Cycling Sense: 10 differences between riding on the road and riding on an off-road trail

Bicyclists enjoy the serenity of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail. (Photo supplied/John D. Yoder )

Bicyclists enjoy the serenity of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail. (Photo supplied/John D. Yoder )

by John D. Yoder
Posted on June 4, 2015 at 12:49 p.m.

The late comedian George Carlin had a hilarious standup routine in which he contrasted the violence of football with the relative serenity of baseball. You can see him perform it on YouTube. Although his comparisons are outlandish and exaggerated for laughs, there is an element of truth in them, e.g., football is definitely a more violent sport than baseball.


John D. Yoder, before retiring, was a cycling commuter between Goshen and Elkhart and continues his interest in cycling as a recreational rider, teacher of cycling classes and president of the Friends of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail Inc. Read more of his work in his community blog, Cycling Sense.

Carlin’s comparisons made me think about the difference between my experience of riding a bike on a county road and my experience riding on one of our local off-road trails. Both are activities I’ve done for years and that I believe in: I’ve been an advocate for off-road trails for 25 years, and I’ve taught classes designed to make adults feel more confident riding on the road for 15 years. However, I’ve also met many adults who will never be confident sharing the road with motor vehicles. More and more of them tell me they prefer to ride on off-road trails exclusively.

So, in the spirit of George Carlin, here is my list of 10 ways my experiences riding a bike on the road differ from riding on an off-road trail like the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail.

  1. On the trail, I can ride with my grandchildren, ages 8 and 6, at a meandering pace with plenty of opportunities to stop and look at the cattle, goats, horses and other farm animals along the trail. I don’t ride with them on the road because they are too young to negotiate space with motor vehicles. On the road, if I’m riding alone, I’m inclined to fall into training mode where I ride hard to elevate my heart rate, or if I’m with other adults, I want to keep a respectable pace.
  2. In the quiet of the trail, I hear a variety of bird songs and chirps. On the road, I hear the roar of engines revving, brakes screeching and horns honking.
  3. On a tree-lined trail, I enjoy watching small animals running across or beside the trail. On the road, I dodge the body parts of dead raccoons, cats, dogs and possums on the edge of the road where they were flattened by cars.
  4. On the trail, I enjoy the beauty of numerous wildflower varieties and trees. On the road, I see stretches of monoculture — all corn or all soybeans — or I might see an ugly strip mall, the vast parking lots of big box stores or the neon signs of a half dozen fast food restaurants.
  5. The shade of trees along the trail keeps me cool. The lack of trees along the road causes dehydration and bakes my body.
  6. The trees of the trail turn a strong wind into a gentle breeze. On the road, I shift into lower gears to fight a head wind.
  7. I talk easily with riding companions as we ride side-by-side on the trail. I have intermittent conversations with my riding companions on the road because we are frequently singling up to allow cars to pass more easily.
  8. On the trail, I meet a variety of other users — walkers, roller bladders, bird watchers, people walking their dogs and families out for a stroll. I frequently meet friends, and we take the occasion to stop and visit. On the road, I watch for distracted drivers, pot holes, broken pavement, gravel and dead animals. I don’t interact with anyone in a motor vehicle since they pass at too high a speed, and I can’t really see their faces because of the tinted windows.
  9. On the trail, surrounded by nature, I can relax and enjoy the ride as the trail unfolds before me. On the road, alert for motor vehicles, I tense up every time a car approaches from behind.
  10. A trail ride leaves me mentally refreshed. A ride on the road often leaves me relieved to be home in one piece.

When I think about the overall contrasts between these two experiences, it comes down to a difference in comfort and relations with those I meet. The comfort comes from the absence of motor vehicles. I can relax and use my senses to enjoy nature. On the road I’m tenser, and I use my eyes to scan the street for obstacles ahead and my ears to listen for vehicles behind.

Relations are dramatically different. A trail functions as a sort of public commons, one of the few places in our society where we have the opportunity to interact informally with a variety of people. We can stop and talk or at least greet one another when we meet. By contrast, the highway, with its huge 18 wheelers, enormous recreational vehicles and cars in a hurry, is a place of speed and competition that discourages interaction.

Is it any wonder that off-road trails are a popular feature of our community?