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 not to 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.

Hot Hot Hot

Sometimes a lighthouse is just a lighthouse.

Today’s ride down the San Mateo coast to Gazos Creek was exceptionally timely. Temperature in San Francisco, which has had until now a typically dreary summer fogfest, got downright equatorial when it hit a “high” of 84 for this year. Gosh ‘Friscans, that’s practically like Hell! Elsewhere like the East Bay it was in the triple digits and fabulously smokey. Combined with the worst air quality we’ve seen since last summer’s burnin’, churnin’ fire festival it meant the only sensible place to ride was on the Pacific. Everywhere else you were seeing and breathing red.

Seven Spokers were breathing easy along Highway One for the day but they weren’t alone: it looks like everyone else had the same idea including the Oakland Yellowjackets and Grizzly Peak Cyclists, both of which had club rides there. Joining Jeff were Spokers Mark, Scott, Maurizio and Stephen as well as newcomers Eric and Nathaniel. They ran into Stephanie, who was riding with the Grizzlies (ahem, her other club). Rumor has it that she and Jeff are now conspiring to lead a jaunt in Marin next weekend. Stay tuned!

Gutter Bunny (Part 1)

You know the routine: you’re on a road that’s narrow, probably doesn’t have much of a shoulder if any, and the SUVs and pickups just keep roaring up behind you—what do you do? Naturally you cower, ie. move as far to the right as you can and make like a mouse, hoping to avoid getting smashed and turned into road debris. There isn’t a cyclist alive in this country that at least doesn’t start out with Survival Strategy Alpha: move the fuck over and pray. Pretty soon that becomes an ingrained habit and you find yourself riding ‘in the gutter’ all the time just to be ‘safe’. But are you?

It’s hard to argue with success. You’re alive today because you hug the gutter like your life depended on it. There is another strategy called ’taking the lane’ where you proactively (or in the eyes of 95% of motorists, impudently) move towards the center of the lane and act like you belong there and have the same rights as any other road user. Sounds good in theory but in real life it’s a lot harder to execute.

I live on a very steep street (10% average grade for 0.8 miles). It also has extremely crappy pavement, no shoulder, and some sections with no center divide due to substandard road width. It also has a hairpin blind curve just when it gets steepity. Every time I return from a ride I face a conundrum: what shall I do at the first hairpin to stay alive? As I get older it’s a rare day that I can “sprint” through the curve before the next line of cars is released by the red light. And I’m not getting any faster. There was a time when I would select a line going uphill that avoided the most execrable of the pavement cracks, and that best line was closer to the center of the road, which by the way has a double yellow line ie. ‘don’t pass!’ That would work until a car came downhill, usually at a high rate of speed, and crossed the centerline to pass a cyclist or pedestrian on the other side and coopting the entire road. Back to the gutter! Fortunately time has removed this choice because the road is now so replete with treacherous alligator cracks that there is no advantage to riding close to the centerline.

The problem is that the road is barely standard width so passing cars that stay in my lane are usually going to violate the three-foot passing law even when I’m at the extreme right side. Consequently I’ve been needlessly brushed by cars who insisted upon passing me on this curve and that’s why I shifted back to taking the lane despite the horrible pavement. I thought that by taking the lane drivers would then not pass since it’s (a) a blind hairpin curve (duh!), and (b) has a double yellow line (double duh!). Here I discovered that lack of driver education compounded by either immense stupidity and/or entitlement—a bad combination, in my opinion—leads to the following behavior: drivers pass me anyway by barging full on into the opposing lane even though they can’t see shit ahead of them. Most of the time there is no oncoming vehicle so no harm, no foul. But I’ve lost count of the number of times that a head-on collision has been narrowly averted by a downhill driver slamming on the brakes so that Stupid Guy/Gal can lunge back into the right hand lane, usually cutting me off. I’ve been lucky so far not to get sideswiped.

At this point I’m as exasperated as a rat in a cage with an electrified floor. Taking the lane as a traffic strategy assumes that drivers understand and follow traffic laws. One can no longer assume what constitutes ‘common sense’ when it comes to driving on local roads. Taking the lane also assumes implicitly that drivers are rational and don’t gamble heedlessly. But some drivers are like two-year olds who don’t understand consequences. Ironically it may be that those drivers understand the consequences all too well when it comes to cyclists, which is that there are almost none if you hit one. So hug the gutter, take the lane—what’s the diff when it comes to survival?

Both strategies work…until they don’t.

The problem with taking the lane—besides finding the requisite resolve—is that it may work 90% of the time but the 10% when it doesn’t work is when it can become extremely hazardous. What is that 10%? When drivers are not attentive, rational, or sober. When drivers are sociopathic (there are more out there than you think—were you ever bullied growing up? Those folks now drive cars.) Even when it does ‘work’, you still may have to endure punishment passes, rolling coal, being yelled at, stuff being thrown at you (I was hit with a thrown egg once).

So, although you have the right to take the lane when it isn’t wide enough for a car to pass safely, should you when drivers behave so callously?

Addendum. Here’s an example of the should-I-or-should-I-not-take-the-lane:

https://sf.streetsblog.org/2021/08/18/punishment-pass-on-great-highway/

Despite the photographic evidence the SF police will not investigate.

Pique-nique

The first real Different Spokes social event since the beginning of the Pandemic, the club picnic, happily took place yesterday. This year we went to Old Mill Park in Mill Valley, a first for us, after a couple of years in Golden Gate Park and China Camp before that. Old Mill Park is in the heart of Mill Valley just a couple of blocks from the “downtown” and we had a cozy site, Redwood Grove, nestled in a grove of redwood trees. (Duh!) We got our sunshine and no fog but not quite the warm temps that would have made it perfect. (“Whiner!”) For the 21 of us who attended, the grove was the perfect size providing a woodsy hideaway in the middle of snow white Marin. Twenty-one attended of which about a dozen biked the 14 miles from McLaren Lodge. That’s a 100% increase since our 2019 picnic!

And the winner is…

Amidst the panoply of delicious potluck dishes Benson Lu literally took the cake with his Japanese cheesecake slathered in raspberry and apricot jam. We know who puts effort into their cooking!

Of note: Will Bir is back on the bike after his brain surgery. That was one quick recovery! Roger Sayre showed up with his new, amazing blue Orbea superbike, upstaging Stephen’s orange Seven. Maurizio is back on the bike and is riding again—hope this one doesn’t get stolen! Old fart Janet Lourenzo, who lives just down the road from Old Mill Park (well, actually Corte Madera but that’s close enough) joined us and we finally got to chat. Also returning to the fold is Rico Nappa, whom I haven’t seen since the Ride Leader Appreciation Dinner back in, oh, 2018 or so. Good to see some Oldies But Goodies!

Swingin’ good time!

Thanks go to Ginny Watson, Jeff Pekrul, and David Goldsmith for leading the ride up. And we have to thank David Goldsmith and Greg Mahusay for doing the scut work in organizing the picnic and taking care of the hundreds of loose ends to make it a seamless event. Special thanks go to Chris Mulanax, David Varela, and David Gaus for being the mules—whipped without mercy—who sagged everybody’s goodies up to the park and set up the picnic area. Since parking turned out to be tight at the park, they had to park inconveniently away and schlep all the gear, coolers, and food into the park! I hope it was a labor of love and that you were “rewarded” afterwards for your hard work.

Mines Eye

This past Sunday was our foray up Mines Road just south of Livermore. Of course this road has been there since forever but it didn’t become a regular club ride until Stephanie Clarke started championing it around 2010. I recall in the early days of the club doing Mines Road once, maybe twice. But it wasn’t a popular ride attracting repeat business probably because it can be infernally hot for much of the year. Somehow David Gaus got hooked on it too and then this ride was led annually. For a certain segment of the club Mines Road became a thing, a must-do ride.

Personally Mines never left a deep impression on me, at least one that was positive. Even today Mines strikes me as a perverse route: the uphill feels like a downhill and the downhill feels like an uphill. Why is that? Mines starts climbing steeply but a long middle section is a very gentle uphill that feels almost flat and on which you can roll with speed. The two subsequent uphills before you get to the Junction Cafe aren’t long or super-steep but they remind you, “Oh, I’m on a climb!” Then comes a descent to the Junction Cafe. Conversely the so-called “descent” starting at the Junction is a rather grating uphill: you’ve just finished lunch—maybe one of those burgers—and having to immediately start ascending feels like drudgery. After a short descent you do this all over again to the second summit. Then you hit the ‘flat’ that seems to go on forever. But even that’s work because the pièce de résistance is the afternoon headwind. I’ve never ridden Mines without a headwind on the downhill, which is a natural buzzkill—why am I working so hard to go downhill? Well, that downhill is nearly flat and the wind is usually ferocious enough to bring you to a complete standstill unless you apply some force to the pedals. The everpresent headwind is probably due to a primarily north/northwest wind blowing up Mines Road combined with valley heating which drives air upvalley. Regardless of the cause it’s nearly unavoidable. Eventually you do get to a real downhill—two sections actually—enough to overcome the headwind and finally get relief and enjoyment. But by this time you’re nearly at the bottom so it feels a little too wham-bam-thank-you-Sam. Uh, after that you don’t want a second date, do you?

Not to spoil the punchline but that formula held to a T on our ride. Other not-so-good stuff also took place such as leg cramps from too much climbing and not enough conditioning, and the fact that I was suffering from food poisoning due to the previous night’s dinner. But all was not lost. This ride turned out to be a revelatory experience. First, the weather was incredibly good. This late in the year Mines is usually already heating up. Any time after April is a gamble. But it was sunny with almost no clouds, no heat, and the predicted winds hadn’t picked up speed yet. Great for climbing! Second, since it was only Stephanie and Roger H and I we got a good opportunity to catch up on nearly a year’s worth of news due to the Pandemic. Stephanie’s endlessly cheerful (well, who couldn’t be on that beautiful custom Seven she gets to ride!) and unperturbable. She paced us up to the Junction and pushed me to try to stay with her. But she wasn’t going so fast that I had to go deep—I just had to step it up a bit more. I thought I couldn’t keep up but somehow I did. Well, until the leg cramps hit.

Third, we began the ride without much hope of seeing wildflowers. But just a few miles from the Junction there they were, not in profusion but present and beautiful in color. Alas, a drought year’s crop. Their backdrop was surprising: an incinerated horizon. The higher we went on Mines, the deeper we entered last summer’s SCU Lightning Complex fire zone. You can’t see its scars at all from Livermore, the hints of the conflagration only appearing much higher up. They increase slowly—a glimpse of charred trees and brush, blackened wood—then it’s bigger and bigger sections on the east side climbing up the hillside. As you get close to the Junction the burn zone is suddenly on the left and the right, the fire having jumped the road, then the landscape becomes denuded of live trees, only blackened trunks against the horizon. Ironically when you reach the CalFire station on the upper reaches, everything but the fire station and its housing was destroyed—it makes sense they’d save their own buildings if only so they could keep fighting fires.

The past few weeks have unintentionally turned out to be a tour of the Bay Area wildfires. Napa and the Franz Valley were hit by the Tubbs fire in 2017 and then the Glass fire last year; we saw burned landscapes on the east side of Silverado Trail, with a couple that hopped the road. On the Winters ride we witnessed the burn throughout Pleasants Valley Road caused by the LNU Lightning Complex fire. In each case I wasn’t prepared for what I saw, being taken aback by the extent of the destruction.

It’s a trope that wildfires and their sequelae are now the new normal in Northern California. The 1989 Oakland Hills fire, which we thought could never be equaled short of a nuclear firestorm was surpassed by the Tubbs up in Napa in 2017, and then that one was surpassed by the Camp fire near Chico in 2018. These are all locales that we enjoy cycling. How could we not be affected by their loss?

For now Mines is still there and the wildflowers are sure to return (as long as we get rain). But for the near future—certainly for the remainder of my life—we will be cycling in a changed landscape with a somber reminder that all that beauty is ephemeral and evanescent.

Up the Hill

Those of you who have known me for a while remember when I used to commute by bike down to the South Bay twice or three times a week with the group, sf2g. Those days ended when I returned to working in downtown San Francisco almost 7 years ago, but I’ve pretty much always been a morning workout guy. I did a 7:30 AM spin class for about 5 years, but the gym I was going to is closed now, and it’s not coming back. God save me from $$$oul Cycle, but I might check it out when it gets going again if I can’t find another good workout.

Anyways, I’ve been faced with the question many of us are facing now, which is how to get in shape after we’ve put on our “covid 15.” Well, for me, it’s been more like a “covid 7,” but that also feels like too much extra weight to be dragging around on a Tib loop. In addition to the weight, I’ve been stymied by a shoulder injury for months that just wouldn’t get better. But even though it got better around October, I just couldn’t get motivated to get back in shape.

At the last Jersey Ride, I was talking with Joan, and it turns out she likes to ride in the mornings, too. That’s how she commutes to her work on the western side of the city. So I asked if she might be willing to ride with me a day or two a week up the big hill in the middle of the city, and she said yes.

Joan is a lot faster than I am right now, and she’s been wonderfully patient with me huffing and puffing my way up Corbett.

We haven’t posted the ride as a club ride so far, but I wanted to see if anyone else might be interested in getting together with us at Philz on Castro 6:45ish and do a short and pleasant, but intense, morning workout. Great company, too!

A Leopard Changing Its Spots?

Is that a Clippercard in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

Well, thank god for the pandemic. While the coronavirus has decimated BART ridership, that smaller number of riders has an “unexpected” beneft: there are fewer riders to complain about the wretched cars.

Have you ridden on one of the new BART cars—you know, the ones that aren’t as filthy and don’t smell like a locker room, have three doors, and are as rare as hen’s teeth? Well, they are still going to be hard to find because BART is refusing to accept delivery of any more of them from the manufacturer Bombardier until software bugs and some production/design problems are fixed. This was reported in the East Bay Times a while ago. BART was supposed to have 600 new trains by the end of 2020 and a full fleet by the end of 2021. At the end of January BART had only 286 new cars and the full order now won’t be here until spring 2023. But don’t hold your breath.

The article relates that software bugs are causing the trains to more frequently shut down compared to the old cars. The necessary system reboot takes 5-10 minutes. Plus, apparently the wheels go out-of-round more frequently than those of the old cars leading to more trains being hauled to the maintenance yard.

You may also recall that originally the new trains were supposed to be rolled out in January 2018 but that was delayed by problems including a crash during a test run in 2016.

Why does this sound so familiar? Don’t forget that the newish BART stations—Warm Springs, Milpitas, and Berryessa—all ended up opening years behind schedule and being delayed not once, not twice, but many times to the point where BART finally stopped forecasting when the stations would open. BART has a nasty habit of overpromising a bright, glorious future of system improvements and then having to backtrack. Of course that’s after we’ve voted to give them more money and they’ve hoovered up most of the local transportation money.

Project delays are a fact of life. Witness the repair of the Calaveras Reservoir or the Crystal Springs Reservoir Dam Road—they blew their timelines by almost a decade. Unexpected issues almost always crop up that confound timelines. But continuing to provide unrealistic, problem-free timelines to the public is not only deceptive but ultimately a great way to alienate your ridership. How about underpromising and then surprising us with some early good news instead?

Since I haven’t set foot on a BART train since the pandemic began, these problems have had zero impact on me. But it grates on me that when I do return to BART this year instead of being pleasantly welcomed by an improved system, it’s likely to be the same old BART both literally and figuratively. Changing spots is hard to do. In BART’s case it may be impossible.

This November I hope we’re most of the way out of the pandemic in the Bay Area so that we are able to host our annual ride, Mt. Hamilton in the Fall, which historically has had a large turnout. If you live in the City, you’ve had to drive to the start at Penitencia Creek Park. Due to BART’s late opening on Sunday mornings it has been nearly impossible to take public transit to this ride because of the long ride from Warm Springs station. Until now. Taking BART to the end of the line, the Berryessa station, now makes it possible to get to the start with just 20 minutes of easy pedaling. Assuming your train doesn’t undergo a software fault and require a long reboot.

Ten Years Ago Today: Darth Veeder

Remember life pre-COVID?

Our President David Goldsmith was the originator of this ride as well as L’Alpe de Fromage. “Darth Veeder” takes riders up the ever-popular Veeder Road in Napa. David first led this ride in 2010 as part of a spring training series. This was the second year on tap at our ride calendar. Veeder runs approximatly north-south and can be ridden in either direction. David wisely chose to ride it from the south, which is less steep than doing from the north. It also gives riders the chance to amble peacefully next to Redwood Creek, lending a very pastoral feel to this relatively isolated road. Along Veeder you pass estates and vineyards and then at the top get a fantastic view of the Napa Valley and the nearby mountains. The descent is curvy but not crazy except for the pavement breaks that seem to come out of nowhere. Fortunately traffic is usually sparse. After Veeder is a fun, easy descent on Dry Creek Road. David also started this ride at Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, giving riders a chance to fill up on exquisite pastries both before and after!

David reported:
Today was beyond beautiful. To start with, we were surrounded by a ring of snow-capped mountains. In Napa Valley. Unreal. Mt. St. Helena was particularly impressive viewed from Highway 29 while driving up to Yountville. Once we got on our bikes and started climbing the mountain, there was water everywhere. I figured there would be, since it had rained all week. But the flow through the creeks, occasionally spilling over onto the roads we were riding, was massive. Redwood Creek was churning away and Dry Creek was not dry. When we got to the top, there were daffodils blooming among green mountainsides. Just before we left the summit, I turned around and espied Mt. Diablo, probably 50 miles south, huge and blanketed with snow. It looked like one of the Sierras, very impressive.

Redwood Creek at its best
At the top of Veeder Road
That white stuff is called “snow”

If you’re a club member, log into the club website and view all the ride pics in the 201102 Darth Veeder photo album!

“Sesame, Ouvre-toi!”

Hell no!

It’s not quite that easy to reopen, is it? A magical incantation may have worked in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves but it will take something beyond words to get the club to really open up and reveal its treasures. It’s proved that way at other Bay Area cycling clubs as well—being able to reopen for rides has not led to a spate of listings nor of participation. Most members are still eschewing group rides even though they check off just about all the safety boxes: health and safety protocols, outdoor and mostly uncrowded, and constantly moving air. Everybody’s assessement of risk is going to be different and although we’d like to think there is a rational calculus, so much is unknown about COVID spread that the penumbra of uncertainty seems large and hazy. I have read anecdotally that in Florida, which pandemic-wise is a world unto itself, large group rides (e.g. 50+ riders) take place almost every day of the week where riders ride in close quarters unmasked, i.e. conduct rides as if nothing were different today. Actually I still see a few “relatives” of those Florida training rides out here although they aren’t quite as big and more of the riders are carrying face coverings even if they aren’t wearing them. But for the most part Bay Area cyclists seem to be riding by themselves or only with small groups of family or friends.

We restarted our club rides in October and they’ve mostly been led or co-led by our Secretary Jeff Pekrul. They seem small—maybe four to eight participants—but those numbers were pretty typical prepandemic. Of course you can’t have club rides without ride leaders/hosts and since that population has always been small—about fifteen or so members—the limiting factor is going to be the number of hosts that are willing to lead now. Whether it’s because the pandemic has upended personal lives, fear of COVID transmission, or the fact that it’s currently the rainy season and cold, ride leaders aren’t leaping forward to grab the reins, so to speak.

Looking at who’s showing up on our pandemic rides it’s mostly the same people, ie. those who aren’t fearful of congregating with fellow Spokers. Everybody else seems to be hunkered down waiting for the plague to blow over. But with mass vaccination no longer on the horizons and well into view, more Spokers are certain to emerge like Punxsutawney Phil and not be scared by their shadows.

I’ve certainly been pondering this question although it’s mostly theoretical since I’m still recovering from an injury that’s keeping me off the bike: when I’m vaccinated, will I then start leading club rides just like before? Will I then join a club ride? I hate to admit it but there is one thing that is a real turn-off for doing a group ride right now: I can’t stop someplace, sit down, and have a nice lunch midride. Restaurants are currently open only for takeout and it’s cold outside. Eating takeout under those conditions is not a whole lot different than stopping at the Kwik-E-Mart for a snack. Yeah, it’ll get you home but it’s…disappointing.

I’m looking forward to the day when we can do a ride, sit down for a delightful meal filled with insouciant and witty conversation, and then after an inspiring postprandial coffee saddle up again for a slow roll back to the manse. Without a mask.

Oh yes!

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.