The Long View

1982…

I joined Different Spokes shortly after I moved to San Francisco. I don’t recall exactly when but it was around 1983 or so. Except for a few years in the mid-90s I’ve been a member almost the entire time the club has been around. Everyone else who was a member when I joined is now gone except for Derek although Karry, who joined just slightly before me, has recently rejoined after a thirty-year hiatus. Derek has me beat since he was one of the very first people to join the club—we have pictures of him on the earliest club rides in 1983—and he’s been a member the entire 40 years! I’ve seen the club wax and wane over the years. The club grew very quickly when it opened for business. Why is that? As was the case with the gay softball league, gay rodeos, the gay bowling league, Frontrunners, gay swim teams, Gay and Lesbian Sierrans, our club formed at a time when LGBT socializing had been a hidden undercurrent in American life but broke into the open after Stonewall. No longer willing to be limited by bars and bathhouses we were reclaiming all aspects of our lives including sports and recreation—bending [pun intended] the fag stereotype as it were. (Lesbian stereotypes to the contrary included the “gym teacher”.) Different Spokes came into being at a time when LGBT life in the west was coming out of the shadows gangbusters thanks to—among other things—Stonewall. Even though it took a lot of hard work to get the club up and running especially back in the day before the Internet and mobile phones became commonplace, Bob Krumm was exactly right: the time was ripe for a LGBT club and if it hadn’t been us, it would have been some other club because all the signs were there. He and the other founders just happened at the right time and place and also we were fortunate to have had such energetic and determined founding “parents”. The fact that a series of LGBT cycling clubs popped into being shortly after we did—Women on Wheels, Diff’rent Spokes in NYC, Rainbow Cyclists in SD, River City Cyclists in Sacramento, the LA Spokesmen in LA, Different Spokes in Seattle, and Sydney Spokes in Australia—demonstrated that the time for out LGBTQ cycling had arrived.

Then the 1985 AIDS Bike-A-Thon blew the doors open for us. The club got a lot of positive publicity, a ton of goodwill, and consequently our membership skyrocketed to well over 300. BAT got our name in the papers and was great PR, and we had a lot of people join just to support what we were doing even though they may have had little or no interest in recreational cycling. After the end of the BAT in 1995 our rolls slowly began to dwindle until by 2018 we had little more than 60 paid members. Today we have about 120 members, which coincidentally is the number of members we attained by the end of 1983, one year after forming.

Bike-A-Thon was important for giving the club a sense of mission and a community role instead of being “just” a cycling club. It created friendships forged through hard work and a lot of shared tears; those friendships continue today even with BAT long gone. Although BAT was a club success, it was also a huge burden. In those years the club at times felt like it was only Bike-A-Thon—the tail wagging the dog. Bike-A-Thon was a completely volunteer effort by the club and its allies, and after ten years the price was burn out even though it was rewarding to generate $2.3 million for AIDS beneficiaries. How many charity efforts give every cent gathered to its beneficiaries? Perhaps we wouldn’t need websites like Charity Navigator if that were the case generally. Bike-A-Thon and the spirit of volunteerism and giving were distinctly unique and that is likely the main reason it burned out: it wasn’t self-sustaining for the long run—who wants to work hundreds of hours unpaid in their spare time? It was part of that era: the imminent spectre of disease and death, the need to do something good NOW, and to vanquish the sense of helplessness we felt.

After BAT ended the club went back to its primary business: providing a fun haven for LGBT cyclists! Small social clubs constantly need an injection of energy, effort, and volunteers to stay alive and somehow that dwindled until in 2001 we faced a proposal to close the club as it is and become an interest group of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Sleeping dogs awoke and soundly defeated that proposal and out of that grew—very surprising to me—a resurgence of enthusiasm to rebuild the club. The new board created the Jersey Ride, which we still have today as well as the Saddle Challenge to raise money for Project Inform, which after many years we no longer hold. But during that time the ChainLetter, our club newsletter, dwindled nonetheless. The Internet was here and a print newsletter seemed vestigial when you could post rides online at any hour of the day. The ChainLetter went from a monthly publication to hiatus for a few years, to revival as a quarterly and running for four more years before the writing was on the wall: no one wanted to step up produce the ChainLetter. So it ended in 2012 apparently for good. On the plus side the rise of digital photography made it easier than ever to take pictures—lots of them—and put them up on the web. Our club photo albums were now online and they exploded. Here part of the club’s history is preserved. And those photos in our Photo Gallery—well over 40,000—are annotated.

During this time having our second women president, Chris Larussell, made a difference in the number of women in the club. The club has always had a minority of women. But while Chris was president our roster rose to 40% female, the most we ever had, a fantastic accomplishment. Of course after she stepped down and eventually stepped away from the club our female membership shrank again. I think that says something about birds of a feather flocking together, don’t you? It also holds a mirror up to the club around our lackluster diversity, I think, and the need for more female membership and leadership in the club. When will the club wake up that this is one of our significant failings?

After a nice bounce in membership the club then continued to shrink albeit more gradually. We had new leadership, a renewed ChainLetter, and lots of rides. There was speculation that we were now “post gay” and younger LGBTQ adults were happy to socialize in non-LGBTQ cycling clubs. At the same time newer LGBTQ cyclists were flocking to ALC instead of Different Spokes. ALC provides the same sense of purpose and mission that Bike-A-Thon did and although not exclusively LGBTQ it is heavily populated by us and has a serious queer vibe. Adding in the nearly year-round training rides around the Bay Area and what you have in everything except name is another queer cycling club. Instead of the tail wagging the dog, the tail IS the dog!

In the meantime member Chris Thomas decided that he would take club charity fundraising as a personal mission and started Double Bay Double, a two-day ride around the greater Bay Area to raise money for the SF AIDS Foundation. His concept was to host an event so diminutive that it would be swift(er) and easy(er) to organize and pull off, which is why it was limited to no more than 50 riders. Although he had help from the club with recruitment and training rides and got some assistance from SFAF, he really ran the show with a small coterie of enthusiastic volunteers. As with Bike-A-Thon the effort was primarily done by a small number of Spokers and it did not capture the imagination of most members of the club, and so it too came to an end after seven years, our most recent foray into “more than just a recreational cycling club” terrain. Perhaps if it had been an event with a higher profile, it would have helped energize the club. But keeping it small and simple was the goal rather than to put on and support a much bigger (and thus burdensome) event.

The club continued to shrink gradually until the 2019 board held an all-board weekend retreat to get to know each other, bond, and strategize a resurgence. I’m not in a position to give an unfettered and neutral account of where are today since I have been part of that board. But from the get-go that 2019 incoming board knew that we had our hands full with trying to lift the club out of the doldrums. The Saddle Challenge was getting less and less interest, so it was axed even though it was the last vestige of our charity fundraising; we (re)committed to hosting the Jersey Ride monthly because it’s consistently our most popular ride; we started a MeetUp group to test whether we could recruit through a different avenue; we got a new website in order to simplify website management and to integrate and improve communication with members; we consciously revived getaway weekends; and when the opportunity to expand our ride offerings into dirt territory and to shorter rides came up, we grabbed it.

What forty years of survival has taught me is that we should never take the club’s continuation for granted. The club only surivives through the effort of its members. We can’t coast. No, really we can’t! When members cease to believe in the mission of the club, then it will fade away perhaps for good. Sure, it’s a place to have fun and meet new friends through one of your favorite activities, cycling. But what makes the club different and special is that it’s a haven where we can be ourselves and to make sure that future LGBTQ cyclists also can be themselves. We have to continually pass it on to the subsequent cohort of LGBTQ cyclists and keep it relevant. To do that we need members to give energy to the club by volunteering to keep it running, to make sure it is there for the next queer cyclist to stumble upon.

Although we’re no longer in the limelight, we have survived for a simple reason that the club provides a place for LGBTQ cyclists to relax safely, be themselves, and find friends. Who like to ride bikes, that is! Whether you’re a dirt biker, a pavement pounder, bike commuter, or Sunday cyclist, there is a place for you in Different Spokes.

…to 2022!