Reporting On Cycling

I might have mentioned a time or two before that I am a journalism professor. As such, I see a lot of academic research in that area. In one fairly new venture, the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University sends synopses on research being done on current news topics, with ideas for incorporating that research into news stories.

This morning, I got the latest batch of synopses, and one caught my eye right off the bat. It’s titled, “Ten key issues for covering bicycling and bike infrastructure in your community.” The Center’s newsletter editor suggests that taking a look at these ten issues and related studies can “facilitate deeper coverage of cycling in your town.” Some of these will be old news to seasoned cyclists, but others offer the germ of an idea that just might trigger some more in-depths looks at the role of cycling in a community.

Here are their ten issues:

1. Cycling trends. The Center links to two studies of cyclists, one from big cities, one from smaller towns. “Both include data on trends in the age, gender, incomes and race of cyclists,” the item says. “This background information, much of which comes from Census Data, can help indicate how your state and city are doing relative to others.”

2. Helmets and safety. (Oh oh.- Bike Noob.) The Center cites studies on the effect of helmet laws on children’s cycling injuries, and the health impact of mandatory helmet laws. It also notes that helmet use is less prevalent in Europe than in the U.S.

3. Balancing health benefits and risks of cycling. A British study examined the use of a bike share program in Barcelona, Spain, and found that deaths rose when people used the bike share, but because of increased physical activity, 12 times that many deaths were avoided each year. With any physical activity comes risk, the Center notes.

4. Automotive air pollution and cyclists. A 2011 environmental study found that cyclists who share the road with motorized vehicles have decreased heart rate variability for three hours after being exposed to car exhausts. That is associated with a higher risk of heart attacks.

5. Bike-specific infrastructure and laws. One study looks at cycle tracks, and how they reduce the chance of injury, while another finds that even in a city with a bicycle-friendly attitude, bike infrastructure can be “patchy.”

6. Conflicts between cyclists and cars. One study used helmet cameras to track commuter cyclists, and found that in 90 percent of collisions, it was the motorist at fault. Another found that the three-foot passing law in Baltimore is routinely ignored.

7. Car-free events. You’ve heard of “ciclovias” — when city streets are closed to cars for a day? One study looked at the health benefits of four different ciclovia programs. It found the more often such events are held, the greater the health benefits.

8. Immigrants and cycling. One study showed that immigrants are 41 times more likely to use bikes than to drive cars, while another found that as the number of cycling immigrants goes up, so does the rate of car-bike collisions.

9. Commuting by bike. One study did an overview of the literature on bicycle commuting. It found that the distance of the commute was a factor, but so was bike infrastructure and the availability of such amenities as showers at work.

10. Commuting by car, transit and other modes. Two studies look at the health costs of commuting by car, compared to other means. The numbers are startlingly high: $180 billion/year for traffic crashes, and $50-$80 billion from traffic congestion. Any ideas for a healthier, cleaner and cheaper mode of transportation? (Oh, you mean bikes?)

Most, if not all, of these issues have been touched upon either here or in other popular cycling blogs. Maybe it’s time to revive some of these discussions. I’d be happy to tackle them, using the studies suggested by the Shorenstein Center. What’s your take? Are these ideas worth investigating, or have they been done to death? I’m interested in your reaction.

A Climber’s First Organized Ride

My friend Aaron West, who dazzles us with his exploits climbing tough hills and even mountains on his blog Steepclimbs.com, favors us with a guest post. He wasn’t always a mountain goat, and here,  Aaron recounts what it was like when he joined his first-ever organized ride.

We all start somewhere. My first organized ‘cookie’ ride was ambitious, unflattering and sometimes embarrassing. In reality, I had no idea what I was getting into.

I signed up after hearing about it from the cycling club at work. It was late in the year when I joined, and there were not many events remaining. Rather than wait through the winter, I threw my hat into an autumn mountain ride. The ride was the Tour de Leaves out of Tryon, NC, just across the border from Spartanburg, SC.

Green River Cove, part of the Tour de Leaves route.
Green River Cove, part of the Tour de Leaves route.

I signed up for the shortest route — the ‘Lite’ version. This was 31 miles, and did not go over the toughest climbs. I can handle this, right?

After arriving early, I watched with awe as car after car pulled in. Athletic beasts emerged with their expensive bikes. Many riders were from out of town. I marveled that these weekend warriors probably went from town to town just to ride their bikes.

After fumbling around with my steed, an inexpensive yet robust Specialized Allez, I scooted to the starting line. I was wearing bike shorts, an Under Armor T-shirt, and a brand new pair of arm warmers. No jersey meant no pockets, so my car keys and cell phone went in a big, brown fanny pack. That pack stayed with me for months until enough chiding convinced me to throw it away. I was caught off guard by all the bright colored polyester. It was like being surrounded by a cult or aliens. Who were these people anyway?

The ‘Lite’ riders left together, and this was an easy going group. I rode most of the early going with a trio. We spoke a little, not much. If they snickered at my outfit, I didn’t hear. The course was hilly, but I was able to keep up with these folks.

The organizers had said to follow the fishes to know the route. What in the world? I thought they would be elevated signs at intersections. I kept looking ahead and found no fishes anywhere. If I ended up riding ahead of the group, I had to stop at intersections, bewildered as to where to go. When I was behind them, they turned without hesitation. How in the world did they know where to go?

Eventually, as I expected, I got tired. The hills added up, and I simply wasn’t used to this type of riding. The other riders sped past me. At that point I was worried I would get lost in the North Carolina country. I remember stopping at an intersection, fumbling through the cue sheet to figure out where I was. An older gentleman, who I later learned was over 70, sped on past pointing in the correct direction. How did he know?

I would finally wise up to the fish mystery at the very end of the ride, when I saw three fishes spray painted on the road pointing to the finish line. At first I wondered why someone would draw such a thing on the roads. I considered reporting the vandalism to the police, until finally making the connection. Doh!

At one point we reached a higher elevation. I have no idea how high it was, probably not more than a few hundred feet from the start, but it was enough to see a view of the colorful countryside. Despite being exhausted, at that very moment is when I became hooked. It was baffling that I had climbed to such heights under my own power, and was rewarded with a breathtaking view.

Towards the end of the ride, we went down a steep descent. Now that was awesome! After the road leveled out, there was a marking that said “Steep Grade, Use Lower Gear!”. The road turned up, straight up, and it killed me! Not only did I not have the fitness, I didn’t have the gearing either. I would later learn that this short hill is a 17-18% grade at its steepest. It was too much for my rookie legs. Maybe a quarter way up, I got off my Allez and started walking. That was humiliating, especially as I got passed by other riders who climbed without issue. I looked back and saw my senior citizen friend a few hundred feet back, also walking. At least I wasn’t completely alone.

I learned a few things from watching those other riders climb such a beast of a hill. Gearing was important. It would have been tough to attack that hill even with stronger legs. I also noticed that they got into a comfortable rhythm, and slowly spun their way up the hill. They did not exert themselves too much, just found their pace and stuck to it. When I got back on the bike, I had no choice than to ride hard, which would tire me out and force me to walk again.

I will never forget the Tour de Leaves. It was a great experience, however painful. It motivated me to challenge myself, and learn better how to become a climber. Over time, I worked at improving my cycling fitness. Other hills would fall, and then mountains.

The rest is history.

A long way from the TYour de Leaves.
Aaron West — A long way from the Tour de Leaves.

Road Kill

I’m looking forward to our B ride this Sunday. I’ll be going back to Dripping Springs, one of my favorite places to ride, and a place I haven’t ridden in months — since early fall. We’ll be going up and down some mild hills, riding on lightly-traveled country roads, and we’ll probably see some wildlife.

With luck, that wildlife will be alive. Last Sunday, we got out in the country south of Austin, and we passed not one, but three dead skunks on the roadside. That’s a lot, even for around here.

Of course, we’ve seen all sorts of road kill in the past. Armadillos are common in Texas, and then there was the carcass of a deer, picked nearly clean by the turkey vultures that are as common here as robins in the Midwest.

I’ll spare you the experience of looking at pictures of these remnants of car-animal encounters — even if I take along a camera, that’s not the kind of thing I’m big on photographing.

And it occurs to me that this winter has been a light one for road kill. Before last weekend, I don’t think I’d seen anything for at least a month or so.

Are the roads in your area coated with road kill?