A strange thing happened to me in the early days of the coronavirus shutdown. I was riding my bike when a woman on the sidewalk called out to me approvingly, “Now that’s a smart thing to do!” Like most cyclists, I’ve had strangers shout all sorts of things at me over the years, but until then they’d always been insults. I knew right then and there that the world had gone mad.
As the days passed, things got stranger still. It seemed like everywhere I went, people were riding bikes! It made me all tingly inside to see so many fledgling cyclists taking to the local bike paths, and yet my joy was tinged with resentment. “What, it takes a pandemic to get you onto a bike?” Plus, to be honest, they were kind of getting in my way. As the callous on my bell-ringing finger grew, I began to realize we were now in the middle of a bike boom.
If you’ve found yourself experiencing mixed feelings about this proliferation of new riders, you’re not alone. It’s only natural to have a sense of proprietorship over something you’ve been working at for a long time, and cycling is no exception. Also, while the bicycle is an amazing tool, at times it can be frustrating to share the roads, trails, and paths with people who wield it less expertly than you think they should.
But while it’s perfectly normal to experience reflexive feelings of smug superiority, it’s also essential that, once you recognize these feelings, you proceed to get over yourself immediately. This could be a once-in-a-generation chance to bolster our ranks by sharing the joy of cycling. The last thing we need is to send these new riders back to their SUVs.
The first step in welcoming new riders is learning something called “patience.” You won’t find a metric for that on your Garmin, so you’re going to have to go by feel. Here’s a good patience threshold test: On a beautiful day, head out onto the local bike path, which is probably now busier than you’ve ever seen it. Do you find yourself huffing with irritation as you weave through all these cyclists? Are you silently (or audibly) cursing them for not “holding their lines?” If so, sit up and downshift immediately. What’s your hurry, anyway? All the big rides and races have been cancelled, you’ve got nothing to train for. Now, take a deep breath and look at all those grown-ups and kids basking in one of life’s greatest pleasures: riding a bicycle. That unfamiliar feeling in the corners of your mouth is called a smile. Don’t worry, it’s just your emotional power meter registering happiness, and you don’t even have to pay a $5 a month subscription fee to use its full range of features.
Now that you’re beaming like it’s your first ride in the new team kit and you just caught a glimpse of your reflection in a shop window, it’s time to use your cycling experience for the benefit of others. Even if you don’t fancy yourself a mechanical expert you probably think nothing of topping up your tires and lubing your chain before your ride. That may not be the case for your neighbor with the dusty Specialized Allez that last saw action on Bike To Work Day 1997, and you can make their day in a matter of minutes by helping them get up and running. And while a mid-ride flat or minor mechanical is little more than a mild inconvenience to the experienced rider, it can be a scary proposition for the stranded novice, so lend your spare tube, your pump, and your know-how if you encounter a fellow rider in distress. Show them what you’re doing while you help, and let them know what they should carry so they’re better prepared next time.
Keep in mind that there’s a subtle yet crucial difference between helping and bike-splaining, which can be discouraging and even creepy. You may believe your true calling is as a mobile bicycle fitting system, but that doesn’t mean you should roll up on strangers and critique their saddle position. And yes, a lot of new cyclists haven’t quite worked out the nuances of their multi-gear drivetrains, but you should still refrain from dispensing unsolicited lectures on the importance of maintaining the optimal cadence at all times. Anyway, there’s no such thing as the “wrong” gear; any gear that’s moving you forward is the right one. The rest is merely a matter of refinement, and it comes naturally with practice. If you need a helping/bike-splaining litmus test, just substitute cycling for walking: Certainly you’d offer to help a stranger who’s just fallen down and spilled their groceries, but you wouldn’t sidle up to someone and offer advice on their gait or recommend they wear a different style of shoe. (Unless of course you’re a podiatrist, but even then you’re pushing it.)
Fortunately for these new riders, they’re starting out with motor vehicle traffic at an unprecedented low, and are less likely to experience the discouraging encounters with hostile motorists that scare so many people away from bikes. However, this also means that longtime riders like us will play an outsized role in informing their experience, so we’re going to have to stop acting like the clerks in High Fidelity if we want them to stick around. And believe me, we really need them to stick around. These new riders become the friends we meet at group rides, the advocates who stand up for us at community meetings, and even the competitors who rip our legs off. Most importantly, they become regular people on bikes, which begets more regular people on bikes. The bike boom may have set them in motion, but it’s up to the rest of us to help guide them on their journey. So instead of unnerving them with our inscrutable customs and undermining them with our withering scorn, let’s all join together as one big Rider Retention Department. It’s been a rough year, but there’s still time to turn it into a great one, and the best way to do that is with bikes.
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