By John G. Rodwan, Jr.
During the years I lived away from Detroit, group bicycle rides became a popular pastime in my hometown. When I moved back, I gave such outings numerous tries and learned one thing about biking with a lot of other people: I prefer not to.
I stopped riding bicycles around the time I got my driver’s license and didn’t pedal again for a couple of decades. When I returned to cycling, mainly for exercise, I rode alone. Living near a large park that closed its circular road to vehicular traffic on weekends, I regularly went riding on Saturday and Sunday mornings, gradually going more and more laps. During this period in Brooklyn, I mostly rode only in the park and in my neighborhood. When I moved to Portland, Oregon, my riding habits changed. I rode all over town, exploring my new city. I installed a rack on the back of my bike and bought a pair of panniers, which I would use to carry purchases from grocery stores or farmers’ markets. I took my bike out much more frequently than I had in New York. Even if I bicycled for exercise as well as to run errands (and just for fun), I still usually rode alone.While in Portland, I went on my first group ride. I had noticed advertisements for numerous organized rides, of various distances, usually with registration fees to raise funds for various causes, and thought I would give one a try. At the time, I had neither a regular route of known distance (as I had in Brooklyn) nor a device for measuring how far or fast I went (as I later acquired). Unsure how long I could confidently pedal, and equally uncertain about whether I’d enjoy this sort of excursion, I selected a relatively short ride (about 20 miles) that I knew wouldn’t take all day. On the designated morning, I biked by myself across a bridge over the Willamette River to the starting point (a brewpub). As a recent transplant, I didn’t know anyone else on the ride, but it appeared most others did; groups of friends rode together. Although hundreds of people were simultaneously on the road, I still essentially rode alone. That was fine with me, but it did lead me to question why I should pay to do what I could do freely and on my own schedule.
After leaving Portland in 2011 and returning to the place where I first learned to ride a bike, I added still other ways of cycling to my routine – at least for a while. In Detroit, I discovered, a collective enthusiasm for bicycles had emerged unlike anything I remembered from my youth in the city. When I was a kid, my friends and I would ride together during the week and, for a few teenage years, go to the BMX racecourses and compete on the weekends, but I don’t recall seeing a lot of adults on bicycles. By the time I returned to Detroit, however, that had changed. While commuting to work or running errands by bike might not have become as common as it is in Portland, cycling for fun – especially as a social activity – was a phenomenon. Fundraisers and free weekly rides proliferated to the extent that in the summer at least one seemed to take place every day. The most conspicuous of these, Slow Roll, started just before I moved back to Detroit as a group of friends riding together, but within a few years had swelled to thousands of people cycling around town every Monday night from spring through autumn. After spending many years riding by myself and having only sampled the group-ride experience, I decided to try again. Some old friends joined in, and the rides seemed like a good way to reconnect with them, and with my hometown. I went on cycling-for-a-cause rides; I went on a regular ride that started and ended at a park not far from my house; I went on rides designed to explore certain parts of town; I did Slow Roll. But after a couple seasons I became disenchanted. Depending on what one wants out of bicycling, group rides can be either highly enjoyable or dismal affairs. I wanted to enjoy them (or I wouldn’t have joined them), but I found I usually did not.
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Most non-professional bicyclists fall into one of two groups. First (because they want to come in first and to simply get them out of the way) there are those pelotons rapidly gliding by on their fine-tuned precision machines. While I can respect the athleticism required to achieve and maintain high speeds, and the underlying discipline involved, this style of riding never appealed to me. While I know some more casual cyclists regard the speed racers taking cues from the Tour de France as snobs determined to flaunt their superior cycling skills, I have no criticism to make of them, other than that the tight-fitting spandex outfits can look pretty silly. If the relentless pursuit of better times over greater distances – or whatever it is these earnest folks are after – is how they want to ride, that’s cool, but it’s not for me.
It’s not for most people. The rest of us make up group two: people who ride bikes without behaving as if they’re in, or training for, a race; people who wear street clothes rather than specialized gear; people whose bikes are set up to be practical rather than to be the lightest possible.
* * *
Fundraising rides tend to go longer distances than the purely social rides. Perhaps because of this, they attract both types of riders, with the fleet first group up front and everyone else going at a comparatively leisurely pace over the 30 (or however many) miles. This was true in Portland, where when a pre-ride announcement mentioned a particularly steep hill on the course and suggested that there was no shame in walking one’s bike up it, a collective groan could be heard coming from those determined to be at the front of the pack. This was true in Detroit, where on one ride I stopped briefly at the midpoint break and headed out on the second leg with a small band of racer-types, who quickly left me behind. Near the end of the same ride, a pair in colorful matching jerseys and shorts passed me, one expressing surprise that I rode such a distance in jeans. (Okay, sometimes members of the spandex crowd do come across as snobs.)Cyclists who want to get some exercise and who, if they ride with others, prefer to travel among experienced riders, generally avoid primarily social rides like the aptly named Slow Roll, or should. While I did see some riders dressed as though they belonged to group one, riding Slow Roll requires no skintight clothes, carbon fiber frame, or skinny tires. Slow Roll, which started in Detroit and then spread to other cities, was created for group two. It attracts regular bike commuters as well as adults climbing on bicycles for the first time in years. It brings together children and retirees and those in between, including people just as, if not more, interested in activities – sightseeing, conversing, smoking, drinking – beyond the actual bike riding.
For its first few years, Slow Roll was somewhat informal. The organizers would plan routes, and riders would gather at the designated starting points (usually bars or restaurants). Once things started moving, volunteers would block automobile traffic at intersections so the bicyclists could go through, even though there was no official sanction for them to play traffic cop. Once the ride got too big to ignore, with several thousand regular riders, real cops got involved. In 2015, the Slow Roll team worked out an arrangement with the city so that police would escort riders on approved routes. Slow Rollers paid annual fees, which went toward insurance and various costs related to the formalized structure put in place. In effect, Slow Roll became a club for a weekly bicycle parade.
When Slow Roll changed from being just a bike ride, albeit a very crowded one, to a membership organization, I had to think about whether this was I group I wanted officially to join. Did I want to inch along in rides that could take up to two hours to go ten (or fewer) miles? Did I want to be constantly on the lookout for distracted or inconsiderate riders as they weaved about the streets? Did I want to declare myself a part of a group that included small but hard to miss contingents who’d blast loud music even as they went down otherwise quiet residential streets, or who’d ignore instructions to stay to the right side of the road and behave as if the sheer size of Slow Roll meant they could ignore the rules of the road? Once police rather than unauthorized volunteers started to hold back traffic at intersections, did I want to be part of a mass that could, for a half an hour or more, interfere with drivers just trying to get home from work, for the sake of an excruciatingly slow ride to nowhere?
Obviously, no. While I did enjoy riding alongside an old friend who’d become a devotee of social rides, and while the novelty of 3,000 to 4,000 bicyclists riding together was initially entertaining, the downside, for me, easily outweighed any upside. Critical Mass rides, large group rides that cause controversy in other cities, occur in Detroit, too, but in a more sedate fashion than in some places. In Detroit, for both monthly Critical Mass and weekly Slow Roll rides, many cyclists drive down to the meeting point; the riders generally don’t aim to interfere with vehicular traffic. But Slow Roll, deliberately or not, does get in motorists’ way, and does little to help cyclists and drivers learn how to coexist safely. I know people who hate Slow Roll, and I worry that some of their annoyance extends even to cyclists who share their concerns about traffic disruptions.
I have no gripe with those want to don aerodynamic helmets, click their special shoes into their little pedals, and ride as fast as they can, I have no problem with those whose idea of a good ride is one that involves as little physical exertion as possible. (Though in my opinion, if you can smoke while doing it, it’s not exercise.) These parties on wheels may not be my kind of party, but that doesn’t mean I object to them. I won’t repine; I will decline.
Besides, there are positive aspects to such rides. Novices may be more inclined to ride as part of a group than on their own. Those who don’t know how to fix flat tires might feel more comfortable among others who could lend a helping hand. Riders not confident on broad avenues and boulevards along with cars and trucks might feel safer surrounded by hundreds of fellow cyclists. Suburbanites might like company, and the safety conferred by numbers, as they move through unfamiliar streets, and they and city residents alike might see neighborhoods they might not otherwise have visited by going on such rides. Drivers might become more accustomed to seeing, and accommodating, bike riders in the streets.
[blocktext align=”right”]…given a choice between a very large group ride and pedaling unaccompanied, I prefer to ride alone. None of the things I like about bicycling – getting exercise, getting where I want to go, getting to see my city – requires a team (or a uniform).[/blocktext]If I have one criticism of Slow Roll it’s that an educational opportunity is being missed: the standard hand signals both bicyclists and drivers should know in order to communicate with each other could be taught to riders who didn’t already know them. I don’t know that I ever saw any ride leaders use the proper signal for stopping (left arm out, elbow bent ninety degrees with the hand pointing downward); instead, I frequently saw them put their left fists in the air, which looks a lot like the signal for turning right (left arm out, elbow bent ninety degrees with the hand pointing upward). The confusion was passed along: I saw folks start to use these same mixed signals on rides other than Slow Roll. Those who paid attention in drivers’ ed couldn’t be blamed if they didn’t know what the hell cyclists using Slow Roll sign language were trying to say.
That might come across as petty and pedantic given that group rides get people (at least somewhat) active and serve as gateways to more serious styles of riding. Yet cyclists who start rolling slowly but discover they want to go their own, perhaps more rapid, pace as they navigate through traffic can (and should) learn the correct way to indicate their intentions to those with whom they share the roads
Even after I gave up on social rides, I didn’t return to riding alone the way I did when I first resumed cycling when I lived on the East Coast. I like to ride with my wife. I like to ride with small groups of friends and neighbors.
But given a choice between a very large group ride and pedaling unaccompanied, I prefer to ride alone. None of the things I like about bicycling – getting exercise, getting where I want to go, getting to see my city – requires a team (or a uniform). I might belong the second of the two groups of cycling types I outlined above, but that doesn’t mean I have to ride (ever so slowly) with it.
John G. Rodwan, Jr., is the author of Holidays & Other Disasters (Humanist Press, 2013) and Fighters & Writers (Mongrel Empire Press, 2010) and co-author of Detroit Is: An Essay in Photographs (KMW Studio, 2015). He lives in Detroit.
Banner photo by Russ (https://flickr.com/people/89119745@N00)
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