cyclists pedaling their wares. Perhaps that was the disturbing thing: there were definitely a lot of groups out together. Other than an occasional mask there was very little to distinguish these pandemic riders from any other day. Smaller groups were mostly fine but a couple of the bigger groups were in raggedy pacelines with little evidence of social distancing. Admittedly what constitutes ‘safe’ social distancing while cycling is murky. However whatever it is it must be different than what we normally do, and what we saw was no different than the old normal. I had to remind myself that, well, outdoor transmission is rare…so far.

We saw a fair number of riders sporting Pen Velo kit but they were never more than two or three in a grouplet and they were scattered throughout our ride and the day. Pen Velo is one of the Midpeninsula racing clubs that still does not recommend group rides at this time. Apparently their members are compliant.

Mask use by cyclists, which has really gone up over here in Contra Costa, was overall much less on the Midpeninsula. The few we saw were almost all on people who were already riding alone. Those in groups, none of them had masks. As I can attest, trying to breathe when you’re going full-bore or almost full-bore is a lot more difficult with a face covering.

It’s hard to know what all of this means. Part of me believes that mask use while cycling is massive overkill (yet I do it!). But when it comes to group rides I just can’t believe how blasé so many folks are about possible transmission. We really don’t know whether hammering a paceline might lead to infection. But instead of erring on the side of precaution almost all the cyclists were evidently not giving it a second thought. Perhaps that’s part of the recreational mindset. As a former bike commuter I developed a vigilant outlook in order to survive riding in traffic. But recreational riding invokes a different point of view where fun is the focus and danger not so much.

To almost all appearances cycling in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties appeared normal: lots of people out on bikes enjoying the day. It’s heartening to see scads of cyclists on the road but I’m not sure that we’re helping much with stopping the pandemic.