At the board meeting in January we had the beginning of a discussion about the lack of shorter and slower rides in the current ride calendar. This wasn’t an abstract musing but a voicing of some of the board who liked to do exactly those kinds of rides. As the resident old fart board member I have a long view of the evolution of the club and the waxing and waning of periodic issues. I wrote a piece for the board about the history of this issue most of which is below. As I mentioned to the board, my summary wasn’t intended to be a downer or to throw water on the idea but for us to see that the issue is not an old one and recurs periodically because it doesn’t have an easy, permanent resolution.
The good news is that to begin to redress this shortcoming two of the board, David and Laura, will be leading a shortened version of the Jersey Ride on Saturday April 9. The regular JR will also take place and the shortened version of just 24 miles will start and end in Sausalito instead. Plus, we’ll have a sweep so you can’t get lost. If the regular JR has been too long or too strenuous for you, here’s a chance to meet fellow club members and have lunch together at Woodlands Market in Tiburon and you won’t arrive home afterwards exhausted or exasperated!
Coincidentally David M. and his husband will be leading a short, 16-mile, after-work ride this Friday through Golden Gate Park and down the Great Highway with the option for tacos afterwards.
Check out both detailed ride listings on the club website if you’re interested.
“Why Can’t We Have Slower and Shorter Rides??”
Some history and background: This discussion has ebbed and waned since the very beginning of the club and it reemerges every now and then. I recall that in the 1980s that it was common for riders of varying ability levels showing up for club rides almost regardless of the listed pace. You can probably understand why this was happening at the time: there weren’t a lot of rides and there was a real thirst to ride with other actual LGBT people! It almost didn’t matter what the listed pace was because your fellow queers wanted to meet cyclists just like them. I think a second reason was that initially there was no ride code (distance/terrain/pace) to provide guidance. However even after the ride code was developed, this issue persisted and I think some of it could be put on the murky nature of ride codes, eg. what is a “moderate” pace versus a “leisurely” one?
So what happened? Occasionally faster riders took off and/or slower riders got left behind. In those days we had no GPS—we barely had cyclometers—and if the ride leader didn’t give out a map or cue sheet, then you had to follow him/her unless you already knew the route. But often ride leaders gave out paper maps. (Photocopied AAA maps with yellow highlighting were popular!) The result was just what you expected: sometimes the fast group was never seen again except maybe at a regroup point and the slower riders might disappear because the ride was too fast or hard or because they just didn’t know the route. There were repeated admonitions in the club newsletter, The Chain Letter, that rides needed to be rated accurately and that ride leaders lead it at the pace that they had listed. Faster riders were advised not to “hijack” the rides (ie. inadvertently cause the group to go faster than the listed pace) and to slower riders not to attend rides whose pace was harder then they could realistically maintain. Because those admonitions were repeated often it was apparent that it was occuring all too often (I mean, it went on for years!)
This caused a fair amount of low level tension because slower riders showing up on faster rides posed a conundrum for ride leaders. If they slowed the ride down for them, the other fast riders would get upset or just take off anyway (unless the leader hadn’t given out maps). If the ride didn’t slow down to accommodate the slower riders, then they were basically blown off and often never came back because “Different Spokes is all fast riders”/“Different Spokes isn’t very friendly/too competitive”. Occasionally a ride leader might speak to the slow riders at a regroup point and recommend that they try a slower paced/less hilly ride the next time. I doubt many of them ever returned partly because although we had more easy rides back then, it still was much less than other kinds of rides. Resentment ensued. Bottom line: it was a no-win situation because someone often ended up being dissatisfied with how the ride went.
Another dynamic was at play as well: as the club quickly grew, its composition changed as well. The early Spokers were heavily into bicycle touring. But within two years we had an influx of “serious” recreational cyclists, ie. those that did local centuries, wanted to “train”, and liked to chase each other up and down hills to exhaustion. As the club grew into a club composed of more avid cyclists, touring cyclists as well as casual cyclists—to whom we were also reaching out—diminished.
So that’s pretty much what we still are today, a club of avid recreational road cyclists. Except for an extended foray into dirt riding in the late 80s and through the 90s, the club has remained the same, weighted towards moderate and hard rides.
Previous attempts to broaden: Although there have been ride leaders who like slower and flatter routes, there have been far fewer than those who like more challenging rides. And even some of the slower leaders liked to do long and hilly routes such as the Davis Double and Mt. Hamilton, eg. Sharon Lum. The major standout is Aaron Berman-Almendares. For several years in the early Aughts he led a short after-work ride in SF almost every week. It was popular among a certain segment of the club. But it’s interesting to note that after he retired from ride leading absolutely no one else stepped up fill that gap and lead that kind of ride. Whether that was due to Aaron’s personality, the lackluster leadership interest on the part of his followers, or some other reason is not clear.
Occasionally sporadic attempts to lead easier rides were done by other ride leaders. They mainly were rides in Golden Gate Park and they had just as sporadic turn out, ie. not many. The problem is that ride leaders who usually lead more challenging rides don’t want to lead easier rides regularly, which is completely understandable because people who lead rides lead the kind of rides they want to do. This is a fun club, not a job.
There was a more regular and systematic attempt to reach out to this population. My husband and I led a Social Ride series from July 2015 to December 2018. These rides were almost all A-pace rides (there were a few B-pace) varying in length from about 25 to 40 miles; most were flattish but some were hilly such as the Three Bears and the Sawyer Camp Trail. They were led in various locations around the Bay Area—Peninsula, East Bay, South Bay, and North Bay. We also tried to start them at BART stations when possible to make them accessible to those who didn’t drive to the start. These rides were not quite monthly—more like 7 or 8 times per year at least. Our goal was to encourage cyclists who were slower. They could be aging up and slowing down, newer cyclists, coming back from injury, whatever. It was not explicitly intended to reach out to casual cyclists and the length of the rides almost certainly discouraged that type of person to join the rides—it was about pace, not distance (although our Social rides were shorter than what we usually do ourselves).
What was the result of this initiative? Ridership varied from maybe ten-ish to just we two; the usual number was around four to six altogether, and genderwise it was mostly male. There were a few regular riders (by ‘regular’ I mean showed up on more than two rides). Generally it was new people often but they usually did not come back. There were a few Spokers who joined our rides when sick or needing a recovery ride. No one else out of this group ever got inspired to lead a ride. However there were a few people who ended up joining the club because of the Social rides.
Roger and I ended the Social rides not only because there wasn’t any internal energy to that process (ie. others weren’t stepping up) but also because we generally prefer faster and harder rides. In that respect our effort was a real outlier because we did it for a three-and-a-half year period, which I think shows how difficult it is to reach out to this population at least with the format we used.
The most recent effort to reach out to slower cyclists was the Different Spokes MeetUp group. The 2019 board decided to start a MeetUp group to try to reach out to a wider population of cyclists. This experiment lasted about six months. Ginny Watson headed up that effort. We cross-listed existing rides to the MeetUp calendar and Ginny in particular led some SF rides—called Mellow Rides—that were casual and slower (around Lake Merced). The turnout was very light—maybe two or three other cyclists at most although two of them did join the club. What we learned about using MeetUp was that it’s an extremely easy way to reach out to a lot of people but that those people were likely to be casual cyclists (eg. rode a few times a year) or just liked signing up for events (and then never showing up).
So where does that leave us today? Cycling participation like other activities consists of a pyramid of people. The base is very big and broad and the peak is very small. One would think that reaching out to the base, ie. casual or slower cyclists who like shorter rides, would be a good way to increase the membership of the club as well as diversify. After the MeetUp experiment the board more or less came to the consensus that reaching out to casual cyclists was not going to work. Why? Because less avid cyclists are less avid precisely because they’re less interested in cycling compared to other life activities and that included prioritizing putting energy into Different Spokes. So their interest in stepping up and taking on leadership roles is also very low. Conversely, already avid cyclists will likely want to put energy into Different Spokes if they like what they experience, which is (a) rides they like to do, and (b) they start making good friends in the club, which they are more likely to do if they’re hanging with people who share the same interests namely, doing the same kinds of rides. If you want to start attracting more casual cyclists, then likely the best way to do that is to have people and activities that that kind of cyclist likes, namely slower rides and other people who like doing slower rides.
So, how can that happen? I think it takes committed slower/casual cyclists who want to make that happen stepping up and leading slower, shorter rides. In other words we need slow/shorter ride evangelists! If our ride calendar doesn’t have regular slower and shorter rides, then bringing this type of cyclist into the club isn’t going to work because we will have nothing to offer them on an ongoing basis. Those who prefer slower and shorter rides need to post them and draw out both members and non-members who enjoy those rides. Asking the existing ride leader cohort to take on that responsibility is, in my opinion, a non-starter because their interest in leading rides that they wouldn’t normally do is very low. And as we all know life in the Bay Area is very time-pressured so most cyclists are going to want to commit their precious free time to the rides they want to do. That said, there have been and may still be members who like to do both kinds of rides or at least whose riding ability and interest straddles that divide. But the problem is that this hypothetical creature doesn’t exist in the current ride leader cohort.
For clubs and voluntary activity-based organizations the rule of thumb is that your leadership will come from 10 to 15% of your members. If you have a hundred members, then you can expect that ten to fifteen members will be the actively contributing to the running of the club. We are already at that point as we have about 17 ride leaders and officers and we have about 113 members. So unless some of the existing cohort want to focus on leading shorter, easier rides, we’ll have to find a way to bring in new ride leaders. Keep in mind that if you want a sweep for a ride, then you need at least two ride leaders per ride, doubling your need for ride leaders.
The other thing that might help grow a cohort of members who like slower and easier rides it to offer this type of ride on a regular basis as we do with the Jersey Ride. If it’s on the calendar at regular intervals, then slow/easy riders will know that they can do the ride next month/week if they miss the most current one. But someone has to step up to lead those rides.
A related issue: pace inflation. This is a topic I wrote about some years ago. This is an issue, which I called ‘pace inflation’, that impacts ride diversity: specifically, when ride leaders post a ‘B’ ride and then proceed to lead it at a C or D pace. This happens not because ride leaders are cruel but because the B-pace category has morphed into the catch-all pace. If you read the description of a B ride it is supposed to be moderate as opposed to leisurely, brisk, or strenuous. The problem is that one person’s moderate pace is another person’s strenuous pace. If you ride at your self-designated ‘moderate’ pace, well, then it should be a B-pace ride, right? Not exactly. If you look at our website and the description of pace you will see that moderate is equivalent to a moving average of 10-12 mph, ie. at the end of your ride, your average moving speed should have been between 10 and 12 mph. But few pay attention to this and I bet almost no ride leader has actually investigated what their average moving speed typically is. The second factor is that the B-pace ride is the most listed category in our rides and also happens to enjoy overall the most turnout. So if you want a good turnout, you list your ride as a B. Even if you end up averaging 14 mph. Finally, riders who come on a “B” ride and can keep up and enjoy it, then come to think they’re riding at a B pace—even if it’s 17 mph—and go on to replicate this if they lead a ride.
In my experience it’s rare that a club ride has been done at a pace under the listed pace, ie. slower than advertised, unless something really peculiar has happened (eg. a major mechanical problem).
If we do list slower and easier rides, there should be a concerted effort to make sure that the rides are done as advertised or they will inadvertently end up repeating this phenomenon and driving away the very population it is trying to attract and ending up with low participation.