The Role of a Bicycle Club

Background Reading


Judy M. prepares the attendees at a club ride for their collective journey at a club-level Show N Go Ride.

Judy M. prepares the attendees at a club ride for their collective journey at a club-level Show N Go Ride.

Bicycling as a movement has of late become divided over the purpose of the activity, rather than its nature. We are now supposed to think of “real” cyclists as those who use a bicycle for transportation versus those who ride for “recreation“. I wonder if anyone besides me sees this as a false dichotomy.

I drive a car. Sometimes it is for transportation. On other days I might be doing some shopping or perhaps driving out into the countryside just to “get away“. The beauty of an automobile is that it transitions between my purposeful acts with ease.

In fact what more likely defines the nature of my use of this tool is where I am going rather than why. If I point my car towards Wisconsin or Indiana or even the Chicago Loop on a weekend it is probably because it is being used for “recreation“.

For the “hard coreUrban Cyclists this is blasphemy. Their religion tells them that you “cannot serve two masters“. You either have a bicycle for everything “transportation” or you are just behaving as a Lyrca-wearing Suburban Racer-wannabee and are thus an inconsequential wart on the butt of human existence and really do not matter.

To them a “real cyclist” is someone who rides in all sorts of weather all-year round and then writes about the grueling experience of slogging through snow and slush for a mile and a half to get to work and back. I always picture Sarah Palin standing at a podium when the ChainLink Forum blather turns in this direction. Like their cousins in the GOP Tea-Party these folks are the ones who would rather see their movement die a violent death if it means that anything other than “transportation” is the goal of a rider.

Long Before The Cycling Movement Existed There Were Bicycle Clubs

The “hard coreUrban Cyclists spend their waking hours arguing with anyone who will stop and listen over the origins of roads. Right now they have an itch they cannot scratch about whether roads are for cars or for bikes. I suspect that both have played a part in shaping what roads mean today. But like a lot of life the details are lost over time and the only ones who really know are long since dead and buried.

Chicago's Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

Chicago’s Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

The more apropos argument would be whether we have the collective will to make roadways work for everyone? But I am guessing instead that arguments will continue to rage over which use of bicycles will outlast the other. And whether cars will be relegated to the scrap heap of history.

You know that “scrap heap” idea reminds me that when vinyl records were first introduced “live music” purveyors were certain that it was a passing fad. And those that espoused them (the “hard core” of that day) dismissed the old fuddie-duddies of that day as a luddites.

Well as it turned out they were both wrong, to some degree. We are sitting here in a tizzy over whether or not “vinyl records” are the ones which give a better sound than the upstart MP3 players. And once again each generation will argue that the prevailing discovery of its time is the “be-all end-all” of space and time. Poppycock!

Bicycles are great tools, nothing more. They can be used for everything from battlefield ambulances to riding the Iditarod Route in the springtime. You can equip them to carry heavy loads or serve as commute vehicles augmented with electric assist. Like their automobile cousins their manufacturers will get an idea and as if it were Jello™, throw it on the wall of commerce and see if any of it sticks.

Clubs Beat Out Movements Everytime

Bicycle Clubs are the very best way to get cyclists prepared for using a bicycle. Clubs offer the one thing an Urban Cyclist needs more than all else and that is a “shared experience“. The Church of Urban Cycling tries to mimic the Bicycle Club Experience by offering up the Critical Mass Ride. Bicycle Club members who have had the benefit of learning to ride in groups think of Critical Mass Rides as a deliberate attempt to re-enact a club ride led by an incompetent ride leader.

Nothing makes for a great cycling memory like struggling to finish your first one hundred mile ride on a day when you are cold and wet and hungry. Anyone who has done PacTour will tell you that it can be a test of human endurance as well as a perfect means of discovering what lies within you.

About the only thing an Urban Cyclist learns when riding in fast moving traffic where he feels violated because the cars are passing too close is that the side streets might have been a better choice. Urban Cyclists tend to ride alone. They suffer alone in reality only to try and recreate their angst online over a keyboard with an ale close to hand and a bong sitting on the desk.

A club experience often means that you get to see a person as he is being stressed. You do not have to rely on his account of it all after the fact. When a club member gets a flat you all stop and wait while it gets repaired. Those in the group who have technical expertise pitch-in and help that member get back on the road.

Your destination is determined by a ride leader who helps shape the experience by choosing the destination, the route to it and the place, date and time when and where the journey begins. In some clubs you even dress alike to strengthen that club identity. You elect members who show a special knack at organization and you have bylaws to govern your actions. It can be a great experience.

When A Club Loses Its Focus

But like all things associated with the human experience there are times when egos provide a dissonant experience. It often occurs when there are folks in the club who have decided that their defining personal goal is to win the mileage contest rather than to learn more about cycling. The moment you take your eye off of having fun when on a bicycle then you really ought to join the Urban Cycling Movement as a transportation rider and rack up miles rather than create memories that will take you through the final years of your life with fond remembrances.

But for me the idea of making my life’s purpose where bicycle riding is concerned all about basic transportation is like trying to deny myself the pleasurable memories of cross country road trips to the East or West Coast in summer. Nothing serves to revive the senses like your first ride in the California hills with a bike club on a Sunday morning. Nothing does more to dampen my enthusiasm for both cycling and life like recalling the ugliness of a dirty city street ridden in the dead of winter alongside truck, bus and car traffic that is constantly splashing muck all over me and my bike.

A Trail Beats A City Road All Day Long

We have trails like the Ozaukee InterUrban Trail in Wisconsin and the Illinois Prairie Path that began life as routes for electric trains. When that mode of transport decline in purpose its route was left fallow until someone came along and resurrected it. These routes are generally flat and head to and through cities and towns. They are perfect for the next wave of bicycle infrastructure development, the bicycle highway. Using the IPP you could get to and from the City of Chicago with ease if it were paved, lighted all along the way and had plenty of places to stop and get warmed up and grab a bite to eat. And of course a repair shop or station would not hurt either.

Couple trails like these together in the suburbs and you have way for everyone to get north and south and east and west without having to fight large roads and train tracks or even highways. But we will never get there if the only focus inside the Cycling Movement is on putting down pretty green paint and PVC bollards on crappy streets in urban areas.

Bicycle Clubs More Accurately Reflect The American People

Unlike the Church of Urban Cycling, bike clubs have a far less strident approach to advocacy. They tend to populated by people from both sides of the political spectrum and frankly all points between. They are not bent on looking a certain way or wearing tattoos and piercings that are designed to announce who and where they stand before you get to actually meet them.

Bike club are places where you are likely to find a group of soccer moms who have decided to ride in a group instead of sitting home alone and watching daytime television. They are places where younger riders who are single can find a soulmate under circumstances far more revealing than that encountered over a pint of ale late at night or eye-to-eye while riding naked to demonstrate your dislike of oil usage.

Bike clubs are likely to be populate by folks with mega-mile experiences in long distance bike touring. They are likely to have ridden cross country several times. Most Urban Cyclists are not really into that sort of thing. After all “real cyclists” ride for transportation purposes.

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

The problem with clubs is not unlike that encountered on the ChainLink Forum. There are always the alpha-types who want to tell everyone else what to think and how to express themselves. Eventually those who would rather not engage in “wilding” activities on a forum decide to either keep silent or drop out of the social scene in Urban Cycling. The same thing can happen with your garden variety bicycle club.

Let the blow-hards with more time and money than brains run the affairs of the club and you have a recipe for disappointment. But this can only happen if you forget “the mission“.

First and foremost the bicycle club is there to provide a safe place to learn bicycling skills alongside having great fun with others. Think of it this way. You can have a running, hiking, motorcycling or knitting club. Each of these is centered around a love of a shared activity. In most cases there places are very inviting. They look to bring in new members. They are seldom worried about competition from without.

I dare say that running clubs so no problem with local bicycle clubs and there is no animosity. In fact the less “hard core” your club tends to be the more likely it is that it will have well-rounded personalities and engage in a set of experiences that you could invite your mother to join-in without embarrassment.

Contrast that with the notion of taking mom on your next Urban Cyclist bar night when folks are getting busy in the snow behind the brewpub and you get my drift. If you could not bring your kids under the age of 12 years old to ninety-nine percent of your club outings then you have joined up with a group whose mission is not as lofty as it could be.

A bicycle club is all about service to community.

When the focus of a club is more about personal mileage counts than helping buy bikes for wounded veterans and disabled children then things may have gone off the rails. Bicycle clubs should be the place where League Certified Instructors abound. Groups of such LCIs should have a standing invitation at the local grade schools to show kids how to ride safely to school. They should be the adults that teachers call upon to help them shepherd a group of students on a field trip by bicycle. If your club has decided instead to focus on awards night as the highlight of its year then something might be desperately wrong.

When this sort of thing happens you should consider disbanding and joining an Urban Cycling Forum and getting a few tattoos and a nose ring. I suppose the thing that aggravates me most about these tattoos and nose rings is that they are feeble attempts to look like bad-ass biker gang members more than anything else. I know and count as friends many people who have both.

But looking a part is not what bicycling is about. Lycra and Spandex are useful tools in your cycling wardrobe. So are nylon and other quick drying fabrics. I prefer loose-fiiting clothing and less aggressive-looking helmets than are worn by racers. In fact the moment I find myself want to look like a racer when in fact I am a “recreational cyclist” I do a reality check.

I Vacuum Copenhagen

I Vacuum Copenhagen

I do not require and in fact do not need a racing bike. I prefer something more akin to what you might use on a brevet ride. In fact I prefer to carry either a day bag or panniers everywhere I ride. I am not interesting in using “milk carton boxes” bungeed to my rear rack. I find them awkward and visually unflattering. I much prefer the idea of riding either a Easy Racers recumbent bicycle or better yet a Brompton folder when riding around the trails, roads and streets that I frequent. I have no problem with other bike styles, these are simply the ones I know and love.

I actually agree with Mikael Colville-Andersen‘s mantra that bicycling culture is over-rated. He likens bicycling to vacuuming. I would use the analogy of driving an automobile instead.

Nobody I know (save the few who own off road vehicles which they solely ride on pavement) goes around puffing out their chest about the kind of car they drive. Yes, people do often by expensive for cars. But for the most part only car enthusiasts really get into the nuances of these models.

The rest of us schlubs are content to hop in the car and drive somewhere for a stated purpose and do not worry over how we will look to our friends for driving that particular brand or style of car or for not having taken the bike instead.

Let’s All Vacuum

Bicycle riders should unite over the experience of being on a bike rather than what your purpose was in doing a particular ride. Let’s get our heads out of our anal orifices over how many miles we have ridden this year. Let’s set up online databases for members to use to record their various rides or not. But let’s top the notion of trying to reward one another for having done something that is not particularly useful to the rest of the world.

I do not ever turn to my luncheon partners and ask how many miles they have driven this year or even last. No one I know has ever stood up in church and suggested that the folks with the greater number of driving miles ought to be given purple Bibles to signify their accomplishment at having driven more miles than anyone else.

Besides if you were a wounded veteran would you not feel a bike left out of a club where mileage was a mark of your acceptance and you rode only a hand-powered trike? In fact if you were frail or disabled such a club would not be one where you might think you could thrive.

Why not make the focus service to country and community? Why not have a collective goal to visit every single hospital and nursing home in the area to find out whether there were people who desired to ride but had no money for a bicycle rider with adaptive needs? That my friend would be a heck of a lot more interesting to read about than some silly ass report from a pompous blowhard about off road trail conditions for the umpteenth time.

I have no interest in seeing yet another picture of a near drunk club member sitting outside in subzero weather with a bottle of ale in one hand and wearing only a t-shirt, shorts and no shoes. What the heck has any of that to do with bicycling?

I have said many times to the Urban Cycling Community that its focus is too anal and self-centered. Are bicycle clubs heading in that same direction?

Only you can make a difference in the world and it has to come from a spirit of being a vacuum salesman and not a self-indulgent “look at me on a plastic bike asshole”. The winner of life is not the guy or gal with the most bikes or the greatest number of miles ridden or the most ride leader jerseys. Instead it comes from all the folks who know and love the fact that you were instrumental in introducing them to a life-long avocation that they have in turn passed on to their grandchildren and friends.