covid19 · cycling · fitness

Ride like you belong to a community – really belong

It’s week BLECH!!!!! of quarantine/lockdown/the thing we are experiencing together, but there’s movement afoot. In different spaces around Canada life is returning to something approximating some kind of “normal”: from my perch on the western end of the Greater Toronto Area I can now purchase a donut I did NOT pre-order, walk my dog in the conservation areas near me, and go to the escarpment stairs for exercise. At that last one, I tell you, I am truly overjoyed.

Image of steel stairs (descending) flanked by high summery greenery, sunshine in the distance. My beloved escarpment stairs are back in business!

I know I should be feeling happy/good/relieved/something positive about all of this, but I’m not. I’m actually strangely anxious. And I don’t think it’s anxiety about catching The Big C-19; I think it’s anxiety about… trying to go home again.

If these last few months have revealed anything, it’s that what we were doing before was not actually working for most of us. It ABSOLUTELY was not working for racialized people, people living and/or working in poverty, and people who otherwise found themselves on the margins of our perennially harried, 24/7 world. Many of those people are suffering very badly right now – but something has shifted. That’s our shared awareness of this suffering, along with a growing recognition that it constitutes a grievous, violent unfairness that we must do something, collectively, about, and soon.

I’ve been thinking recently about what happens when “the normal” returns, if it returns. What lessons will I take with me from this strange, scary, valuable time into the future? Well there are plenty, to be sure, but since this is a blog about fitness, let me speculate here about something I hope I can do (better) in our as-yet unknown future, as an amateur athlete.

I’m one of the cyclists on the blog who has been riding, outside, the whole time. I carry spares with me and I know how to fix a tire; I have a phone, and I have a mask, and I’m not squeamish about getting into a cab if absolutely desperate. I figured, It Will Be Fine. And besides: I need riding.

Sam recently posted this gif of Miss Piggy and Kermie riding their bikes along a park path. I’m re-using it because the Muppets RULE, and also because Kermit’s delight is my delight. My bike lets me feel joy when nothing else can.

It’s one of my few happy places. It was something keeping me grounded, keeping me okay, in those early days when nothing looked familiar. When I was terrified for my elderly parents. When my partner had no idea how long he’d be stuck abroad, where he was when things shut down. When my work changed gears completely, and Zoom ate my brain.

Not riding was not an option. My mental health is fragile at the best of times; now is not the best of times.

Then a thing happened that pulled me up short. Early in April, near to dusk, I was descending a familiar slope about 7km from my house. At the bottom there was a crash: four cyclists were out together and two collided on the descent. One broke his back. There were two ambulances on the scene, and one of the paramedics was directing traffic around the crash site. I was actually embarrassed to make eye contact with him; I suddenly felt seen and judged for my choice to ride, exposed in what suddenly seemed terribly reckless to me. (The import of his glance may well have all been in my head, but I think it’s telling either way.)

The next day I dropped my bike for a routine tune-up and my mechanic discovered there was a crack in my carbon fork. He was blunt: this needed replacing. It was lucky I hadn’t already crashed, and crashed badly.

The rider with the broken back could have been me.

Freddie, my beloved road bike, in the Yorkshire Dales, 2017. That was at least one carbon fork ago.

Now, I know that anytime I ride I take a risk.

Road cycling is a risky activity and I do all I can to minimize my own risk because I’m a sensible person. (I get regular tune-ups for exactly the reason above; I don’t ever hammer descents because I’ve crashed in the mountains before and do not ever want to experience that again; I avoid main roads or take the lane if I need to use one briefly so I can be super visible.)

But right now? Health care workers are under strain, and those in hospital with COVID-19 are people among us who are especially vulnerable, including people of colour and elderly people.

Those resources? They aren’t for me.

So if I break my back in The Regular Times, it sucks for me but I made a measured choice. The health care workers attending to me are geared up for accidents, as much as usual; there are beds available and they have proper PPE and are experiencing normal (for them) levels of stress.

If I break my back right now? I’m potentially draining resources that are needed by people less privileged than me. I’m potentially exposing a whole bunch of people to a virus that may affect them badly. Which means I’m not thinking about my whole community when I make my cycling choices.

This doesn’t mean I’m not riding. I am still riding (see above re mental health). But now, I’m doing my best to ride with careful consideration. I ask myself:

Where am I going? Do I know this route, the road conditions, the tricky spots? Can I avoid those? I draw and redraw the map.

Where along this route could I safely seek assistance if needed? I make mental notes.

What can I do to minimize my chances of an accident, either on my own or with a car? Yes, but what ELSE can I do to ensure I’m riding as safely as possible?

Do I have enough food with me? Enough water? For the WHOLE ride?

Is my phone fully charged? Are charge-draining apps turned off?

Do I have enough gear with me to fix chain or tube problems, multiple times if needed?

If I need to call for help, who will I call, and how will I protect them while they are assisting me?

So I make a plan, a much, much more intricate one than “normal”. That plan tries to factor in the whole community of people I might brush up against on my ride. I recognize that at the end of the day I’m responsible for but also to my seemingly simple choice to ride my bike a significant distance – because that choice is actually me exercising my privilege as a white, able-bodied person with a road bike.

Yes, the current situation is weird and unusual. But my responsibility, my accountability, and my privilege as a community member will not change when COVID goes away. Arguably, I should always be planning my bicycle rides with this level of care.

I hope (and plan) to hold myself accountable, now but also in the future.

Cyclist readers, I’d love to hear from you. Are you riding, and if so how are you planning? What if anything is out of bounds for you right now, and why? Are you comfortable on your bike right now or not? If not, could you share some reasons why? 


4 thoughts on “Ride like you belong to a community – really belong

  1. Hey, that’s a scary thing to see at the best of times and these aren’t those. Yikes. I just started riding outside again and I’m weirdly nervous. I’m very much making plans, carrying a mask and taking it easy. I didn’t even sprint on a usual Strava segment and I’m so close to making it mine. But like you I thought, if I crash chasing a QOM I will feel like a moron. Now is not the time for calculated risk taking since the risks aren’t all mine to bear.

  2. Oh, and carbon is scary. Carbon failure worries me. I know people who’ve broken frames coming downhills with no warning. How long do they last?3 when does it get risky? I’m not sure

    1. I had no idea this could happen, and the mechanics at my shop in Dundas told me it was definitely a defect, not a stress fracture. We contacted Cervelo, and they replaced the part (they built me a brand new one!) under warranty. Hooray Cervelo! But I hear you: another thing to think about is the frame structure. We’ve all been told carbon is best for lightness/speed, but I AM NOT IN THE TOUR. At the end of the day I want a safe, enjoyable ride! We should have more conversations about that. 🙂

      1. Jeff had his break, not the frame, the handlebars in the driveway! Big crash but lucky it wasn’t descending. But it’s hard to test, I think, for carbon wear. It’s why people replace carbon bikes every so many years.

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