Gutter Bunny Part 2, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Roadway

Do you know the difference between a road and a roadway? Yeah, I didn’t think you did. I certainly didn’t pay attention to such esoteric nuances until I learned that I didn’t have to ride in the gutter all the time. I used to ride to the far right of the road almost all the time, squeaking by with just the thinnest shaving of pavement on my right. Partly I was being overly courteous (some of you may say fearful) to motorists and partly because I had a fundamental misunderstanding of traffic law. What does the law say? Let’s take a peek at the California Vehicle Code, specifically Division 11, Chapter 1, Article 4, §21202:
Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations…
The part that we probably all understand is the ‘less than the normal speed of traffic’ ie. if you are going at the “normal speed” then you don’t have to ride on the right—you can ride wherever you want in the lane including the middle. Of course ‘normal speed’ depends on point of view. For a driver the normal speed is going to be whatever speed they want to go—who cares what the posted speed says! But generally if you can keep to the posted speed limit—25, 30, 40, whatever—you’re not committing an infraction by riding in the lane and any motorist who gives you grief over that is just being an impatient ass.
The rest of the verbiage seems crystal clear—ride as close to the right as is practicable, right? Well, maybe not. The part of the above paragraph that most people misunderstand—both motorists and cyclists as well as most police officers—is the word ‘roadway’. It turns out that in traffic law a road or highway and a roadway are not exactly the same thing even though we may use all those terms interchangeably in everyday life. A road or highway is pretty much what you think it means: it’s some kind of path open to the public and used for vehicular travel. So a trail is not a road (not used for vehicular travel) although a fire road (= “double track”) is albeit not paved, as long as it’s open for public use. A street is a road since it’s used for vehicular travel and it’s available for public use. However a roadway is slightly but critically different. The CVC Division 1, §530 defines it as follows:
A “roadway” is that portion of a highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel.
In other words the roadway is only a part of a road, the part that is ordinarily used for travel. The roadway thus excludes the shoulder, parking lane, and sidewalk but not a bike lane. The roadway is just the lane(s) of travel, period. If you see a white solid line on the right side of the road, this indicates the right edge of the roadway. (However there isn’t always a white line on the right.) As cyclists we are to ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb OR the edge of the roadway, ie. you need to do one or the other but not necessarily both. You do not need to ride as close as is practicable to the curb as long as you are on the right edge of the roadway. Since the roadway excludes the parking lane and shoulder, you only need to ride on the right side of the rightmost lane. If there is a white line marking the right edge of the roadway, then you ride to the left of the white line, not the right of it. Doing the latter places you in the shoulder of the road, which is not part of the roadway.
Not riding in the parking lane seems common sense to me. Although riding in the parking lane may keep you further away from moving cars, when you have to merge into the normal lane of travel because of a parked car, you are increasing the chance of being hit from behind since following cars are not expecting you to move into “their” lane and thus haven’t moved to the left to give you the minimum three feet of passing room. Yet a Palo Alto police officer, irked that I was “blocking” cars, threatened me with a ticket when I refused to ride in the parking lane of El Camino Real (which has multiple lanes, by the way) when I insisted on staying in the right lane. I moved into the parking lane until he disappeared up the road and then resumed riding in the right lane of the roadway. Of course, I’m not rigid about this. If the parking lane is empty for a long way, I have no qualms about using it for my safety; I just plan to merge into the roadway early enough so that cars have plenty of time to see me. (I also signal my intentions.)
The real problem for cyclists isn’t the law per se but drivers’ ignorance of the law. When we ride on the right side of the roadway, drivers become irked that we’re not riding as far to the right of the road. It’s no surprise that such nuances are lost on the general public. Although this technical difference is alluded to in the DMV Drivers Handbook (p. 77) it is not explained. What is covered in the Handbook is an explanation of the exceptions that allow cyclists to not ride all the way to the right of the roadway such as the presence of obstacles, right-turn only lanes, and when the lane is too narrow for a bicycle and car to travel side-by-side. The difference between the roadway and the road should be laid out in plain English so that drivers (and cyclists and cops) are educated about the legally allowable position for cyclists on roads.
Of course this wouldn’t end punishment passes, verbal abuse, leaning on the horn, or getting sideswiped. But it might reduce the amount of road rage focused directly on us. Despite the best education—and no, the DMV Handbook hardly constitutes sufficient “education”—there will always be a subset of drivers whose attitude can accurately be characterized as auto supremicist: cyclists don’t deserve to be on the road regardless of how the laws are written and if they use the roads, they do so at their own risk since they should have no rights. Oh, and they should always get out of the way of motorists if they want to stay alive. As an example we have a neighbor who confronted us once when we were riding up the steep, narrow road to our house: “Bicyclists shouldn’t be allowed on these roads because they’re too narrow!” (= “You’re blocking our cars!”). At first I was stunned by his attitude—hadn’t he read the law or taken a DMV exam to get his license? Didn’t he know how to pass a cyclist in a car? Should we have expected anything less from such ilk than convenient rationalization of violence or bullying towards cyclists—“he deserved it”, “he was so entitled he thought he could take half the road”?

The task before us—besides survival—is huge: to change the culture around transportation. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the effort to end auto supremicism is certainly going to take longer. But the first step is to stop “moving to the back of the bus”—you have a right to ride on the roadway (pun intended), so exercise your right.

Get Over It

“Passing on your left!”

Confession: I’m done with cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge. It makes me both sad and disheartened that I say that. When I lived in San Francisco, I cycled across the bridge several times a week and I used to enjoy it immensely. The ambiance, the views, and the peace & quiet couldn’t be beat. Because of my unusual work hours I would take to the bridge at almost all hours of the day. On weekends I’d do the usual ride-to-somewhere-in-Marin usually in the morning and return in the afternoon; on weekdays I even regularly crossed the bridge at night since it was the time of day I could go for a ride.

After moving to the East Bay almost two decades ago I’ve crossed the Bridge maybe a dozen times and almost all of those trips have been Jersey Rides. On Jersey Rides the bridge is astonishingly busy—borderline congested—especially in the afternoon on the way back. In a way I wish it were even more congested because then no one would be able to speed along and everyone would be going the same speed, ie. slow. It’s gotten so busy that I say without exaggeration that it is a near constant stream of cyclists crossing wheel-to-wheel.

Having a lot of cyclists is not itself a problem. But how they behave in close quarters is. A significant proportion of the traffic is visitors on rental bikes. Many if not most are casual cyclists steering unfamiliar bikes. It’s not surprising that they might be a bit unsure. But when they start taking selfies while riding across the bridge in heavy traffic I get nervous. Although their judgment might be questionable, it’s the judgment of the impatient cyclists who furiously barge into the oncoming lane at speed in order to pass that I really question. Regardless of the type of cyclists we ride amidst, we have to trust their ability and judgment in unnaturally tight quarters. In that respect it’s no different than driving a car at speed on an undivided two-lane road with traffic. But you never know when someone will make that error in judgment or succumb to a lapse in attention.

Adding to the equation is the increased amount of ‘furniture’—large equipment such as sand blasters and tanks—anchored at several points midspan. In the distant past this equipment was moved around from location to location and there was a lot less of it; at times it mostly disappeared. But now these units seem to be permanently in situ. Some of it may be part of the suicide prevention net being constructed beneath the bridge deck. That project is now two years behind schedule and currently not expected to be completed until some time in 2023. However as with so many construction projects in the Bay Area the timeline is a moving target and just keeps getting pushed back repeatedly to the point that the completion date is a mere guess. The width of the west sidewalk is about ten feet and furniture takes up maybe three feet reducing the travel width to three and a half feet in each direction. When a passing cyclist tries to create a ‘third’ lane by passing into oncoming cyclists, there is barely two and a half feet for each cyclist—that’s just a bit more than the width of a regular road bike let alone a mountain bike. That’s even less width than around the pylons, which is five and a half feet or 2.75 feet for each direction. Whether the construction equipment will ever be removed is your guess and in the meantime we have to endure an even narrower pathway with restricted sightlines.

Something happened and it seemingly was for the better: the ride across the bridge just got a lot more popular. When I moved to San Francisco in 1982 the population was just under 700,000; in 2019 it was 880,000. In that period cycling went from a niche recreational activity to mainstream partly energized by the increased use of bicycles for commuting. That 180,000 additional people includes a lot more cyclists. The rental bike business has also taken off, certainly helped by bikesharing services such as Ford, Lyft, and Bay Wheels. One look at the oncoming bridge traffic and you’ll see innumerable BS (Blazing Saddles) and SB (Sports Basement) handlebar bags. It’s just another fabulous tourist spot being loved to death. Yes, the bridge is amazing and beautiful, and thanks to all those Instagram snapping cyclists we now have thousands more visitors who want to experience it too.

Traversing the bridge in the afternoon on a Jersey Ride I find increasingly nerve-wracking. The level of vigilance it takes can turn a fun ride into labor. All it takes is for one cyclist to bobble or weave in front for the adrenaline to surge. I try to be a considerate and considered bridge user by slowing down and patiently waiting until there is more than ample room to pass, if I pass at all, and in the afternoon especially I keep my distance from other cyclists and don’t draft in order to give myself plenty of braking room. Despite my caution—or perhaps because of my caution—more and more “Rapha freds” insist upon passing at the weirdest moments—what drugs are they on? Oh, testosterone. As a longtime City denizen I think it has all been part of the change that has swept the Bay Area: increased impatience. Are we New York yet? It’s just not relaxing to ride the bridge on weekends or other peak usage times.

So what of the Jersey Ride? Here’s our most popular and well attended ride and it crosses the Golden Gate Bridge. The morning crossing is more reasonable since the traffic is moderate to low at that time. But in the afternoon it’s transformed into a moving mosh pit of diverse cyclists many of them impatient. I’m not the only Spoker who feels unsafe and is fed up with the impacted conditions and the resulting crazy behavior. If you’re riding by yourself you can adjust by crossing the Bridge at a different time when the traffic is lower. But the Jersey Ride always returns after lunch in Tiburon and we end up crossing during peak usage. One adjustment we could make is to change the start time of the JR: start it later so it would return later in the afternoon around 5. But that would mean crossing it midday to go to Marin—peak period. In any case for some that’s too late to go for a Saturday ride, and for others—especially after a late Friday night out—it might be perfect! Another adjustment is to forego crossing the Bridge in the afternoon altogether: take a ferry back from Marin. The price of a ticket—from $7 to $14—might be worth it for the peace of mind assuming you can get a ticket (hint: reserve in advance). The drawback is not only the additional cost but also the timing of the ferry departure and how you feel about sharing a crowded ferry these days. A big plus is the even more scenic ride back on the Bay: gliding below the Bridge is not only beautiful but does wonders for your smugness.

Another idea is to change the Jersey Ride—gasp, heresy! Perhaps the JR could start as usual but change the destination to Fairfax for the lunch stop. Perry’s Deli is a popular spot but there’s also the Gestalt Haus and the Coffee Roastery. The ride out is about 24 miles and a return trip to Tiburon would make a total of 40 miles, or to the Sausalito ferry landing a total of 49.5 miles—these numbers are comparable to the standard Tib loop. Or, the JR could forego crossing the GGB altogether by heading to someplace south. The trick is to come up with a compelling destination with a route that is scenic and not filled with too steep hills. A ride to either Sharp Park or Linda Mar in Pacifica would be about 40 miles although we’d have to come up with a decent lunch stop. If we could come up with a southern route, we could alternate it with the Tiburon loop so that we could skip the Bridge occasionally, say every other month.

We’ve been lucky in having very few collisions on the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve been in one although no one was hurt and the bikes came out okay. At the end of a DSSF ride in Marin I was heading south on the west sidewalk by the Marin pylon when a person unsteadily piloting a mountain bike was heading north. She and I locked eyes and I could tell she was uncertain and scared. I slowed down and hit the brakes just before she weaved toward me. Unfortunately the rider behind me didn’t notice I was braking—partly because he was drinking his water bottle—and piled into me knocking me into the young woman and toppling her over the railing into the car lane. I and the fellow immediately behind her grabbed her and managed to pull her back. In retrospect I should have alerted the riders behind me when I sensed there was danger. But realistically they shouldn’t have been following so close behind me on the bridge. All it took was a set of minor bad decisions to set up an otherwise completely avoidable collision.

Regardless of the Jersey Ride we will continue to cross the Bridge at times of high usage. We can’t control the behavior of other cyclists. So remaining vigilant and keeping your guard up are critical for staying safe. First, keep your speed down. Most multi-use paths cap the speed at 15 mph. That’s probably not a bad idea for the bridge especially given how narrow it is. This is more important as you head downhill towards the towers or to the entrances where traffic is slowing and stopping, sometimes suddenly. The temptation is to go fast but you can’t see properly around the towers and the entrances are dangerous strictures. Second, keep your distance. Crossing the bridge is not the time to be pinned to the wheel in front of you. Gusts off the Pacific move bikes sideways unpredictably and the cyclist in front may abruptly brake or weave; you also can’t see well ahead of you when you’re right behind someone and can’t judge the behavior of the oncoming cyclists, the presence of furniture, or whether there is someone stopped against the railing or deciding to start riding again. Third, use your voice or a bell/horn to alert other cyclists—don’t be timid. That cyclist engaged in taking a selfie may not notice you or that they’re weaving, so get their attention. If it’s foggy, raining, or getting dark, use a light so that oncoming cyclists can see you; conversely, don’t expect others to use lights so be especially alert for ‘stealth’ cyclists. Fourth, signal your intentions: if you’re going to slow down or stop, let cyclists behind know by signalling. Fifth, don’t be a bro: it’s no big deal to cool your jets and slow down to accommodate other cyclists. Blasting around other cyclists or passing importunately—especially silently—is just being a dick. A punishment pass is a punishment pass whether it’s done by a car or another cyclist. Be cool, patient, and accommodating and you’ll get to the other side safely and maybe less frazzled.

Serving or Self-Serving?

As you know we continued to offer club rides despite the winter CoViD-19 surge and the December statewide Stay-At-Home order. Some board members had a discussion about this prompted by the news that Western Wheelers ceased club rides in early January when Santa Clara County informed them they could no longer have gatherings. You may be wondering the same thing: how could a club like Different Spokes have continued to host club rides, which involve gathering, when all gatherings supposedly had been banned?

A little history: since last March every local cycling club—that I could think of—either explicitly stopped club rides or emptied their ride calendars (leading me to conclude that despite no announcement they too were not hosting rides). In June San Mateo County got a variance from the State that allowed outdoor gatherings up to 50 people. Suddenly group outdoor recreation was now licit in that county. Western Wheelers quickly reactivated club rides just in San Mateo. When Santa Clara also allowed outdoor group recreation, WW, which is based there, reopened rides in their home county as well. Thereafter other cycling clubs followed suit in their communities. (Some of those clubs were in counties that hadn’t yet allowed group outdoor recreation but some clubs did it anyway.) Several of the larger clubs in the Bay Area reopened—Fremont Freewheelers, Almaden Cycle Touring Club in San Jose, Grizzly Peak Cyclists in Berkeley, Sunnyvale Saratoga Cycling Club. There were also large cycling clubs that didn’t reopen, including Marin Cyclists, Valley Spokesmen in Dublin, Davis Cycling Club, and Sacramento Wheelmen and have continued to eschew group rides. We decided to reopen.

The restart of group cycling was initially prompted by San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties allowing it. But it really gathered steam when the State switched to the State Plan and the color tier system—ie. the State Blueprint For A Safe Economy—to give guidance to all counties. This was helpful because when each county had no choice but to implement its own pandemic plan, we ended up with a confusing patchwork or regulations. The new tier system meant that counties could just adopt the state rules instead. Some Bay Area counties eventually did exactly that including Alameda and Contra Costa whereas others continued to draft their own more restrictive plans such as Santa Clara and San Francisco.

The import of this has to do with (a) what was considered an allowed gathering in a county, and (b) how governmental bodies viewed cycling clubs. Although never explicitly stated, governmental bodies viewed cycling clubs the same as informal social groups unless they had a business license or non-profit status. Clubs without formal legal status were then subject to general restrictions on gathering. But clubs that had legal non-profit status were treated the same as businesses and hence their gatherings were subject to the regulations in the State Blueprint, which devotes the bulk of its attention to which businesses may operate and how they can operate. In other words for clubs that didn’t have some kind of business or non-profit status, their gatherings were treated no differently rulewise than just a group of friends or neighbors who were hanging out together. It didn’t matter if your club had a professional-looking website and snazzy kit: if you hadn’t bother to file for non-profit status (or perhaps your rides were not sponsored by a local bike for-profit cycling business), your club’s rides were no different than a generic gathering and hence subject to all the regulations—e.g. pod size, limited number, limited number of households, etc. Under the December emergency order their gatherings were purely social gatherings and were banned. You’d be surprised how many cycling clubs were in this situation. There was even one local cycling club that subsequently entertained the idea of becoming a religious organization/church in order to offer rides presumably because they didn’t have business or non-profit status.

In late summer and early fall, counties were allowing some social gathering either by requiring social distancing and face coverings, limiting the maximum number who could gather, requiring closed pods, or other such devices. Businesses were also required to do similar things for their patrons and employees, eg. by limiting the number who could enter an indoor business or work in a space. But the regulations for social gatherings and business gatherings were not necessarily the same with the latter spelled out both in the State Blueprint and in specific county regulations (if the county wasn’t following the State plan).

Last summer when non-profit organizations such as Different Spokes, Grizzly Peak Cyclists, or Western Wheelers looked at the State Blueprint For A Safe Economy for guidance, there was no obvious category for us. At that time the only category that even came close was Outdoor Recreation and RV Parks and we, as well as several of our fellow cycling clubs, ended up following those guidelines in terms of how we conduct our club when we’re in counties that have adopted the State Plan. San Francisco County was one of the counties that wrote its own plan and it has never clearly categorized us. The only business category we seemed to fit in is Gyms and Fitness Clubs; I’ve confirmed this with the SF Department of Public Health. One of the compliance requirements to operate in SF is to create and make available to the public a health and safety plan, which we have done. This is no different than for any other business in this category operating in SF. When the December emergency stay-at-home order was announced, all gathering outside of your immediate household was supposed to cease. But ‘gatherings’ such as outdoor fitness classes were still allowed. Why? Because the rules for business ‘gatherings’ were not the same as for purely social gatherings.

So that puts non-profit organizations such as Different Spokes in an interesting situation: our club rides are, in everyday language, certainly social gatherings. But because we are a non-profit organization, San Francisco’s CoViD-19 health orders allowed us to continue offering our “outdoor fitness classes”. We continued to offer club rides legally. But should we have?

Not only does this seem contradictory (but then again many things in the law seem contradictory to us lay folk, who don’t understand how subtle differences are finessed!) but it seems to belie common sense: if you want to stop community spread and you think it’s due to people gathering, then you should stop all gatherings, period. But a critical difference is that the allowed business gatherings are supposedly under the supervision of the business: the fitness club staff (= ride leaders) makes sure that class participants follow appropriate social distancing, masking, etc. There may be no such mandated oversight at informal social gatherings. That seems to be one of the reasons that club rides were and are okay—they’re part of a business practice and supervised according to county or state rules—and not treated like informal social gatherings where anything goes. The concern seems to be that informal social gatherings are major transmission sites because people don’t actually follow best practices for preventing infection. So they have to be squelched. Does that mean that ‘gatherings’ as part of a business operation are therefore safe? No. I’m sure plenty of businesses with ‘no mask, no service’ signs continue to do business with people who don’t or won’t wear a mask. They may not care to enforce the rules for fear of alienating their patrons; have indifferent, ignorant, or fearful staff; or they just need the money. Not too long ago I was in a supermarket where a customer was “blow holing” (had a mask on his face that didn’t cover his nose) and the woman at the bakery counter went about her business to sell him his morning coffee and bagel without ever asking him to cover up properly. At another supermarket I saw a group of employees convening in an aisle and at least two them did not have any masks. (!)

So was our continuing to offer club rides merely self-serving? My normally cynical self leans towards “Of course!” But the leaders of our pandemic rides have been dutiful in enforcing compliance with the club HASP. I had a discussion with the leader of another local club that was grappling with the same issues and we had come to a similar conclusion: people are out riding in groups regardless of the pandemic and many of those groups don’t have masks or other protocols to protect their participants. When people come on our club rides, they’re told exactly what they need to do to ride with us or they have to exit the ride. In that way our club rides are safer than the ad hoc social gatherings we see on two wheels. Think of it as a kind of harm reduction: if you think solo cycling is safe and group cycling unsafe, consider properly supervised group cycling as a lesser evil. Some clubs might be very laissez-faire when it comes to enforcing safety. But if you offer the kind of pandemic rides we do, then it’s hardly evil at all and may in fact be a good as riders internalize safe pandemic riding habits and then consider them “normal”. If the pandemic worsens due to perhaps the new SARS-COV-2 variants, then a real lockdown is surely in our near future—not the ‘lockdown lite’ we keep getting told is a lockdown but something more like what was implemented in Wuhan, Italy, or Spain last spring—and if that is the case then our rides will be shut down for realz. But so will many other businesses that have also been given a pass since the State started reopening last May.

Unmasked: Random Thoughts on Wearing a Face Covering While Cycling [updated 6/24]

The new normal?

Although I wear a face mask when cycling, I’m not sure why. There are two rationales for wearing a face mask: so the user doesn’t get infected, and/or so others don’t get infected by the user. Medical grade face masks are the only ones designed with preventing infection. Some N95 masks have exhalation valves to make them more comfortable. These allow one’s breath to be released from the mask easily since the original purpose of the N95 is to prevent the user from being infected, whose breath is presumptively not the vector for infection; these are obviously useless for protecting others from the user, ie. for ‘source’ control. Since most of us are not able to get medical grade face masks in order to spare the limited number for front line workers who need them, we are left with less protective non-medical grade masks and ad hoc face coverings. The figures I’ve seen are that single layer face coverings block about 17-20% of infectious particles. (Presumably N95 masks block about 93-95%.) Still that’s 17% protection versus nothing at all.

Using a mask to prevent infecting others: that’s an interesting turn on motivating compliance because normally you motivate people to do something by showing them how they benefit from it, not how it benefits others. Why should I wear a mask if it is primarily to protect others but does little good for me? My motivation to use one will be even lower if I think I’m not infectious because then it would not only be of no benefit to others, since I can’t infect anyone, but it’s of little benefit to me plus being uncomfortable. This guts both rationales, my self-interest and protection of others. When I see people walking around SF without a mask in the crowd, I suspect that may be behind that person’s behavior. Not having the ready availability of better masks makes it difficult to argue they’re for your benefit, which might increase compliance. I’d wear a N95 mask almost all the time if I could get one with exhalation valves. But I can’t.

One could argue that if everyone just took care of themselves—by wearing a face mask to lower the risk of getting infected—then not only would we be helping reduce COVID-19 in general but we’d be motivated to do so because it would be in one’s self-interest. That would be an easier sell, wouldn’t it? But we can’t get good masks, so the only way to appeal to self-interest is to argue that ad hoc masks do protect you from infection, which is a weak argument given how poorly they’ve been shown to perform. Trying to elicit mask compliance by appealing to community interest may work for some but it’s a really hard sell for many people because, well, selfishness and egocentricity.

Of course a flaw with the current rationale—wear a mask to protect others—is that if you think you’re not infectious, then there is no motivation to wear a mask yet you might be infected without realizing it. You’re only as non-infectious as your most recent physical encounter, right? It’s like the old mantra about HIV and sex: your HIV status can change after any sexual encounter. You might not have the coronavirus today but who knows after that last trip to Safeway? Your basis for believing you’re not infected may or may not be well-founded and it is only grounded on your self-perception.

But the way it is supposed to work is that we all agree to mutually help each other by all masking up. That is, I get some protection from you if I give you some protection in exchange. Everybody accepts some responsibility and inconvenience so that everybody can be protected. If I walk down the street without a mask and I encounter someone else without a mask, how can I expect them to protect me if I won’t do the same for them? This is probably a motivation behind ‘mask shaming’—calling out people and publicly shaming them for not wearing a mask. Those not wearing a mask have a duty (to us) to wear one and we shouldn’t let that slide since they’re potentially prolonging the epidemic and the inconvenience to me.

If one were sociopathic, then assisting others without getting something in exchange is completely nonsensical since other people’s wellbeing is irrelevant, only one’s own. But most of us are not sociopathic and we do care about other people, which is an important reason why people do wear masks. Another reason people wear masks is blind obediance: I’m supposed to wear a mask so I’ll do so whether it’s because I don’t want to be shamed or called out or because I just want to fit in and be ignored. This is the effect of authority, which as we have seen with Trump can work in the other direction to, ie. if you do something only because someone with authority tells you to do it, then you’ll change your behavior when said authority changes their mind about what you should do, such as Trump’s disparagement of masks.

But there is a positive side to blind obediance. When you ask people to use their judgment in deciding when to wear a mask in public, you’re assuming that their judgment is sound. Mandating blind obediance requires less judgment—you either comply or you don’t: wear a mask, period. During the height of the quarantine isn’t that why the Italian police stopped everybody who was outside? “Oh I’m tired of being inside. I’ll just go out for a little walk.” They knew that people wouldn’t comply unless forced to do so. People always find a self-serving reason why they should be excused from the rules.

Of course wearing a mask to reduce infection presupposes that there is a likelihood of becoming infected. This is where things get even murkier. The evidence to date—which is subject to change since the novel coronavirus is so new—is that COVID-19 spreads primarily, nearly exclusively, in indoor environments with prolonged exposure. The number of suspected infections in a Chinese study due to an outdoor encounter was less than one out of over 7,000 cases investigated. What that suggests is that we should be more concerned about indoor settings and focus on mitigating transmission there rather than on outdoors. Although outdoor encounters can lead to infection, the risk is very, very low compared to indoor transmission. We should be much less concerned about wearing a mask when cycling outdoors. This is probably why the counties say we are not required to wear a mask when exercising outside.

Why did SF announce a 30-foot rule for wearing a mask? It probably has nothing to do with 30 being a critical empirically-based measure, or a ‘magic’ number, and more to do with a lot of people not bothering to mask up when walking on city streets even when passing other pedestrians. In other words this has nothing to do with epidemiological evidence and more to do with social psychology: the six-foot rule gave people permission not to mask up until someone was very close. But it’s a hassle to mask up and down all the time so some people weren’t masking up at all. Now with the 30-foot rule you’re in effect asked to wear a mask virtually all the time when outside even though the risk of infection while outside is estimated to be about twentyfold less than indoors. From what I’ve seen in SF since the new mask order compliance has really increased even among those in less busy areas such as Twin Peaks. Yet just the other morning I saw plenty of people walking on Market Street without a face covering or even one at hand.

Back to cycling with a mask. To date there is little evidence that wearing a mask while cycling outdoors is providing protection for anybody. As research data has come in, indoor transmission is turning out to be the culprit. Outdoor transmission is much harder to accomplish because of air dispersion and virion degradation severely diminishing the concentration of infectious material. The other factors for infection, distance and exposure time, are usually—but not always—insignificant when cycling—just don’t linger near anybody and maintain social distance. On group rides that’s apparently harder to do; I’ve observed groups rides where participants are bunched up at stop lights or cyclists are pedaling down the road in a tight paceline. Keep in mind that mask use is secondary to social distancing. If you maintain social distance especially outdoors, then mask use becomes redundant.

Despite knowing all this I continue to wear a mask while riding. Perhaps I’m being irrationally risk averse. But masks, like everything else, are signifiers and in this situation they are symbols of cooperation. It may be irrational to stop at a stop light when there is no traffic but drivers do it most of the time, probably from a combination of habit, internalization, fear of a ticket, and cooperation. Those who do not might be reckless…or they might be making a rational decision: no traffic, no cops or cameras, so why should I stop? If masks are primarily for others’ protection, then wearing a mask sends a signal that I am cooperating even if the actual physical function of the mask is near useless. In essence the symbolic function of a mask—as in stopping at a light—is ‘you don’t need to fear me’, which is interesting because we usually think of wearing a mask as ‘I’m afraid of getting infected by you.’ But wearing a mask while cycling when no one is around? That doesn’t make any sense at all. No one is in danger of being infected and you aren’t signifying to anybody (except yourself). However you may want to have a mask ready, say pulled under your chin, in case you unexpectedly have close encounters with others. Or, you may want to wear a mask all the time in case of situations such rounding a corner on a trail and finding yourself next to a hiker. Do you have time to pull that face covering over your face? Maybe not. Wearing a mask all the time means you don’t have to think or take action should someone suddenly approach you.

Wearing a mask while cycling is often uncomfortable especially over here in the East Bay in summer when it can get quite hot. Road cycling culture puts a strange value on suffering. It’s often elevated to mythic status, hence ‘epic’ rides and ultra-long distance efforts like Everesting, centuries, double centuries, Dirty Kanza, Alpe d’Huez, you name it. The discomfort and inconvenience of wearing a face mask for two hours on a ride can be more daunting to cyclists than the prospect of riding a hundred miles. I’m not sure what to make of that except that perhaps it’s only suffering of a specific sort or suffering of one’s choosing that has positive status. Of course real suffering is often something over which you have no choice of in life; it can be unexpectedly thrust upon you and you just have to deal with it, whether it’s a bad reaction to chemotherapy, getting mangled in a high speed car accident, or the dentist not having used enough anesthetic on your root canal. In any case wearing a face mask seems rather minor as far as ‘suffering’ goes and yet elicits strong refusal. Is it because the minor discomfort of a mask is such a gigantic buzzkill that cycling really becomes pointless? That is, mask discomfort nullifies all pleasure of riding, and the point of riding is to have pleasure, so what’s the point of wearing a mask? Perhaps it’s because it’s optional to wear one. If I don’t have to wear one and it’s uncomfortable, why would I wear one? In my experience just slowing down can make wearing a mask while cycling less unpleasant. If that’s true, then why don’t cyclists just slow down and use a mask? Maybe it’s because they don’t want to have to slow down, ie. compromise how they ride.

One way to deal with discomfort is to reframe its purpose. Suffering for a good reason often is incentive enough. Isn’t that why some people ride from SF to LA? For some it’s fun and maybe a challenge. But for others it’s simply a grueling masochistic effort. It’s all about the purpose that can help one endure, hence ride 545 miles in a week.

Perhaps wearing a mask can be reframed as a training tool. I’m curious about the amount of carbon dioxide one rebreathes when cycling with a surgical mask. Why? Because breathing in air with a reduced amount of oxygen is one way to stimulate red blood cell production, hence high altitude training or using a hypoxic chamber, ie. an altitude tent (some of which simulate high altitude by reducing oxygen and replacing it with nitrogen). If it were significant enough, one could eagerly wear a mask in hopes of increasing one’s RBC to go faster. Maybe the racers (or wannabes) would embrace using a mask!

6/24/20 Update. Here‘s an interesting and slightly different view on face coverings that ties into my comments about signifiers. His comment about tolerating the discomfort of a face covering because he respects others resonates.

Fashion Crime or Accessory?

Work it, baby!

The current Bay Area counties shelter in place orders require in some situations that face coverings/masks be worn and in others it just recommends that they be worn. [Note: But LA County now requires everyone to wear a mask whenever outdoors.] For example masks are required when entering enclosed places of business and government offices. Face masks are not meant to replace social distancing but to complement it. Are you required to wear a face covering or mask when you’re cycling? No, county health officers just recommend that you do. However you are asked to carry a face mask with you in case you need to enter a business or office or when you simply cannot maintain social distancing.

When you’re cycling on streets social distancing from other road users is usually no problem except when you’re passing or being passed by other cyclists or at stop lights/signs where you encounter other stopped cyclists. You may also cross paths with dog walkers, joggers, skateboarders, and walkers using the street. Conversely there may be times when you need to use the sidewalk. If you ride on multi-use paths (MUPs) they may be so crowded with other users and/or not wide enough for you to be six feet away from others. Depending on where you ride and the time at which you ride, you may want to wear a mask in order to prevent transmission.

Regardless of the shelter in place order you’re probably not crazy about the idea of cycling with some kind of face mask. Roger and I have been riding with face masks for weeks now and we have some real world advice if you decide to try it.

Different Spikes goes-with-everything black leather face mask

First, masks of any sort will unavoidably be less comfortable than riding without one. If you’re looking for a face covering that has no downsides, you aren’t going to find that unicorn. If you can’t deal with an increased level of discomfort—and fogging if you wear eyeglasses—then don’t wear one or at least don’t wear one in certain cycling situations. After all you’re not required to wear one while cycling. Second, there will probably be an adjustment period—there was for us—and you may find that if you keep wearing a mask, that your perceived discomfort will diminish or disappear. Third, be clear about why you’re wearing a mask. If you feel that wearing a mask outside is overkill, you’ll probably dump the mask in short order because your commitment to it was shaky to begin with. But if you think that wearing a mask is going to provide you and others with protection or because its symbolism is important, then you may find yourself wearing it more often or tolerating it longer.

Ad hoc, giddy-up!

I’ve tried four of the six following face coverings: (1) handkerchief, (2) thin neck gaiter/buff, (3) surgical mask, (4) N95 mask, (5) Respro sports mask, and (6) ad hoc face masks. I haven’t tried a handkerchief (or t-shirt, cotton shirt, etc.) simply because I don’t need to use something improvised. But my strong suspicion is that a handkerchief would feel very similar to the neck gaiter I’ve been using. We also have no real world experience to share about ad hoc face coverings since we’re using one of the others. Just keep in mind that the homemade fabric face masks you see these days are going to vary in design, fabric, shape, and durability—they aren’t standardized. Of the four others the most comfortable I’ve found is the thin neck gaiter (also called a buff). Mine is a thin elastic cloth tube you pull over your head. Its intended use is for cold weather as a neck warmer cum balaclava cum head scarf. It’s easy to pull up or down depending on conditions and I can double the fabric for “extra protection”. It’s surprisingly easy to breathe through and my glasses fog up less than with the surgical mask. I can wear this while riding even when climbing up Pinehurst (ie. when gasping and dying). The main problem right now is that the weather here in Contra Costa is getting to be too warm for a neck gaiter. If you live in SF or coastside, maybe it would be tolerable for this summer. But for now I can’t wear it now that daytime temperatures are warming up significantly. One minor complaint is that it tends to slip down. But I can hike it up and it’ll stay in position for a fair amount of time even when swiveling my head to look around.

I’ve been wearing a surgical mask most recently as the weather has warmed up. The biggest issue is being able to get surgical masks since they’re as rare as hen’s teeth. Surgical masks work better for warm weather because they’re still thin and don’t cover as much area so you can stay cool. They’re also easy to put on and take off, and if you need to temporarily remove it you can just slip it down your face and easily pull it back up since it’s retained by handy ear loops. But the material around your nose and mouth is thicker than a buff so making it harder to breathe. Instead of your exhalation going through the fabric, you’ll find it’s mostly contained and so you’re rebreathing more of your exhaled air. Oh, and if your breath is foul, you’ll be the first to know. If you wear glasses, you’ll likely find that fogging is an ongoing issue. That warm, humid exhaled air tends to be moved to the perimeter of the mask since there is less resistance than going through the fabric. And a lot of that goes up into your glasses. Be prepared for fogging especially when you stop—you’ll probably want to pull the mask down for a sec to let the exhaled air clear. Its symbolic function aside it’s not clear to me that when you’re breathing hard a typical surgical mask is providing much protection to other people because a lot of your exhalation is being forced out the perimeter of the mask. If you attempt to make the mask for comfortable by, say, creating a channels to the side, then you’re venting a lot of your breath completely unfiltered into, say, that 7-11 you just entered for a snack.

Surgical masks have very little structure and are flimsy. My neck gaiter has enough elastic that it’s pulled against my face and doesn’t move around. But surgical masks, which are not intended for exercise, just can’t handle the volume of air I’m moving when cycling anything above an easy pace. When I’m breathing harder the material is sucked tightly into my nostrils or my mouth making it very difficuilt to inhale. If you’re in a headwind the fabric is pushed even more closely against your orifices. There are workarounds to make a surgical mask less impeding. You can wear it more loosely (for example, by hoisting the lower edge up so that it doesn’t cover your chin and forms a tent over your face). It may take some experimentation to find the best way to shape the mask so that it doesn’t block your breathing. Since it has little inherent structure whatever shaping you’ve done will be (disappointingly) temporary. In order to give it more structure I’ve played around with taping and stapling a bag tie on the inside of the mask in order to create a shaped ‘tent’ similar to that of a N95 mask. This doesn’t compromise the filtering function (much) since the perimeter of the mask is still against your face. A surgical mask, if you can get one, is so small that it’s easy to carry with you on a ride.

An N95 mask theoretically provides more protection but that protection comes from forming a tighter seal around your face. I found that the N95’s structure and shape were better than a surgical mask but breathing was much harder at effort and the overall experience was much less comfortable. At least the material isn’t sucked into your nostrils or mouth, so you’re drawing new air from the entire surface area of the mask and not just the tiny area covering your nostrils. It’s also a lot warmer. Anything above an easy pace was progressively less comfortable. Some N95 masks have exhalation check valves. (Respro masks do too.) They are more comfortable because your exhaled breath can more easily be vented rather than being held tightly in the mask. Technically exhalation valves defeat the purpose of containing your respiratory droplets from possiblly infecting others. On the other hand, ad hoc face coverings and surgical masks are also inherently leaky. So it’s all rather academic. (In this case I mean literally academic since little research has been done on the comparative efficacy of ad hoc face coverings—I’m only aware of one study.) In my experience I have less fogging than with a surgical mask but it’s not completely gone. It probably has to do with the seal around the edge of the mask. We’ve seen almost no N95 masks being used by other cyclists and the ones we’ve seen have all had exhalation valves.

Respro Sportsta

Respro is a British cycling face mask company. Their products are aimed at cyclists who want to avoid inhaling air pollution but they make a range of masks now including the Bandit, which is essentially a sophisticated handkerchief! Unfortunately Respro has been hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK and can no longer manufacture enough for domestic sale let alone internationally. I happen to have one that I picked up in the UK years ago. You can read about my use of it during the 2018 Camp Fire here. This fits even more tightly around your mouth and nose than an N95 mask—it forms a great seal. It’s also surprisingly easy to breathe through. Why? I’m not sure but the large surface area of the filter probably helps. It has exhalation check valves like some N95 masks—the valve ports open when you exhale and close when you inhale, so it’s easy to exhale and your mask doesn’t fill up as uncomfortably with warm, humid air. The filters are replaceable too. But as I mentioned previously it’s warm (being made of neoprene rubber doesn’t help) and although easier to breathe through it’s less comfortable than a (structured) surgical mask. You won’t want to do any prolonged, hard efforts while wearing a Respro. They’re also pricey—about $40-plus. And like N95s you can’t find any for sale right now.

Bottom line: If you’re going to wear a face covering, it’s probably going to be ad hoc since N95 and surgical masks are hard to find. You’ll do better with a thin fabric that is elastic so that it fits somewhat tightly over your mouth and nose and doesn’t get sucked in when you inhale. That’s why a buff/neck gaiter works so well. So either a thin buff or ad hoc face covering. If you can get surgical masks, that would be my second choice especially if you play around and add some structure to it so that it forms around your orifices more like an N95 mask does. An N95 mask is, in my opinion, not only overkill but much less functional for recreational cycling above a casual pace. The Respro—did I mention you can’t get one?—is similar to the N95 despite its many positive attributes. For easy cycling any of them will do. But if you’re going to go harder (and I mean just a bit harder, like anything above zone 2 training), you will likely have to go through an adjustment period.

Ineffective face mask…with accessories

Bottom-bottom line: now, why are you wearing a face mask when you’re riding?? Oh right, because sometimes you CAN’T avoid getting close to others such as on shared use paths, trails, and crowded streets. Just pull that baby up over your face and your spew won’t go all over them (and hopefully, vice versa).

If you can’t get an N95, surgical mask, or Respro, what do you do? For neck gaiters check these out at REI.

For ad hoc face coverings, here are some manufactured examples.

In A Second

I was at the end of a short bike ride near home on Moraga Way, a road I’ve very likely ridden thousands of time, so familiar to me that I know just about every one of its idiosyncrasies. I caught up with another cyclist at a stop light. The light changed and on the gentle downhill I rolled behind him. He wasn’t going very fast and I thought for a moment that I would pass him but I wasn’t in a hurry either. Out of courtesy I stayed well behind his wheel, about 50 to 100 feet, not wanting to intrude on his ‘bubble’.

There was nothing unusual about the day or traffic on the road. Moraga Way has the commuter traffic from Highway 24 in Orinda to and from Moraga. But today the traffic was perhaps just a tad lighter than usual even though it was getting close to the afternoon commute period.

Suddenly a black car jetted out from a side street. The driver was a young boy. He had a stop sign but I saw that he made no effort to stop—he foolishly jumped out into the street without even slowing down at the sign. There was no time for the rider in front of me to do anything more than reflexively turn his handlebars in a futile reaction to avoid the inevitable. The mouth of the boy driver was agape. There was a sickening crunch as the cyclist slammed into the side of the car. He flew over the hood and landed on the other side. Surprisingly he bounced up and stood—I was sure he was going to be seriously injured. He was screaming at the driver who by now was out of the car and profusely apologetic. I had barely two seconds more time to react and I heard myself scream “Oh shit!” as I slammed on the brakes and steered to the right. I barely missed the rear of the car and was shaking. (This is a situation where disc brakes really helped!) If I had passed that cyclist and been in the front it would have been I rather than he who would have been hit.

The cyclist was extremely lucky. He was able to walk and talk and didn’t seem to have any broken bones. His left hand was bleeding. His helmet appeared undamaged.

It turned out the boy didn’t have his drivers license and furthermore didn’t have the insurance papers with him. Strangely his father turned up; I wasn’t sure if he was walking outside or happened to pull up in another car. The bike had an ugly crease in the seat tube. By the looks of the bike—Zipp carbon wheels, Italian carbon, full Dura Ace, carbon everything—this was a $10,000+ bike. It wasn’t totaled but the frame was seriously messed up.

Seeing that he was okay and handling the situation I gave him my phone number and told him I had a front row seat to the whole collision.

I was shaken up partly because a seemingly minor decision to take it easy and stay behind resulted in my escaping serious injury. But this near-accident pierced that false veil of control I don every time I go for a ride. No matter how vigilant and careful I am what happens to me on the bike is not completely under my control. Whether you realize it or not we put our lives in the hands of car drivers, who treat vulnerable road users indifferently, thoughtlessly if not hostilely.

A Bridge Not Too Far

Tiburon Loop here I come!

Oh joy. I was thinking this was just not going to happen: a bicycle lane on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. But construction actually started a few days on the aforesaid pedestrian-bicycle lane. There had been vociferous pushback from Motordom to quash that project when it was announced and instead wanted to turn the maintenance lane into a full-fledged automobile lane. Car drivers deemed it frivolous to give that lane to mere cyclists when they that have better and more important things to do and could make good use of all that wasted roadway. Things had been quiet for months and I was half-expecting an announcement that the bike lane was to be eliminated. Maybe we cyclists are more potent than we realize. However note that studies will be done on the impact of going ahead with a third car lane, so the possibility of eliminating bike-ped access is still alive.

This project has been a fantasy of mine ever since the prospect of a bike lane appeared: the ability to ride a bike from Orinda all the way to Marin where I can do even more riding or hop on the SMART train and head to northern Marin or Sonoma county to ride on roads I rarely get to do anymore.

The article in the East Bay Times mentions mid-November being the earliest opening date! Say what? It is incredible that they can get this up and running in so short a time. It’s four miles long and it will likely be windy much of the time but I’ll take it! This also brings up an interesting take on Bay In A Day: we won’t have to hazard riding on Highway 37 to circumnavigate the Bay Area. Yes, I know some of you will think this is cheating but cycling on Highway 37 scares the dickens out of me at least at certain times of the day.

Once it opens stay tuned for a club ride to Tiburon Loop the Really Long Way, or how about a Jersey Ride that starts in Oakland instead of Peet’s in the Castro?

Where To Ride, Pt. 1

The San Francisco Bay Area is enormous and becoming more enormouser every day. The tentacles of growth are slithering in every direction and not just east to the Central Valley where land and housing are cheap(er). Housing development has meant some of our favorite riding areas have changed, usually for the worse. Morgan Hill used to be a farmtown; now it’s a suburb of San Jose, and Gilroy further south is quickly being suburbanized. People who work in San Jose even consider Hollister a reasonable commute. In the north, quiet Sonoma towns such as Sebastopol are no longer sleepy and are putting in higher density housing to meet demand. The SF-Sacramento corridor is turning into one long suburban tract where it all used to be farmland.

As the Bay Area puts more land under development there are fewer and fewer quiet places to ride road bikes. Many places that used to be rural are now surburbs or even bona fide cities with downtowns, witness Walnut Creek. When I was in high school in the late 60s we used to ride to Cupertino and Saratoga—it was all orchards. Today it’s completely built over and Cupertino’s tasty fruit has been superceded by a very different kind of ‘fruit’. When Different Spokes was formed Contra Costa County was mostly ranchland east and south of Lafayette. We used to ride on empty “back” roads such as Sycamore Valley Road or Tassajara, which today are motor-filled boulevards full of commuters. The complete paving of Contra Costa County is taken for granted today despite the rearguard actions of the Greenbelt Alliance.

Nonetheless the forethought put into preserving some open space has saved us some pretty nice areas to ride without having to pile into a car and drive miles and miles to find greenery (or brownery in summer). Most Spokers, when they want to escape city streets, ply west Marin roads precisely because they’re fairly close by and easy to get to by bike from SF. We are fortunate that much of west Marin is an agricultural preserve locked out of development. Did you know that the Marin Headlands between Rodeo and Tennessee Valleys—called Gerbode Valley—was slated for 30,000 residents and even skyscrapers? That idea was quashed and it remains open space today. San Mateo has a similar situation with its coastside where development is tightly constrained preserving beautiful roads such as Stage Road and Tunitas for cyclists to relish. Where I live, the East Bay, has two entities—the East Bay Municipal Utility District and the East Bay Regional Park System—that control significant swaths of land that cannot be developed thus conserving open space and parks. Although these lands don’t have many roads open to road cyclists, the adjacent roads are often pleasant to ride, for example Pinehurst and Redwood roads.

So, where do we ride? If we stay within the confines of the Bay Area we are left with urban and suburban roads. They’re convenient because we can step outside our front doors and go for a ride. With so many of us pressed for time that’s the choice that makes sense. But increasing traffic means increased danger too. Very close to where I live there are several examples of roads that were pleasant to ride on but are now nerve-wracking at certain times of day. I’ve written about Pinehurst before, a very quiet redwood-shaded road up to Skyline. It always has been used as a cut-through to bypass the Caldecott Tunnel. But with Waze and Google it has become much more widely known. Most of the time the car traffic is nonexistent except for locals coming and going to the tiny “town” of Canyon. But during commute hours or whenever the eastbound bores are jammed, cars race down this narrow, curvy road at 30-40 mph to make time. With no shoulder and some terrible sight lines Pinehurst is an anxious place to ride from about 2:30 to 6:30 pm on weekdays. Even with the one-lane Canyon Bridge still in place commuters find this way quicker than sticking to the freeway. Pinehurst is just one example: streets that cars rarely used are becoming commuter roads, forcing cyclists either to put up with the increased danger or discouraging us so much that we search for other roads to enjoy.

How do we respond? One could stop riding outdoors at all—just stay on your trainer! With TrainerRoad, Zwift, or the old Computrainer you can do a faux road ride at home or at the gym. Car drivers would love that: get all the cyclists off the road, period. Another is to give up on road riding and go where cars can’t, i.e. dirt roads by mountain bike or all-road bicycle. But getting to trails and fire roads require that you either drive or…ride your bike on roads to the trailhead. A third way is to drive out of the Bay Area to where the roads are less crowded. That might work occasionally but on a weekday driving out of the Bay Area is easier said than done. Another strategy is time-shifting: ride when fewer cars are around. When I lived in San Francisco and had to work into the evening (sometimes until 10 pm), I would go for a ride at night and there were certainly fewer cars. It was quiet and peaceful! The trade-off is statistically you’re five to seven times more likely to have an accident at night than during the day because car drivers can’t see you (and/or they’re drunk).

Different Smokes

campfire_oli_2018312
The Camp Fire last Thursday

[Thanks to Jerome for the title; I was going to call this “Summer of Smokes” but both last year’s and this year’s gigantic fires actually took place during the fall and early winter. Most of you are probably old enough—although you may not have been living in the Bay Area at the time—to remember the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. Until last year’s Tubbs fire it was the most destructive fire in California history and it also took place in late October during the so-called “Indian” summer that we often get here.]

The current Camp fire near Chico, CA is blanketing the Bay Area and large swaths of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys with massive quantitites of smoke and soot so much so that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has issued alerts and “Spare the Air” days every day since last Thursday (eight days so far). Even San Francisco, which normally has good quality air compared to other Bay Area regions, has been in the “red” zone. The pollutant of concern is PM 2.5, particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter, although the Camp fire is also producing soot in particle sizes much larger than that but those particles don’t travel as far.

BAAQMD issues alerts when a composite index for all six major pollutant categories—PM 2.5, ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, CO, and PM 10—begin to rise. Normally in the Bay Area we are in the “good” (0-50) or “moderate” (50-100) category. But now we are seeing readings that put us in the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” (101-150) and “Unhealthy” (151-200). Today Oakland hit 217 and SF 221. 200 and above is considered very unhealthy or hazardous; those are the kind of readings one might get in Beijing or New Delhi.

All of these pollutants plus a host of others that aren’t tracked are cause for concern not just because they might make the sky look hazy but because with prolonged exposure and at high enough levels they have noticeable health effects. If you have asthma or another chronic pulmonary condition, you might start to feel the effects of air pollution while everyone else around you seems to go about their daily lives with little or no idea that they’re literally drowning in smog. But eventually even hardier folks feel the minor signs such as coughing, burning eyes, and scratchy throat.

What makes these conditions concerning is that as cyclists we are not only outdoors breathing in smoke from the fires but exercising, which increases our respiration rate,so that we are probably breathing about eight to ten times more air per minute even at a relatively easy cycling speed. That means we are exposed to much higher amount of pollution compared to sitting at a desk indoors.

campfire111518
Smoke from the Camp Fire Spreads Throughout NoCal

Last October during the Tubbs fire the air quality jumped up and down subject to the whims of the wind, which changed hourly. At times the air was a hazy brown and the smell of smoke was pervasive; the next day it was sunny and clear even though the fires were raging just 40 miles away. I went riding anyway although I did make a concession by riding at an easy pace to reduce the amount of dreck I was inhaling. One day when the BAAQMD said we were in the red zone, I whipped out my Respro cycling mask that I had bought in London years ago for my daily commute to work here in SF. But the air in SF is generally so good especially out by the Pacific where I worked that I didn’t have a use for it. The Respro is a bit confining even though it’s miles better than a N95 mask. The Respro fits tightly—perhaps too tightly (I did buy the right size so they *are* supposed to fit tightly!)—and that’s good for blocking pollutants but bad when the weather is warm, which it was last October. Even though the Respro has exhalation ports that make it much easier to vent your breath, during hard cycling the mask just didn’t breathe well enough to be comfortable on a long ride. For commuting speed it’s mostly fine but I was out for a pleasure ride.

In retrospect it was foolish for me to ride during the fires because even though I had nothing more than an occasional hacking cough and some transient chest tightness, the long term effects of inhaling pollutants being potentially scary. PM 2.5 particles are so small that they can be inhaled deeply into lungs especially when exercising. Those particles not only obstruct the surface area of lungs and interfere with respiration but they also lodge there; very small particles can even pass into your circulatory system and go on to affect other organs. Exposure to pollutants also can set off an inflammatory response that further scars your lung tissue.

This year I didn’t make the same mistake and I’ve cycled only once—last Saturday when the forecast was for moderate pollution (which turned out to be incorrect—it was worse). The pollution is so bad that I doubt a Respro mask is able to cope with it all. We’ve stayed holed up in the house with the HEPA filter running. But we have to go out and run errands and the house is old and hardly sealed up so we are still getting a goodly share of smoke. Both of us are coughing like patients in a sanitarium and albuterol has become our BFF nonetheless.

If you’re young and robust, you’re probably ignoring the warnings and heading out for a good spin despite the smoke. Maybe that’s alright for now but in the long run it can’t be good. Ending up with COPD, lung cancer, or pulmonary fibrosis are not pleasant ways to die.

Well, the fires are just a transient hazard. Next week the high over the Rockies that is causing our offshore prevailing wind will move and we’ll return to our usual onshore flow and maybe even some rain. The smoke will change direction away from the Bay Area, and eventually the Camp fire will be extinguished. But chronic exposure to everyday air pollution is no good thing either and we have plenty of it with the enormous number of cars filing up and down our roads and highways. Diesel engines produce copious soot in the PM 2.5 range and regular gasoline automobiles create ozone both directly and indirectly. Even on days that have “good” air quality, pollution can be much higher in certain locations for example next to freeways. So avoid riding next to freeways or major roads with a lot of car traffic. Even better would be to go mountain biking away from roads, period.

A BAAQMD reading is for an entire day but the pollution changes from hour to hour. Particulate matter tends to be worse in the early mornings because of the night time stagnant air whereas ozone tends to be worse later in the day after tailpipe emissions climb. In addition the commute hours cause big pulses of pollution in the early morning and late afternoon. If you are riding during the week, you have to fit that around your work and home life and that likely means you’re riding early in the morning or after work, right when car pollution is peaking. On top of all that air pollution behaves differently at different times of the year. During summer with increased heat and sunlight we have higher generation of ozone and during winter temperature inversions and wood fireplaces mean higher PM readings in the late evenings, nights and early mornings.

With ozone generally peaking during the afternoon and PM more or less level during the day except at nights and early mornings during the cold months, the best time to exercise is usually going to be in the mid-morning. But another option is to wait until well into the evening when ozone has started to drop. With a good set of lights you’ll be able to enjoy that cleaner air. Years ago I often had to work until 7 in the evening. I’d rush home, change into my cycling clothes and head out over the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands to clear out my head and get in a refreshing ride. With a good set of lights and being alert riding at night can not only be cleaner for your lungs but also safe.

Sign Of The Times: Respro Mask

Respro

If you insist upon riding when the air quality is bad or if you regularly ride next to major roads or freeways, you should consider riding with an anti-pollution mask. During “red” alerts the Bay Area Air Quality Management District suggests that people wear N95 masks. These masks block some of the particulate pollution but they don’t seal against your face and provide little barrier at all if they’re loose. They also have no exhalation ports so you exhale into the mask and rebreathe your breath. Needless to say during exercise they are not comfortable let alone wearing them when you’re walking outside. Their one saving grace is that they’re dirt cheap and can be purchased at any Home Depot or hardware shop.

What you should be wearing is a mask like the Respro Sportsta. Respro has been around for well over a decade but it’s based in the UK and is not well-known here. Respro makes anti-pollution masks for a variety of uses and the Sportsta is their model for cycling. They are made of neoprene and seal tightly against your face with a strap. They have an adjustable nose bridge so that you can fit the upper part of the mask perfectly against your face. They also have exhalation ports that open when you exhale and shut when you don’t. Finally they have replaceable HEPA filters so when your filter gets dirty it is easy to swap it out for a clean one. Unfortunately they’re not cheap: The Respro Sportsta costs about $45 and a two-pack of replacement filters is $25 on Amazon. You also have to size them to your face in order for them to work, so make sure you check the size chart on the Respro website.

I wear a size medium and with the Velcro-like strap I can get a tolerable yet tight fit. That doesn’t mean it’s comfortable—it’s not: wearing an elastric band around your face is never going to be as comfortable as a Wonderbra. But it’s not irritating either. Being able to exhale easily is a plus although in warm weather you are going to feel the extra insulation. If the temps are cooler, as they have been during the Camp Fire, it’s less uncomfortable.

Does it work? Hard to say because I’m coughing regardless right now with the air quality being so bad all day long. If you’re commuting to work, these masks work very well because you’re usually not breathing very hard. For recreational use they’re definitely better if you’re taking it easy, which is what you should be doing anyway with our abyssmal air quality. If you’re going á bloc they’re probably going to be quite uncomfortable as it was for me. But for getting in that not-so-fast recreational ride, the Respro is fine. Remember: these masks aren’t perfect so don’t imagine that you’re safe riding during bad air quality: you’re not. But they will reduce your exposure, you know, like getting less radiation after the H-bomb has been dropped. Hey, but you gotta get in your ride, right?