Different Spokes Blues

Now Father Time is catching up with me
Gone is my youth
I look in the mirror everyday
And let it tell me the truth
I’m singing the blues
Mm, I just have to sing the blues
I’ve been around a long time
Yes, yes, I’ve really paid some dues
—BB King

What has forty years of the club wrought? There have been a lot of friendships and some serious relationships (and break-ups too). There’s been a lot of water that’s flowed under this bridge! The club is different than it was yet in critical ways it is much the same. We find each other through the love of cycling—or in a few instances the fear of cycling!—and unlike almost all other cycling clubs it’s the other love that keeps us together. The club endures because the purpose for which it was formed—to provide a haven for queer cyclists—is still relevant. Today it may seem that cycling is normcore to the max. But it isn’t really and it definitely wasn’t the case forty years ago. Back then being into cycling put you in an unlovable oddball category, the bike nerd. I submit for evidence the character Dave Stoller in the best bicycling movie ever, Breaking Away. He’s one of us and…he’s portrayed as a misfit nerd. That cycling somehow in recent years caught the misnomer of ‘the new golf’ is laughable because nobody makes jokes about killing golfers but many still do today about killing cyclists. As if you didn’t know: we are hated. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Being bullied for being queer or run down because you ride a bike, radio shock jocks like us both for fodder. So birds of a feather flock together and boy, do we flock!

I’m still not sure how it is that the club is still running. But I’m happy it is. In other communities there are no LGBTQ cycling clubs and it’s not because the community is too small to support such a niche organization. It’s likely because it is harder today to start a cycling club—any club —because frankly, no one wants to do the work. Instead what we find are Meetup groups. Some clubs have Meetup counterparts as we did for a short while and those seem to persist longer because the club is already in place. But new LGBTQ cycling Meetup groups seem to fizzle out after a while as it’s usually one or two people who are doing all the work. Why isn’t there a Different Spokes San Jose or South Bay? It’s not that we don’t have members there; we do have a few. But what are all the other LGBTQ cyclists doing? The South Bay is a huge environ with millions of residents and it supports two large recreational cycling clubs, Western Wheelers and ACTC and a bunch of amateur racing clubs. There really should be a Different Spokes South Bay. It isn’t rocket science to form a cycling club and the idea has no patent.

The dirty little secret is that it’s hard to keep a club running these days let alone start a new one. If you look at the websites of other small local clubs what you see may surprise you. Typically there is a very limited number of rides, maybe two to four per month (if that). More typically they have a list of regular weekly rides but no listed ride leaders. Whether these rides actually take place is unknown and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them don’t. In other words they’re more likely aspirational ride listings. Even among some larger clubs, who do populate their ride calendars with a plethora of listings, you see the same rides offered every week with just a few—or even no—new rides. That’s because offering a new ride presumes you have a member willing to create and lead it and that takes motivation and work.

For clubs that list ride leaders a close inspection will show that it’s almost always the same people over and over. That is not a surprise because only about 10-15% of members do more than passively belong, ie. lead rides, take on officer roles, or do the scut work that keeps a club running and vibrant. For a club like Grizzly Peak Cyclists whose current membership is about 800 that should mean 80-120 active members yet when you look at their leadership page and the listed ride leaders in a typical month it’s more like 40-50, which seems like plenty for any club. But in our case since we have less than 120 members—really no more than we had than at the end of 1983 after just one year of existence—we can expect about 12-18. And that’s about the number we have for the entire ride leader cohort and board. In other words we can’t do any more than we are doing without beating the odds to raise more volunteers. It’s downright amazing we have such a robust ride calendar despite a small set of volunteers. But upon closer inspection you’ll see that that most of our rides are led by about five people. When one of these members gets injured or gets overloaded with work or personal issues and can’t lead rides, the ride calendar noticeably contracts—there isn’t a lot of ‘slop’ room.

Different Spokes over forty years has had its up and downs. At the end of 2001 we almost folded. We didn’t because a small group led by Chris Larussell, who became president in 2002, made it her personal effort to revive the club and pull it back from the brink. Did you know that one of the results of that is the creation of our monthly Jersey Ride, which happens to be the most popular ride on our calendar month after month? Then around 2018 our membership was down to a little above 60—not enough to keep the lights on—and we had to claw our way back to where we are today at 121, which still isn’t enough to keep the lights on! Our annual membership fees in toto are not enough to pay our bills. Again it was the determination of the board to reinvigorate the club by streamlining website management, leading more rides, broadening the types of rides we offer, and putting on different kinds of social events.

So here we are still alive and kicking. But just. That’s due to a sizeable injection of effort, creativity, and devotion from your board and ride leaders. The current board isn’t going to last forever; ride leaders come and go. If we want to make sure that Different Spokes survives another year, let alone forty, we are going to need people like you who love Different Spokes to make the club your personal effort, to volunteer and put energy into the club. Everybody’s lives are busy. But if you don’t make space to give to Different Spokes, there may not be a Different Spokes at some point. You can walk away from the club—after all you can always ride by yourself or join one of the other local non-LGBTQ clubs when you want some company—but heaven forbid that Different Spokes ever folds as did Different Spokes Seattle only a few years ago! It would take a lot more effort to revive it at a future point, more effort than keeping it chugging along. But who would do the work to revive it? We could end up as a Meetup group after all. Birds of a feather may flock together—but where will they flock?