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Opinion: The time is now for racers to act on advocacy

  • By Nick Legan
  • Published Mar. 28, 2012
  • Updated Mar. 28, 2012 at 7:18 PM EDT
Ryjder Essenfeld, age 7, on right, and Tim Johnson riding from Baltimore, Maryland, to Washington, D.C., for Bikes Belong. Photo: Pete Beers.

How much do you train? Maybe not as much as you’d like, but you still spend a lot of time cycling on your local roads. In some areas that experience is a good one, in others it’s more like a war.

What’s strange is that for as much time as racing cyclists (and I count myself in this number) spend using roads and trails, we, as a group, do very little to make the country a safer place to ride a bicycle. Maybe it’s because we’re too busy getting as many miles as we can before an upcoming race, or maybe racing clubs and governing bodies have done very little to make advocacy a part of every racing cyclist’s life.

Part of growing up as a bike racer is learning how to ride in a paceline, how to eat and drink on the bike. But it’s rare for clubs or USA Cycling to encourage us to make roads safer through advocacy.

Tim Johnson, who created his Ride On Washington to raise awareness and money for Bikes Belong, spoke at the National Bike Summit last week about this issue. He was part of a panel discussion called “Finally, the racing and advocacy worlds collide.” Movers and shakers in both worlds met to discuss measures to improve cycling for everyone on a bike.

The current situation

Johnson and others spoke to the current divide between racers and advocates and asked why it existed.

“When do we introduce the idea of advocacy to racers? Way too late right now. Cycling is pretty immature as a sport. Look at the NBA or NFL. We’re not taught to get our faces out there as advocates. We’re not creating a complete athlete (compared to the NBA or NFL),” said Johnson on his experience as a professional racer, turned racer-advocate.

Part of the maturation that Johnson is pushing for is necessary. Unlike football or basketball players, cyclists “practice” out on open, public roads. Dangerous interactions with motorists are not something other athletes must face as regularly as cyclists. Stadium or field sports don’t have this problem.

The other part of Johnson’s suggested involvement is out of a sense of responsibility to the next generation of cyclists. If racers became involved in making their training environment safer it would benefit racers, commuters and kids too.

Rob Sadowksy, the executive director of The Bicycle Transportation Alliance added, “A bike user is a bike user. City hall and Capitol Hill don’t delineate between commuters, pro athletes, kids or adults.”

The fundamental point here is that cyclists, whatever they ride, are all in this together. But that doesn’t mean that they all use roads equally. Also on the discussion panel was Elyse Walk of Giant Bicycles. She pointed out that, “Racers are the largest consumers of road infrastructure within cycling.” Conversely, commuters and bicycle transportation advocates are laying the majority of the groundwork that all cyclists benefit from.

The sentiment at the National Bike Summit was, “racers it’s time to take your pull.”

Where to start?

That doesn’t mean that doing so will be easy. The advocacy movement suffers from a message problem. It’s clear to almost everyone that getting involved is important. But which organization do you help? And how?

Even the sport’s highest profile athlete, Lance Armstrong, faced a challenge in getting a succinct message out in support of People for Bikes. Ted Arnold, media/communications manager for Armstrong’s Mellow Johnny’s bike shop, said, “At the Trek dealer summit, John Burke challenged his dealers to bring in signatures for People for Bikes. When we have Lance, we want to use his voice. I knew we had the possibility to support People for Bikes, but even with the simplified message, there was a challenge to give the words the right punch and perfect meaning behind them in a tweet.”

Clearly advocates and racers need better communication. Simply put, athletes aren’t informed. At the panel discussion in Washington D.C., many athletes added that they don’t know how to support advocacy without feeling like they’ll become mired in the cause.

Others feel that a lack of mutual respect is to blame for the lack of cooperation. Cycling legend Gary Fisher proclaimed, “The advocacy guys are on the ground, working hard and the racers whoosh by! We need to respect them and they need to respect us!”

Others pointed out that the governing body of racing in the United States, USA Cycling, wasn’t in attendance at the National Bike Summit. Thomas Prehn, of Cateye North America, said, “I applaud you, Tim, for building a bridge between racers and advocacy. But why isn’t USA Cycling here? Please write an open letter to them asking that they become involved in advocacy.”

Moving forward

After the Summit, VeloNews reached out to Steve Johnson, CEO of USA Cycling, about the divide between racers and advocates. He had this eloquent, insightful response that we are running in its entirety:

“I think it is time for bicycle racers and bicycle advocates to come to grips with the fact that they need each other! Obviously, bike racing (and its associated training) requires access to roads and trails — which is the stated goal of advocacy activities. However, it is also a fact that the growing awareness and appreciation of professional and amateur racing adds much needed ‘cache’ and relevance to an historically non-traditional endeavor; and it is this cache that helps to fuel the interest needed to make people want to get on a bike in the first place. I think of it as a ‘push/pull’ relationship: the spectacle of the professional sport and its associated heroes and role models provide the excitement or ‘pull’ that gets people initially engaged in the sport; while the activities of advocates provide the programs that create access or ‘push’ at the grassroots level.

Frankly, you can build all of the roads, trails and safe routes to school you want, but if the sport does not have any social significance, i.e., some level of ‘cool’ factor that resonates with a wide audience, then people still won’t make the decision to participate on a large scale. Consider the fact that we have more bike paths, lanes, sharrows and etc. than ever before, but we really haven’t made a dent in the obesity epidemic that is sweeping the country.

That said, I think this is a very exciting time for cycling. Thanks to the successes of American cyclists on the international and domestic stages, more people than ever before are aware of and interested in the sport. For the first time in my memory, cycling is generally regarded as a legitimate professional endeavor, and the ‘business’ of cycling, both recreational and competitive, is growing each year in this country. Now is the time for all of us involved in this business to pool our respective talents and really start to move the ball forward!”

Acting locally

While the powers that be sound like they are headed in the right direction, there are other grassroots initiatives currently underway that can serve as a model for all of us.

Kenji Sugahara, of the Oregon Bicycle Racing Association (OBRA), shared some of efforts that have resulted in the successful marriage of racing and advocacy in Oregon:

“The way it’s going to change is getting cycling into high school sports. It starts with Safe Routes To School and then segues to cycling as a sport at a high school level. As these youth grow up, they’ll be much more receptive to cycling interests.

In Oregon we’re working to get cyclocross into high school sports. OBRA and John Wilson run the junior ‘cross series and high school ‘cross series. It’s a long-term commitment. As we get more people involved we’ll get more sponsors and more exposure. And then it begins to snowball.

What racers need to realize is that it’s a vicious, positive, cycle. The safer it is, the more riders there will be. The more riders there are, the more racers there will be. As the pie grows, it’s gets better for everyone.”

Sugahara then added that race promoters need to quantify the economic impact of their events. So too do cycling-related companies. “The economic impact of cycling on jobs in the U.S. is important. When we go to Capitol Hill, we need to let them know.”

Several examples are telling. The Echo Red 2 Red XC mountain bike race takes place in Echo, Oregon, a town of 635 residents. Over 500 participants visit the town for the race. Cyclocross nationals in Bend, Oregon, earned the town $1.44 million in revenue. These figures make a case for cycling that government can’t ignore.

OBRA also cross promotes with the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA). In each newsletter and many event flyers, racers are encouraged to support BTA. BTA also supports racing by helping at events. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that makes cycling and bike racing better for everyone.

So how do you get involved?

Getting started is often the hardest step. Here are ways to make a difference:

Start off by donating, whether to Bikes Belong or to local organizations.

Join the League of American Bicyclists and get on its mailing list. That will bring you up to speed on the latest legislation concerning cyclists.

Act locally. Many states also have local cycling coalitions, like Bicycle Colorado, IndyCog in Indianapolis, etc. Join up and donate some time to making cycling safer for yourself, your teammates and your family.

You can also help by being and encouraging others to be responsible road users. Sugahara and others in Portland came up with this list of Do’s and Don’ts after several bad cycling/motorist interactions.

1. Be courteous and share the road. Being courteous gains respect and helps make the roads safer for all cyclists.

2. The law allows you to ride two abreast, but it may not be the courteous or safe option. If you hear a vehicle approaching from behind, ride single file. Don’t ride three abreast.

3. If you’re blocking a whole line of cars and there’s a place to safely pull off be courteous and stop.

4. Don’t wander all over the road. Try to ride predictably and as far right as safely as you can. This does not mean to ride in an area that is littered with road debris or places you at risk.

5. Do take the lane if it safe to do so if there is a blind corner, high-risk junction or narrowing of the road.

6. Use common sense — don’t pee in people’s yards or hang out across the entire road if you’re waiting for a regroup.

7. Stop at stop signs and signals. By law, cyclists must obey all traffic control devices.

8. Signal your intentions if you can safely do so. If you are turning, point in the direction you plan on going. If you are slowing, put your hand out behind you.

9. If you wave a car around you, don’t get impatient. Remember that it is their decision to make as to whether it is safe to pass.

10. If you’re in a group, take leadership, set a good example and do your best to make everyone ride courteously.

11. Pay attention! While it is the responsibility of drivers to avoid hitting you, ride defensively to minimize risk!

12. Remember the 5% rule. 5% of drivers are jerks. Don’t let that 5% get to you. Take a deep breath and move on.

13. Be friendly. If someone is courteous to you and does the right thing, wave and smile. Everyone likes to be acknowledged for doing the right thing.

FILED UNDER: Road TAGS: / / /

Nick Legan

Nick Legan

After graduating from Indiana University with honors and a degree in French and journalism, Nick Legan jumped straight into wrenching at Pro Peloton bike shop in Boulder for a few years. Then, he began a seven-year stint in the professional ranks, most recently serving for RadioShack at the Tour de France and the Amgen Tour of California. He also worked for Garmin-Slipstream, CSC, Toyota-United, Health Net and Ofoto. Legan served as the VeloNews tech editor 2010-2012 before sliding across the line into public relations.

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