Racers need to become bicycle advocates

By Rob MacLeod

What do racing cyclists and bicycle clubs have to do with bike advocacy? Some say a lot, others say nothing at all. I will go way out on a limb and say in some ways, both. It all depends on your attitude and definition. This edition of the bike advocacy column is dedicated to explaining the sources of my confusion.

Faithful readers will recall that last year was my rookie season as a bicycle "journalist" (if you believe that title, I have some great used chains to sell you). Following the write-about-what-you-know motto, I used my long experience as a bicycle club member to try and describe what club riding was all about. So my interest in bike clubs is more than passing and more than superficial. All the harder for me to hand out dunce awards to racing club riders for behavior during what is, after all, both National and Utah State Bicycle Month.

Cycle Salt Lake for 1998 is now history and it seems like a good time to review the event. The first response among all the organizers of such an undertaking is relief at having it over for another year. Fortunately, the relief is warmed by the memories of events that ran more or less according to plan, with better weather than we had a right to expect. The Mayor's Bike to Work Day was the one weather exception, when truly tropical thundershowers dampened the enthusiasm of all by the bravest and most dedicated. But ride they did, with Mayor Corradini setting the pace on an electricÜassisted bicycle!

The Cycle Salt Lake week started with racers in the news, and, unfortunately, it also ended with racing clubs in the center of some negative attention. The opening day, Einstein's Downtown Criterium and UTA Bike Bonanza was declared by many to be the best edition ever. Attendance in the race was higher than in previous years, an apparent paradox as there were almost no major teams from outside the Wasatch Front. But perhaps this is the secret and the destiny of this event--to serve as the one high-profile but local race on the calendar. The big race that all the local riders can train for, without worrying about the out of town teams swooping in to steal all the money.

At the end of the week came the Cycle Sale Lake Century Ride, an event with so much tradition and energy that it seems like a permanent fixture on the cycling landscape. With almost flawless organization, great support from countless volunteers and a course that we should treasure more (and will sorely miss if the Lunacy Highway becomes a reality), this event is a highlight of everyone's cycling season.

More to the point of this discussion, the Cycle Salt Lake Century is also the place where the racing communities and the many more numerous recreational cyclists share the road for a few hours. It is the largest single bike event in the state and its purpose has everything to do with bicycle advocacy.

An organized century ride encourages cyclists of all abilities to meet and ride together, to face the physical challenge of a ride that for many is the longest in their seasons, even their lives. It is a time to enjoy-even for a few short hours-what it might be like to have bikes take an equal, even dominant, role on the roads, instead of cowering in the gravel and garbage by the curbs. At a very practical level, this event offers a rare opportunity for cycling to have enough profile to attract sponsorship. The modest sums raised at the Cycle Salt Lake Century go directly to cycling projects like lane striping, bikeways maps, the Jordan River Parkway and the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

For some members of racing clubs, the attraction of the ride is not so dramatic. Many regularly ride 100 miles in training and enjoy the comfort of a presence on the road by traveling in very visible groups. Many who ride a century bask in the glory of association with a club, especially with a club that has good racers, classy clothing, or large numbers. A few, and fortunately, it is only a few, derive a feeling of glib superiority from easily passing hundreds of other riders, making a mental note of how weak, slow, awkward and even stupid they must all be.

And so these two extremes, and many more people in between, came together this year on a warm, almost suspiciously sunny, Saturday in May to ride.

There is a lot of ignorance when different groups meet rarely on common ground. Some of it is innocent-the weekend rider who thinks sucking the wheel of anyone in a club jersey is one short step from winning the Tour de France. But some of it, unfortunately, is born in insecurity and bred by too many losses at the local training crits. When problems arise between racers and recreational riders, the source usually lies in attitudes. Members of racing clubs sometimes forget that a century ride is not a chance to gain false superiority through faster pedaling, but a rare opportunity to "win friends and influence people".

As seasoned and fit cyclists, however, it should be the club riders who act as generous "hosts", assisting other cyclist and the ride organizers in order to share the pleasures of riding the roads in a group. At the very least, club riders have to be ambassadors of the sport, putting the best possible face forward.

The responsibility of club members goes beyond the sport and its reputation. Virtually all bike clubs are supported by commercial sponsors and those sponsors count on an advertising return for their investment. That return does not come from results at races, except for the rare case of a rider who might make a national team or finish a Tour de France. Instead, the exposure that sponsors hope for is at events like the Cycle Salt Lake Century. A good impression made by a club rider at a public event can send a fellow cyclist to a particular bike, blade, or bagel shop.

And good impressions are made in lots of ways. Stopping to help fix a flat, showing someone how to ride a paceline, or making sure others stay on the route. Heck, just talking to another rider, even one who is slower, can be a terrific gesture. A single century ride offers perhaps hundreds of such opportunities, precious few of which get realized.

This year's Cycle Salt Lake Century was marred with some less impressive moments. Riders were not always generous when the wind blew hard and legs were tired. Large, sometimes huge, groups formed and clung together as if lives depended on it. When the crosswinds hit, riders took the whole road, creating the conditions that led to the major crash on the Antelope Island Causeway.

Crashes happen in bike events. This is not newsworthy nor significant except, of course, for those involved. The real point is that even if there had been no crash, the list of complaints that came back from motorists, State Park officers, and the police would be suggestion enough of a problem. The director of the Antelope Island State Park reported that of the dozen or so bike related events that they regularly host, the Cycle Salt Lake Century is by far the hardest to manage and generates the most complaints.

Part of this is just a product of the size of the event and the fact that cars must finally give way to bikes. Bike advocacy sometimes requires some complaints to start a discussion. But this year a great deal of the criticism fell back directly on the bike clubs. And part of this was, unfortunately, justified by the behavior of the clubÜdominated groups who simply went too far.

This year's event also saw the recurrence of a situation that is perhaps the most damning indictment of some club riders. While numbers are impossible to determine, there were at least some cases of club riders participating in the ride without paying the fee.

For anyone who doubts the "value" of the ride, just think back to the crash on the causeway and the police, medical, and helicopter support that was on the site within minutes. This support would be there for any participant, bandit or not. Try crashing on a solo ride someplace and see how long it takes before help arrives.

As members of bicycle racing clubs, we all have responsibilities-to our sponsors, our fellow club members, and our sport. We enjoy the visibility that comes with a well known club jersey, but we should not flaunt that association through unacceptable behavior. Each public ride is a great chance to win converts, or at least enhance the image of the sport. That image then creates the goodwill currency necessary to find sponsors, obtain permits, and keep all aspects of the sport alive.

So there is not only a contribution that racers can make to bike advocacy, to enhance the sport and the image of their clubs. There is even a payoff to those riders in the ease with which promoters can get the permits and sponsorship to put on more races and better support the club system. This should be a no-brainer, but some riders act like they are the non-brainers.

The final dunce award goes collectively to the three racing club cyclists I saw, this week, riding Emigration Canyon without helmets. Kids watch adults and the messages go out. Kids die of head injuries at an alarming rate, many of them because they don't wear helmets when they ride. Make yours a positive and safe message and cycling will continue to grow.

At the end of the day, advocacy is all about impressions and contacts and a joy for the cause. We can all be advocates for our tiny little sport of cycling, and we all need to be advocates, every time we get the chance.

Let's hope June is a better month.