|A photograph of the Tioga Pass Road taken in 1966. This is at the beginning of the descent described below. Yes, the road we were descending was unpaved.|
As a teenage cyclist, I took tremendous risks. I remember passing cars at high speed while descending some of the steeper roads in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I remember being puzzled as to why the drivers of those cars were so upset with me. However, I also remember a turning point, which happened as I descended from Tioga Pass heading towards Nevada. The road is steep, narrow, has switchbacks, and has a sharp fall-off on its southern side; if I had missed a left turn, I would have plummeted thousands of feet to my death. I thought nothing of it, I wasn't planning on missing a turn, so what was the problem? As I was hurling down this road at some very unsafe speed, weaving through the switchbacks, I heard a spoke break in my rear wheel as I banked hard through a left turn. I didn't think much of it and continued at the same breakneck speed. On the next left turn, a second spoke broke. "What can I do?" I remember thinking, "I've got to get to the bottom of the hill, and I don't want to be left behind by my friends." The turn after that, two spokes broke. I may have been stupid, but even back then, I could do math. Not only was I loosing more and more spokes, I was loosing them at a faster and faster rate. I would not be long before my back wheel collapsed, causing me to plunge to my death. So I slowed down, let my friends get ahead of me, and eventually made it to the bottom of the hill where I replaced the missing spokes, and more importantly, started riding as if I were mortal.
Of course, my memory cannot be accurate. Even back in the day of robust, 36 spoke wheels, my bike would have become unrideable with four spokes missing. So maybe I slowed down after the second spoke, or maybe even the first, but the point is the same. I learned my lesson and rode more sensibly, and that is good. Unfortunately, those who are not busy being born are busy dying. In the blink of an eye, I turned from a reckless teenager into a timid old man. Pass cars? Now I don't even want to be on the same road with them! And it gets worse when I don't challenge myself. If, for some reason, I don't ride for a few days, a ride which I previously found pleasant becomes an exercise in terror. Although there are many reasons besides safety that I ride the Rice Track, after spending so much time on that track, I find it terrifying to ride on the streets; I have become addicted to the Rice Track!
There are two problems with being a Track Addict. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, whatever good things I can say about the Rice Track (and there are many) it certainly lacks the variety, beauty, and much of the fun of a ride on the roads (assuming I pick good roads.) Thus, by spending all my time on the track, I miss out on what many would argue is the best part of cycling. A lesser but still serious disadvantage of track addiction is that the track is not always available and this gives me one more excuse not to ride.
So, is the answer to "just say no" to riding on the Rice track? Heck, no! The Rice Track is just too useful. And besides, I can control my addiction, I promise. Last week, the Rice track was closed all week, as the space was being used for other (non-cycling) activities, and rather than not ride, I girded up my loins and rode out on the Bayou. And to be honest, it is not as if I am giving up interesting rides to ride the track. Heck, I have done the Bayou ride about as often as I have ridden on the Rice Track, and at this point, it is almost as boring. Rather, I use the Rice Track to stay in shape so that when opportunities for more interesting rides come along, I am ready for them. But still, when I get to the bike track, all prepared for a low stress ride during which I can get lost in my thoughts, find the track closed, and have to shift to riding in traffic, my feelings make the fact that I am undergoing withdrawal undeniable.
This all segues into a broader discussion within the cycling advocacy community, and a heated one at that. Vehicular Cycling refers both to a set of rules for how cyclists should behave for maximum safety when riding in traffic as well as a preference for riding in traffic as opposed to riding in bike lanes, on bike paths, or using other dedicated infrastructure; it is the latter definition that is relevant here. Advocates for vehicular cycling argue against an investment in dedicated cycling infrastructure because they feel that, ironically, they make cyclists less safe. This distinction came up in a recent discussion on the Facebook page for Houston Critical Mass. On their last ride, a combination of the normal ride policy, questionable behavior by the Houston Police, and possible lapses by the volunteers who help with the ride, resulted in a large number of riders getting separated from the main group and finding themselves either lost or in neighborhoods where they were not comfortable. The old timers in this group tend towards an urban sensibility and snarkiness towards new riders which caused them to ridicule those who complained about having been abandoned. The suggestion was made that these "whiners" just ride on the Rice Bike Track if they were too wimpy to handle the streets.
Research seems to support the hypothesis that provision of protected bicycling infrastructure is the best way to significantly increase the number of cyclists on the road. Recently, I posted about some recommended bike routes that I felt were unsafe. That said, I would not want cyclists to be discouraged from riding with traffic. There are simply way more places to go on a bicycle than there are dedicated bike routes. But in the end, I very much appreciate dedicated cycling infrastructure when it is available, even if it is just a third of a mile oval in the middle of a parking lot. So let me take the opportunity to say "Thank you for the track, Rice University!"