Category Archives: Bicycling

The Fatal Flaws of the SoR Movement: SVR and Phonics First

States across the U.S. continue to revise and introduce new reading legislation. As well, states are updating reading standards—all of which is being strongly influenced by the “science of reading” (SoR) movement.

While the SoR movement maintains that powerful influence over policy and classroom practice, I have strongly criticized the media and marketing aspects because of central concepts that are overly simplistic and ultimately harmful for teaching and learning reading. Those key fatal flaws are a commitment to the “simple view” of reading (SVR) [1] and practicing phonics-first with beginning readers (systematic phonics for all students in K-2 that is often without context or isolated from comprehension goals).

Recently on social media, a literacy educator raised concern that proposed revised state standards in K-2 ELA do not include comprehension in foundational skills. As I commented, this is the exact problem I have been criticizing and expecting as a result of embracing SVR, an out-of-date and simplistic theory of reading (see note 1 below).

Many, if not most, SoR advocates endorse intensive systematic phonics for all students before they are expected to demonstrate comprehension; some argue K-2 students can’t comprehend. Begun several years ago, this aspect of the SoR movement has re-energized the use of DIBELS, an assessment tool that evaluates student ability to pronounce nonsense words in isolation. This nonsense is often presented as “reading,” even though simply decoding (pronunciation) words in isolation is not reading.

As I will explain later, saying students pronouncing nonsense words is reading proficiency is the same as saying children riding bicycles with training wheels are cyclists.

In short, commitments to SVR and phonics first are a distortion of goals in reading instruction, replacing the authentic goal (critical comprehension) with measuring if students have acquired the entire set of phonics rules. Phonics instruction and emphasizing decoding must remain some of the means and not the ends of instruction; however, the SoR movement too often has created that fatal flaw.

I want to examine here why these commitments are not reading science, but more significantly, why these commitments are harmful to students.

First, recently I was helping my granddaughter, Skylar, with her homework on parts of speech. See the exercise here:

I had to smile and encourage her as I quietly bled internally. This can only be described by the first word—”silly.” Not only is this isolated activity nonsense, I am certain it is ultimately harmful to emerging readers and writers.

Many of these words can function as several parts of speech once in the context of actual usage; for example, “camp” as in “We camp,” “The camp,” “A camp site,” etc.

Setting aside that many aspects of grammar and usage are intuited by proficient and expert readers (we drive our cars without being able to name all the engine parts, without having to know how to disassemble the engine, etc.), even when there is some instructional value in explicit instruction in grammar and usage, that has been shown for a century to be effective only in holistic and contextual ways.

If parts of speech matter (I suspect they don’t), help young readers and writers interrogate that in the reading of authentic texts and in their own original writing.

This essential problem is analogous to misrepresenting and overemphasizing phonics and decoding—especially when the instruction is isolated and not firmly anchored to the real goal of reading instruction, critical comprehension.

So let’s circle back to the bicycling analogy.

Using training wheels to teach children to ride a bicycle is a traditional and deeply misguided approach, one that is grounded in misreading what riding a bicycle is at its core—not the pedaling but the balancing. Therefore, balance bicycles are the better way to start.

Keep in mind one can coast on a bicycle and still be riding if the person has mastered balancing—as well as several other skills that include braking, holding a straight line, turning, and of course pedaling.

Reading is not dependent on decoding, and a child is only reading if they are making meaning from text. Just as someone can ride a bicycle by coasting, a child can read text for meaning purely by using sight word knowledge.

Yes, to be a cyclist one must eventually (and soon) master pedaling, and yes, no one reads entirely by sight word recognition (although expert readers depend on many comprehension strategies, and likely rarely use phonics rules to accomplish understanding).

And as I noted above, both proficient cyclists and proficient readers exhibit a huge array of skills simultaneously, intuitively, and independently—the ultimate goal of any instruction.

For reading instruction with beginning readers, then, systematic phonics instruction in a phonics-first setting that prioritizes pronouncing nonsense words is misguided and harmful practice.

As Stephen Krashen has shown, both systematic phonics for all students and no phonics instruction are harmful; instead, beginning readers need basic phonics combined with many other reading strategies that are all targeting critical comprehension.

Let’s think more deeply about decoding and phonics in ways I asked us to do with parts of speech. Consider asking students to pronounce “dove” and “wind” out of context, and now consider these sentences:

  • The dove dove out of the tree and scared Brees. 
  • Because of the fog, you can watch the wind wind through the valley. 

Phonics first fails in the same way as using training wheels to teach bicycling. Phonics rules provide only one skill in the complex journey to critical comprehension. And phonics is not even foundational or essential when a text includes sight words recognized by the reader.

Finally, again like riding a bicycle, becoming an independent, eager, and expert reader—one who has a large vocabulary and a complex toolbox for making meaning (including phonics)—mostly comes from doing the authentic thing—not from isolated skills instruction as a prerequisite to doing the real thing.


[1] SVR, at best, is one of the major reading theories of the late twentieth century; in my view, it is not even the most compelling. But current theories of reading have moved beyond SVR; for example, (1) according to Duke and Cartwright (2021), current theories have supplanted SVR in three ways: (a) by identifying additional reasons for struggling readers, (b) by demonstrating that rather than being sequential, pronunciation and comprehension overlap, and (c) by stressing the importance of “active self-regulation” in learning to read, and (2) according to Filderman, et al., (2022) SVR is inadequate for teaching students comprehension.

Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25–S44. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.411

Filderman, M. J., Austin, C. R., Boucher, A. N., O’Donnell, K., & Swanson, E. A. (2022). A meta-analysis of the effects of reading comprehension interventions on the reading comprehension outcomes of struggling readers in third through 12th grades. Exceptional Children88(2), 163–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/00144029211050860


The Inevitable, Exponential Decline

Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Do not go gentle into that good night, Dylan Thomas

In the consumer society called “America,” we humans are often nothing more or less than the objects we accumulate.

Or as comedian George Carlin explained, we are ultimately our “stuff”:

Nine months into being 60, I recognize that my life—in the throes of the inevitable, exponential decline—is reflected in some of my most prized stuff, my collection of bicycles that numbers 4 (two Ridley road bicycles, a Santa Cruz MTB, and a Santa Cruz gravel bicycle).

Part of that reflection involves my more than 30 years as a so-called serious cyclist living by The Rules, including Rule #12: The correct number of bikes to own is n+1. Because of major life changes, I now live in a 900-square-foot apartment instead of a house more than twice that size.

Bicycles occupy far too much space, and I have them hanging on the wall, forcing me to climb a ladder just to be able to ride.

As I have been fearing, while alone, I fell off the ladder recently while storing bicycle parts in the only storage space available in the HVAC area above the bathroom. I imagined myself lying broken on the concrete floor while I was falling—feelings I included in a recent poem, blue&black.

The reason I was on that ladder circles back to my bicycles since I was replacing the saddle on my Ridley Excalibur (Flandrien edition).

A few Saturdays ago, I joined the early morning ride from the local Trek store. I took several extended pulls during the ride, and gradually realized my saddle was incredibly uncomfortable, causing numbness and pain.

For cyclists, especially those of us who ride long and intense distances, the saddle is one of the most important components. I rode with Fizik Arione saddles for many years, a flat, long saddle with a faux-suede strip that keeps you from sliding around.

However, I briefly retired from road cycling throughout 2017—after being struck by a car on Christmas Eve 2016—but when I returned to road cycling in early 2018, I had to acknowledge that my body no longer found my road bicycle as comfortable as before.

Much to my chagrin, and embarrassment, I had to raise my stem and change my saddle, then to the Fizik Aliante, a curved saddle designed for people who are less flexible.

I also had to abandon my preferred thin, faux-leather handlebar tape, and returned to wearing padded gloves since I was struggling with hand stiffness and pain.

Those changes made riding more comfortable, even as I strayed from The Rules and the enormous cultural pressure among so-called serious cyclists.

After I stood up from the fall off the ladder, momentarily stunned and shaken, I cursed what had led to having to change my saddle again (this time to the same MTB-style saddle I have on my MTB and gravel bicycle). It took a few minutes to realize I was essentially fine, until I noticed blood marks on the carpet from a small cut on my foot.

Each time I climb the ladder to ride my Flandrien road bicycle, which I have switched to from my Helium SL because the Flandrien is far more comfortable, I see the inevitable, exponential decline of me reflected in the gradual replacement of parts on that bicycle—the raised stem, the padded handlebar tape, the bulkier saddle.

Much of this is depressing because it reflects a life-long war for me between me and my body—a body that never seemed to be able to attain the demands I have made of it, a body often disappointing and flawed.

But there is also more, a recognition that my being drawn to a sport grounded in Rule #5 (harden the fuck up, or HTFU) has a great deal of disfunction that I should walk away from, instead of gradually and reluctantly relinquishing piece by piece.

Some of that disfunction can be traced to my father, a hard-ass product of mid-twentieth century bullshit about working hard and suffering. Any of the success I have achieved as a cyclist resulted from my ability to suffer, just as my father taught me directly and indirectly.

My father suffered himself into an early grave.

And there are days now, especially after mountain biking and some gravel riding, when my shoulders ache just like my father’s failed him for the last couple decades of his life.

The machine is wearing down.

I have been sharing stories about the inevitable, exponential decline with my students, including telling stories about my life as a cyclist for about 35 years.

I now confess that the HTFU lifestyle was a really bad way to live and ride, and that I am paying for it. I usually share the story of the day I quit the Assault on Mt. Mitchell—a 102-mile ride that concludes with about 30 miles of climbing—just as I was starting the climb.

I didn’t just quit that day; I quit ever doing the ride again (after about 20 starts and 16 or so finishes of the grueling event since 1988).

My story of coming to reject a life of suffering, a hobby of suffering, seems to resonate with many of my students, notably my athletes (especially the football players) and students in ROTC.

Those students deeply inside cultures of suffering appreciate a different perspective than what they are being told within those cultures; those students are often up very early in the mornings doing grueling physical activity before starting their day as students.

They are bone tired, often fighting the urge to fall asleep in class.

I tell them that it doesn’t have to be that way, that life can be filled with joy and pleasure.

As I write this, I have recently ridden my bicycles 6 days in a row, and found myself in a hole. Tired. Sore.

As I write this, it is day 2 of rain with several more days of rain forecast.

I am anxious about not being able to ride. I am also slipping into the depression that comes with the contracting daylight of October.

I am a good existentialist who recognizes our passions are our sufferings, but I am far too inadequate at being a human who can resist the allure of HTFU.

Yes, I know—and believe—that we are supposed to imagine Sisyphus happy as he turns again and again to descend the hill in order to roll his rock, his Thing, back up the hill.

But at 60, I am newly aware Sisyphus would be happier if he were simply to quit, no longer to be defined by his stuff.


See Also

Cleaning the Kitchen the Last Time

Death Takes a Lifetime, and then a Year

Individual Behavior and Community Safety: Cycling Edition

More than 30 years ago, I ventured into road cycling as a hobby. I rode alone for a couple years before discovering a vibrant cycling community in my home town.

In the mid-/late 1980s, most of the organized group rides started at the local bike shop (just down the street from where I lived) or the downtown YMCA.

When I started joining these rides, most of the cyclists were veteran and highly skilled cyclists—and friends. In those days, nearly no one talked to new riders, and worst of all, I started most of these rides desperately struggling to stay with the group.

None the less, within a few miles, I was dropped, left to ride alone the rest of the route. When I returned to the start, everyone had already left.

I am not sure why I (or any other new rider) kept at it, but I did.

Over the next twenty years, I gradually developed into a solid rider, and then, one of the stronger riders leading group rides and pushing the pace on the more intense rides and cycling races or events.

During that time, group riding also changed. More rides were offered for different abilities, and the rides in general were more likely to encourage and foster new cyclists into the cycling community.

My lessons in group cycling came from a few elite riders who took the drill sergeant approach to whip me into shape. But “shape” in cycling is more than fitness since how any individual cyclist behaves impacts the dynamics and safety of the entire group.

Cycling is very regimented (expected behaviors) for both the efficiency and the safety of the group.

As with many other activities, Covid has significantly impacted group cycling in my home town, and I have been away from group riding for well over a year, until recently.

Joining my group rides again included a significant number of new riders—often struggling with their fitness and how to ride in an organized group ride.

This reintroduction has made me think about the larger Covid situation: Individual behavior in group cycling is a necessary element in the safety of the group in the same way that masking and vaccinations are about both individual and community health.

We have restrictions, as well, on individual driving of cars (speed limits, bans on impaired driving) for both individual and community safety, for example, which is also the same dynamic as masking and vaccinations for Covid—or having the fitness and the skill to ride in an organized recreational cycling group ride.

Learning to ride in a cycling group, then, is a lesson in the importance of individual behavior for community safety.

For anyone new to group cycling (specifically recreational cycling), here are some of those behaviors:

  • Avoid abrupt changes in speed or direction. Direction and pace are incredibly important for cycling groups, and thus, consistent speed and direction help a group move efficiently but they also make the group safer. Most cycling groups (due to state laws) ride two abreast, and any sudden changes in speed or direction have rippling effects throughout the group. Changes in speed or direction should have a reason (change in terrain, turn on the course, or potholes, for example), and should be accompanied by verbal and hand signaling (more on that later). Hold your line and maintain as compact spacing as you can (developing better spacing skills as you gain fitness and experience).
  • Don’t be that guy. Here is one of the best guidelines for group cycling: If you are doing something different than everyone else, you are probably doing something wrong—and dangerous. Don’t dart in front of an oncoming car, don’t ride three abreast, don’t leave large gaps, don’t cross the yellow line—the examples are endless, but for a new or inexperienced rider, a great strategy is to watch the veteran riders, and do as they do.
  • Positioning matters. New cyclists often gravitate to the back of the group, which is a bad decision. The larger the group, the more inconsistent the group is the farther back you are. The back of a large group is often very hard for a new rider who still lacks enough fitness because the back has more slowing and accelerating than the first half or two-thirds of the group—where new riders should position themselves.
  • Balance matters. Another mistake new riders make is positioning on the bicycle; your weight should be mostly on your sit bones and pedals—not on the handle bars. Before joining a group ride, new riders should have a good bike fit and should be able to ride comfortably with their hands resting lightly (de-weighted) on the handle bars. Leaning heavily on the handle bars makes a bicycle unstable; while it is counter-intuitive, rotating wheels are very stable and track straight ahead, unless you hit something on the road or disturb that momentum.
  • Head up, eyes forward. When new cyclists become taxed, stressed, because of still-developing fitness, they often drop their head and eyes; this is extremely dangerous. Another problem is that many recreational rides are also social so people chat. When cycling, resist making eye contact when talking to the person next to you. It is really simple: Head up, eyes forward.
  • Know your place. If you are new to a group, and unfamiliar with the course, you should stay off the front until you know the course. Also, you must know the expectations of the ride (most rides identify a level such as A, B, or C based on overall speed, etc.) and how the group plans to handle group dynamics (no-drop ride, for example, or what the group does if someone has a flat or mechanical). Watch, listen, and ask questions, and as noted above, don’t be that guy.
  • Understand group and paceline dynamics. Many recreational cycling groups will use a pretty relaxed paceline with two riders taking longer pulls at the front before rolling off and two other riders taking turns. Because cyclists use open roads, some groups choose for both riders to pull off to the left and drop back single-file (what we tend to do in my community) while others use the one rider dropping off on both sides approach. Simply put, know the expectations. The same applies for more aggressive pacelines that have a continual rotation (typically with the right line pulling through and the left dropping back; although technically the through and back line can [should] be determined by wind direction). In all cases, riders pulling and/or pulling through must maintain a consistent effort (don’t accelerate the group, don’t dart through on a pull, and don’t half-wheel the rider beside you in the two-by-two method). The key here for new riders is know the expectations and then watch the experienced riders so that you can mimic their behavior.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Cycling is a highly verbal sport. Always alert the group to turns, dangers in the road conditions, problems with other riders, and the proximity of cars. New riders should listen and learn how the local riders alert each other (including whether or not hand signals are the norm, etc.). An important rule is if you hear messaging from the front, pass it back, and if you hear messaging from the back, pass it forward.

Even if you aren’t a cyclist, this post is about the problem with seeing the rights of the individual and the needs of the community as an either/or proposition. The reality is that individual behavior is always a factor in community dynamics.

Asking a new cyclist to conform to the dynamics of a cycling group is not a denial of the individual rights of that cyclist but acknowledging that individual development is linked to the dynamics of the group—just as the safety of any individual cyclist is linked to the safety of the group.

If a rider doesn’t want to conform to group expectations, then that rider is always free to ride alone.

Group cycling is an incredibly powerful thing that allows very strong and experienced riders to participate with weaker inexperienced riders; and both benefit from the experience.

For many years, I participated in a 220-240-mile ride from the upstate of South Carolina to destinations along the coast of SC and Georgia. The key to this ride was a coherent group that worked in ways that benefitted the weaker and less experienced riders. Almost every year, everyone completed the ride—a truly remarkable feat for groups of 10-20 riders experiencing an 11-14-hour day of riding.

These rides were individual and group accomplishments that demonstrate a truism that fits more than cycling: Individual behavior is inseparable from community safety.

How Do We Know?: Not Simple, Not Settled

In the early to mid-1980s, I entered the world of serious recreational cycling. I had been an athlete throughout my childhood and teen years, but found myself sedentary and out of shape in the first few years of my career as a high school English teacher.

Road cycling wasn’t the most inviting of sports, being both an individual and group endeavor. I quickly discovered, in fact, that cycling is deeply tradition-bound and steeped in ritual and conformity.

Ultimately, it is also an orchestra of Social Darwinism; you must be strong enough and skilled enough to ride with a group regardless of anything else (such as the right bicycle or the proper kit).

Early on, I had to focus on fitness—riding more often and longer, but always alone—and finding ways I could afford ever-better bicycles (see Rule 12). Gradually, I began shaving my legs and made the most daunting commitment facing me, using toe clips on my pedals.

Greg LeMond (L) strapped into the traditional toe clips along side Bernard Hinault (R) sporting the future, clipless pedals (a design inspired by ski bindings and pioneered by Look).

Toe clips were a must among serious cyclists, but they involved literally reaching down and tightening a leather or nylon strap around your feet. The monumental learning curve was reaching down to tighten the straps and always reaching down to flick the release when coming to a stop.

At the time, I lived only a couple miles from my bicycle shop so I rode my bicycle there to buy my first toe clips. They installed the clips to my pedals and went over how to tighten and release.

Filled with glee about my next step toward being a real cyclist, I rolled out of the shop parking lot and promptly came to a stop at a red light where I fell over fairly dramatically beside several cars—having completely forgotten to reach down to loosen the straps.

Just as I had to learn how to shift gears (old-school down-tube friction shifting), I learned to tighten and release the toe clips along with dozens of other behaviors necessary to ride in tight packs of cyclists at high intensity and to near exhaustion.

High-paced group cycling is a mix of many precise behaviors in incredibly tense contexts—from being dropped from the group to being in or causing a serious accident.

That was three decades ago, and today (after many changes to pedals and shifting) I function on a bicycle in ways that seem entirely natural, requiring essentially no thought.

Matching kits, clipless pedals.

Cycling for me is automatic behavior; I also have acquired an incredible amount of knowledge about bicycles (I do bicycle maintenance and build bicycles) and the history of the sport.

I often think of this journey in learning of mine, which was again prompted by a few exchanges on Twitter:

These comments about what we know and how we know it are common, but, I think, trapped in a misunderstanding about, for example, “rote memorization.”

Memorization and automatic behavior are not about “bad” or “good.” In fact, memorization and automatic behavior are inevitable for most humans, even essential.

The trap can be exposed by considering a behavior most of us have in common—assembling something from parts such as a TV stand or entertainment unit, or a children’s toy.

Do you recall opening the box, spreading out the parts, laying out the directions, and then beginning to assemble? Was there a moment (or several) while assembling when you turned from the directions to look on the box at the image of the fully assembled item?

So here is my point: The Twitter exchange above is trapped in viewing learning in a reductive way based on part-to-whole, easier-to-harder, sequential perceptions of learning.

This singular and reductive view is the trap.

Since most of the items we assemble are a one-time event, that assembly is both learning to assemble and assembling at the same time. (I once assembled a TV stand, badly, and then my in-laws wanted the same stand. The second assembly was a near-euphoric experience since I was able to apply what I had learned from doing the whole thing one time before.)

My journey in cycling and my assembly example here reveal that learning resulting in memorization and automatic behavior is extremely complex and is in fact an interplay between part and whole, not a step-by-step journey from part to whole.

“Breaking it down” is not always easier or clearer for some students, in some learning activities.

Many people learning to use toe straps, for example, would go into a grass field, strap in, and (as I did publicly) fall down repeatedly. Learning the real thing required doing the whole and real thing relatively badly until they improved (motivated by real consequences).

There is no debate, then, about the good or bad in memorization or automatic behavior. The real tension is about how and why we come to memorize or behave automatically.

Despite misleading claims that memorization is a foundation, we often come to know something, have it memorized, after (not before) we have rich and complex experiences with the knowledge or behavior.

In my doctoral program, I had to perform from memory in two intense settings—written comps and dissertation defense. I studied for neither because I had engaged with the material for so long and in such intense situations (course work, numerous papers, a full dissertation) that I had much of the material in recall.

Twenty-five-plus years later, much of that dissertation work remains in recall for me.

Like with cycling, my final doctoral work felt natural, as much a part of me as pedaling with my hands off the handlebars while I remove my cycling vest and stuff it into a rear pocket while sitting at the back of a high-paced group.

The quests for silver-bullets and simple step-by-step paths to learning and automatic behavior are at the core of many educational debates, in fact, including the incessant reading debate.

The complexity of cycling reminds me of the complexity in reading—the many interconnected behaviors and knowledge required to do both automatically and well.

Reading, learning to read, and teaching someone to read—like all learning—are not simple and how we come to know is just not settled.

In fact, learning will never be simple or settled because human beings are far too complex.

The paradox, of course, is that how we know is simple to explain: It is some type of interplay between doing the whole thing we want to learn and coming to know the many intricate parts that make up that whole thing.

How do we know?

It is a journey—not simple, not settled.

Review: Santa Cruz Stigmata: The Road More Graveled

I faithfully ascribe to Rule 12 of cycling: The correct number of bikes to own is n+1. While finding excuses to own two of the same type of bicycle—two road bikes, to MTBs—has always been fairly easy, few things are as exhilarating as having a different type of bike to purchase.

Several years before the gravel bike craze went mainstream, a few of us began seeking out any gravel roads we could ride. I and another cycling friend own several Ridley road bikes, and always found they performed very well on gravel with slightly wider tires—23 mm and 25 mm—that weren’t quite the norm then as they are now.

On one of our summer trips to Ft. Collins, CO, in fact, we found long stretches of gravel, and I was immediately enamored with the somewhat ‘tweener quality of gravel riding; it felt similar to road riding, my true love, but had some of the challenges of mountain biking as well as being on roads so remote that the inherent dangers of road cycling, cars, were greatly reduced.

I am also sort of a big-gear plodder on the road bike, which seems to suit the inherent grind of riding gravel.

Having made some major life changes, I have found myself with far less space and already struggling with my n+1 commitment to cycling so I resisted joining the gravel bike movement until—as luck would have it—this summer when I discovered that bicycles were in very high demand.

The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have slowed production and distribution of bicycles, but demands of bicycles have also dramatically increased.

My local bike shop can barely keep bicycles on the showroom floor.

A few weeks before my summer trip to Colorado this past summer, then, I foolishly tried to buy a gravel bike to take with me to Ft. Collins; that effort was a bust so I settled for traveling with a road bike and MTB.

By early August, however, I committed to finding and buying a gravel bike. My first order, originally a two-week delay on delivery, soon became a late October delivery.

After daily checks on the order status, and wistfully looking through other brands and models (all unavailable as well), one day I noticed the Santa Cruz Stigmata (scroll down for build tech specs and geometry; I own the 56 cm model) in stock in a Midnight Green color scheme that I really like.

Competitive Cyclist allowed me to switch my order, and within about 10 days, my Stigmata arrived.

The top tube decal, with the gold accents, is a great touch, but the red on the head badge disrupts the green/black color scheme on an otherwise really beautiful paint job and decal design.
Geometry, design, and fit are all very much in line with my Santa Cruz Blur MTB and two Ridley road bicycles (Helium SL and Excalibur/Flandrien)

I have been a long-time fan of Santa Cruz and have recently declared my Blur the best bicycle I have ever owned (totaling about 45-50 bicycles over 35+ years of serious cycling); therefore, I was eager to own the Stigmata for quality alone.

Yet, part of my gravel bike purchasing was also guided by interest in 1x drivetrains (one of the best developments in MTBs in my opinion) and my commitment to SRAM components.

The gravel bike craze has become dominated by the new Shimano GRX line so it was challenging to find available gravel bikes with the combinations I wanted; the Stigmata ticks off every box.

My local options—within 30-minute drives—are a mix of gravel and paved roads, maybe 2/3 gravel, but I have many miles of gravel-only roads at both Dupont and Bent Creek (mountain biking paradises in North Carolina), hour-log drives. These options also offer extended climbing, very challenging terrain where most rides include 100-feet/mile for rides of 15-20 miles.

My cycling life has also shifted some to include riding on rail-to-trail paved bike paths, and I have wanted a gravel bike for those more casual (and sometimes more bumpy pavement) rides.

My early impressions of the Stigmata include mixed-surface rides, one challenging ride at Bent Creek, and a rail-trail ride as well as doing some road laps on a course where I typically ride my road bike.

At first, the cockpit of the Stigmata felt a bit tight, but the build came with a 0 setback aluminum seatpost that I have swapped out for a carbon seatpost with 20 mm setback; now the fit feels really comparable to my road bikes (effective top tube is the same with the reach within 0.2 mm).

I had a very similar experience with the fit of the Santa Cruz Blur, which I have since come to appreciate.

Once on gravel, the road, or paved trails, the Stigmata rides extremely well. The tracking and handling are solid and dependable.

The beefy fork is really stable in heavy gravel and on steep descents, and the 40 mm tires do well to offset some of the harshness of the stiff frame and fork.

Overall, I would say the comfort level is much better than I expected—considering that the bike handles and responds at a very high level.

It some getting used to, but the extended hoods for disc brakes and the flared handlebars now common on gravel bikes are quickly forgotten while riding.

In the early 2000s, I made two important changes, switching to Speedplay pedals (from Look) and to SRAM drivetrains. I have used Red, Force, and Rival in the SRAM line, preferring Force for a great balance of price and performance.

I am a huge fan of SRAM drivetrains, the feel and quality of the mechanical shifting. I also loved the original hood design, but have adopted to the current design.

What I have always marveled at from SRAM is that shifting performance is incredibly similar from Rival to Force to Red. The Rival 1×11 drivetrain on the Stigmata has performed perfectly as I expected.

However, the one flaw in SRAM that many people have noted is the disc brake feel and quality. For disc brakes on MTBs even low-level Shimano brakes have a much better feel and performance than SRAM for me.

The Stigmata is the first non-MTB for me with disc brakes, and I was slightly concerned about the stock SRAM disc brakes.

After riding some steep gravel descents and even doing several laps of a mountain biking trail with roots and sharp hairpin turns, I find the SRAM disc braking adequate; the feel still leans soft for me, but disc braking is so superior to rim braking that I am satisfied so far with SRAM/Rival quality.

On balance, then, considering cost and performance quality as well as aesthetics, I am incredibly happy with my first gravel bike purchase.

The only real issues I have had were a couple faulty bolts on the Easton stem (which Easton has never responded to) and a bit of an issue with the rear tire losing air more quickly than the front. I chalk these up to minor and expected issues with any new bike purchase; I had extra bolts and added some sealant to the rear tire.

I am not quite as stunned by the Stigmata as my Blur, but I cannot recommend Santa Cruz bicycles more highly.

I also want to offer a nudge to those considering making the gravel riding jump; you would be well served if you choose the Stigmata—if you can find one available.

The Training Wheel Fallacy for Teaching Writing

The Swamp Rabbit Trail System is a paved multi-use path running from the city of Greenville, South Carolina to Travelers Rest, to the north. As an avid road cyclist, I venture onto the trail occasionally since it runs near my university and allows a somewhat relaxed ride, free of the threat of car traffic (except for the crossings).

Riding a bicycle is often discussed as if it is a universal experience and a skill once learned, never forgotten. As a serious cyclist for well over thirty years, I can attest that observations along the Swamp Rabbit Trail offer a data set that leads to a different theory.

Riding a bicycle requires two essential skills, pedaling and balancing the bicycle. When I see small children and inexperienced cyclists along Swamp Rabbit, I see an oddly similar struggle—cyclists wildly fighting the steering by swinging the handlebars aggressively and pedaling in ways that are counter to gaining momentum and balance.

A stark sign of a less than competent cyclists is the weaving motion as the cyclist approaches, a dramatic contrast to the rail-steady balance of experienced riders. But the oddest thing I see in beginning and inexperienced cyclists is trying to start off by placing one foot on a pedal with the crank arm down and then frantically lifting the other foot to start the pedaling with the crank arm that is up.

That technique is a recipe for disaster, but when successful, those first pedal strokes are combined with some pretty awful weaving that covers the space two or three experienced cyclists could fit into easily.

Holding your line (riding rail straight) and riding without your hands are some of the first skills needed to be a competitive cyclist. I have taken off or changed a significant amount of clothing during hard group rides while continuing to ride at the back of the pack; on a couple of occasions, I have taken a multi-tool out of my saddle pack and adjusted my front derailleur also while continuing to ride at the back of the pack.

Ride for Safety 2018 GB
Ride for Safety 2018

Pedaling smoothly and maintaining proper weight distribution allow the bicycle to remain in a straight line, the natural momentum of rotating wheels. Another counter-intuitive behavior in road cycling is de-weighting your upper body so that you apply less effort into steering.

Beginners and inexperienced cyclists over-steer and over-pedal.

Here is an interesting problem about how most people learn to ride bicycles—the use of training wheels. Training wheels seek to address those essential skills I noted above by allowing new riders to have balance while learning to pedal.

The problem? Pedaling and balancing in cycling are not discrete, separate skills, but symbiotic skills. Learning to ride a bicycle, also, likely requires a different series of learning those skills since the balance is more valuable than the pedaling (and likely harder, at least we intuit that it is harder).

While training wheels are a traditional way to teach children to ride bicycles, balance bicycles are far superior ways to help children acquire balancing skills until they are old enough to pedal (likely much later than we tend to expect children to ride).

Now, as I have discussed before, let’s be clear that riding a bicycle is not like writing. Pedaling and holding a straight line while riding a bicycle is an acquired skill, but is not nearly as complex as it first appears; yet, writing is a creative process that involves dozens of decisions and interrelated skills and content, and is even more complex than we think as beginners.

However, our misconceptions about the teaching/learning dynamic for beginner cyclists as well as beginner students-as-writers are very similar.

The skills and decision process needed to write well are also not discrete, isolated skills that we simply need to acquire one at a time and then somehow integrate; as Lou LaBrant admonished, we learn to write by writing (not by doing skill and drill)—which is similar to the best way to learn to ride a bicycle, by riding a bicycle (without training wheels, possibly in a grass field at first instead of a sidewalk or parking lot).

Traditional approaches to teaching writing that impose templates (five-paragraph essay) and canned moves (“In this essay, I will…,” “In conclusion…”) are grounded in the same urges as teaching children to ride bicycles by using training wheels; however, these traditional approaches are as misguided and harmful as those training wheels.

Riding in large packs of cyclists requires each rider to demonstrate a high level of cycling authority, again grounded in holding a line and behaving in steady and predictable ways even while in high pressure situations (pace intensity increasing, cornering, contributing to a paceline, sprinting, etc.).

Writing authority, whether as a published writer or as a student or academic, also requires demonstrating high-level skills that are much more than the content of the writing (organization, diction, style, and having control of conventional elements of language use [grammar, mechanics, usage]).

Students are better served as writers-to-be if we always allow them to experiment in authentic and holistic contexts while seeking ways to foster essential or foundational concepts (openings, focus, elaboration, cohesion, paragraphing, closings, etc.). There is ample evidence, however, that templates and canned moves are not helpful and may even be harmful (they don’t encourage students to set them aside).

Many people still rush to buy their children bicycles with training wheels, but balance bicycles are beginning to take hold. The teaching of writing needs to make a similar transition.

Depending on templates and canned moves creates the sort of wobbly writers that remind me of my harrowing experiences trying to navigate down the Swamp Rabbit Trail confronting those teetering cyclists who have been mislead that it’s just like riding a bicycle.

When the World Wakes Up, and We Are All Inside

 

Magnolia Wisteria and Bridge
Magnolia Wisteria and Bridge (Steven Hyatt)

“I can’t look at everything hard enough.”

Emily in Our Town by Thornton Wilder

Most of my life, I have been an outside person, but never much of a nature person. I am drawn, you see, to the sun more so than the natural world because, in part, I am allergic to much of that natural world.

I have been thinking a lot about this during the current Covid-19 pandemic and the expectations of social distancing and staying, mostly, at home (which means indoors).

My childhood throughout the 1960s and 1970s occurred in the South where my working-class parents practiced under the expectation that children played outside if the weather in any way made that possible. In fact, my sister and I gleefully raced outside much of our childhood.

I recall very fondly playing pick-up sports in the large field near our rented house in Woodruff, South Carolina (the field on the property of the adjacent junior high school) and the variety of make-believe adventures we neighborhood children constructed in the large field on the other side of the house that stored giant mounds of gravel.

Once we moved to the house my parents built on the town golf course, Three Pines, I was ten and soon found refuge in the huge expanse of woods surrounding our large lot as well as spending a great deal of my life playing golf or outdoors pick-up basketball.

My entire adult life has been spent as a recreational cyclist, riding for many hours each week on the roads and trails around upstate South Carolina and the mountains of North Carolina.

One of the great ironies of my life is that when I was a child my parents often wanted to go driving in the mountains of NC (along the highway where my parents spent their secret honeymoon after a hushed marriage at the courthouse), but I fought these trips with the sort of pettiness children excel in showing; as an adult, I have ridden my bicycle thousands of times along those same roads.

It is in my cycling life, I think, that I can best describe the dichotomy of being an outdoor person but not a nature person.

One of the more common cycling loops we did for many years throughout the spring (and more) included climbing up Hogback Mountain near Tryon, NC. The climb is anywhere from 3-5 miles of climbing depending on the turn-around point (and the paved road has been extended over the years of doing this ride).

Once just before starting the ride with a cyclist I hadn’t done the climb with before, he said that he loved riding Hogback because of the view at the top. I immediately said, “What view?” You see, I really never saw the climb as a way to see the view or take in the surroundings because it was a physically and psychologically demanding feat.

But I worshipped every chance I had to be outside, to be in the sunshine for hours at a time.

With our brave new world of social distancing and commitments to staying at home, I have had an unexpected shift in how I view the natural world.

A week or so ago, I noticed the large amount of wisteria in the area. I wrote a poem about that, but I have continued to see and think about the blossoming of spring all around us while most of us have our heads and our minds focused on an invisible virus, a pervasive threat that is not just beyond our senses but may actually disrupt our senses of taste and smell.

As with forms of socializing, the recommendations and mandates restricting groups to fewer than 3 people have brought to an end group cycling, something that has been at the center of my adult life as well.

So my lifelong need to be outside has taken on a new form and a new importance.

Each day, a friend and I schedule one outdoor activity, road cycling, mountain biking, or a walk/hike. Instead of a hobby or a form of leisure, these have transformed into a necessity, an elixir against the terror of the pandemic and the claustrophobia of social distancing and staying home.

But as the world wakes up around us this spring, the world available to us is shrinking. In my home state, all the state parks have closed—no hiking or mountain biking trails left open.

Since road cycling alone or in pairs is less safe than larger groups, mostly, we had been mountain biking and walking/hiking a great deal. And all while flowers and trees are bursting to life and everything has a dull yellow layer of pollen announcing the coming of spring to the South.

Wisteria and Dogwood trees are going about their usual business, oblivious to Covid-19, social distancing, or stay-at-home mandates. Pollen dusts everything in sight while we sit inside staring at our variety of screens.

Nature without the interference of humans will persist as nature. In Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic Oryx and Crake, Snowman, believing himself the last human, witnesses just that:

The buildings that didn’t burn or explode are still standing, though the botany is thrusting itself through every crack. Given time it will fissure the asphalt, topple the walls, push aside the roofs. Some kind of vine is growing everywhere, draping the windowsills, climbing in through the open windows and up the bars and grillwork. Soon this district will be a thick tangle of vegetation. If he postponed the trip much longer the way back would have become impassable. It won’t be long before all visible traces of human habitation will be gone. (pp. 221-222)

Early in the move to social distancing, we drove the hour to Dupont forest to hike. The hiking trails to waterfalls are always popular, but on this trip, the crowd was disturbing since we were confronted with a dilemma—the need to be outside and our commitment to avoiding large groups of people, particularly strangers.

Regretfully, this experience was an omen of the new restrictions that now ban anyone hiking those exact trails, just as most of our mountain biking trails are now officially closed.

Covid-19 is exposing some of our greatest urges and weaknesses as humans. We desire community, socializing, but we are often our own worst enemies, especially when the greatest threat to our safety is unseeable and each other.

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

For me, the new reality has forced me to rethink my relationship with the outdoors I have cherished my entire life, a new recognition of the natural world.

As we were cycling laps around a park in my hometown, a friend and I talked about my new fascination with wisteria and we both acknowledged not really knowing the names of trees and plants all coming to bloom around the lake at the center of this park.

It seems a different kind of important now to see the various plants and trees individually, and to know their names.

That day we were climbing Hogback I recall now that I did pause at the top, I did look at the view, and I had to agree it was more than worth my time to not just look, but really see the view from above the trees and across the valley.

Review: Santa Cruz Blur 2020 Carbon R Build

Among the many challenges of transitioning from college into the workforce is the toll that takes on your personal and recreational life. Throughout high school and college, I was always a recreational athlete, mostly pick-up and school-based or intramural basketball,

It was the mid-1980s, and I was in my second year teaching high school English as well as coaching two sports. I found myself exhausted, having lost weight (I was already rail-thin my whole life), and not doing any exercise for a couple years.

This is when I adopted recreational cycling, leading to a passion that has lasted over thirty years with many years including 9,000-10,000+ miles per year in the saddle.

Over the decades, I have owned about 45-50 bicycles and built up or maintained dozens and dozens more for myself and friends. I love cycling, but I also love bicycles, aesthetically and mechanically.

Primarily, I am a road cyclist, but I have had two significant commitments to mountain biking as well—most recently after several cycling friends and I were in a catastrophic car/bicycle accident on Christmas Eve of 2016.

Once my fractured pelvis healed, I turned to mountain biking. Over the past several years, then, I have owned several mainstream full suspension MTBs—Cannondale, Niner, Specialized—and one hardtail—Trek.

While I love the hardtail Trek (2019 Procaliber 9.6), as I near 60, my body simply couldn’t handle the wear and tear. The features of that hardtail I did enjoy included low weight, nimble handling, and responsive pedaling. [Incidentally, that year model of the Trek was incredibly consumer friendly; a great deal of bike for the money.]

During my first venture into mountain biking 20 or so years ago, I had a great experience with a Santa Cruz Super Light so I kept coming back to trying Santa Cruz again, which I did when I purchased the 2020 Blur with the Carbon R build from Competitive Cyclist (an online retailer with whom I have had great experiences for many years).

Santa Cruz Bicycles Carbon R Mountain Bike

I now have about 300 miles on the Blur and think I can give a solid review of the pros and cons for anyone considering a new MTB.

First, I have only a couple problems that I encountered in the beginning.

I received the MTB packed immaculately and securely by CC, requiring only minor assembly. As I noted above, I have been building and maintaining bicycles for three decades, but I was immediately concerned with the water bottle cage placement on this model.

In fact, the placement puts the cage between two cables and almost at the bottom of the seat tube. Long story short, the bottom bolt after removing it only once was not threading back in properly. I had to take the MTB to my local bike shop where the mechanic tapped the threading (for no charge) so I bought a new cage. [Note: CC offered to reimburse for the service, but I didn’t incur any.]

While I have been an exclusive user of SRAM products since the early 2000s, I have found the SRAM Level T brakes once again lacking (better than Guide, but nothing like even low-end Shimano brakes), and have had problems with the front disc squealing despite being cleaned by my LBS and me several times. [Note: CC sent a new front rotor no charge to address this.]

Both of these I consider minor issues, and I chose this build overwhelmingly because of the carbon frame (overall weight is in the 26-pound range, similar to the Trek hardtail), the Fox shocks, and the SRAM NX Eagle drivetrain; the mechanical performance of this MTB has been outstanding and nearly flawless despite riding in a variety of adverse conditions.

One issue I have struggled with when buying MTBs is proper fit; I have my road cycling fit dialed in to near perfection. I ride exclusively Ridley frame sets with traditional road geometries, and can count on the M (56 cm) frame fitting perfectly.

My MTB purchases have swung back and forth from M to L. The M Cannondale felt way too small and the M Niner felt way too large.

After consulting with Kyle Brown at CC, I chose a L for the Blur. First ride, I was immediately nervous because the L felt small. However, it didn’t take long to realize that I was riding the best fitting MTB I have ever owned.

And here is where I can attest that this Blur is among the best 2or 3 bicycles I have ever owned. Period. Road or MTB.

Along with finding the right fit in an MTB, matching the model (geometry, set up, etc.) of the MTB to the type of riding you do is incredibly important.

Many of the trails I ride have a good deal of roots (some are rocky also), a great deal of trees and tight trails, and significant switchbacks and grunts (several places have sustained climbs as well).

Before my hardtail destroyed my aging back, I was impressed with how the light and responsive frame greatly improved my riding, particularly my technique and ability to maintain momentum through switchbacks and over grunts. My experience with full-suspension has been a great deal of sluggishness over varied terrain and awkwardness in tight spots.

The Blur is light and incredibly nimble—as responsive and sharp as the hardtail while also providing the comfort of a full-suspension MTB.

Two examples have stood out to me. First, on my most often ridden local trails, Southside, one trail, High and Dry, has a rooty grunt section with a couple very tight and quick switchbacks all in about 30 feet.

When I started back on the MTB several years ago, this was a place I often put a foot down and felt like a really poor cyclist. Eventually, I learned to navigate that section, but I always struggle there even as I expect never to put a foot down again.

Lately, on the Blur, I have noticed the section is a whole new experience. I can do the section sitting and the biggest improvement is the handling, easily navigating the trees and switchbacks as I cross roots and a couple rock sections.

Each time I do High and Dry now, I am pleased to recognize that the MTB itself has made me a better rider.

The other example is riding on trails with extended climbs. I live within a hour or so of Dupont and Bent Creek, both in North Carolina and both with very long climbs and descents.

I bought the Trek hardtail in part to do these trails and the extensive gravel roads in each system. Certainly, there the hardtail excelled.

The Blur has modest shock travel (100 mm front and rear), and both are easily reachable to lock out. My most recent full-suspension before the hardtail had greater travel (140 mm front and 120 mm rear), making it an excellent descending frame.

Comparing the Blur to the hardtail for climbing and the greater suspension MTB for descending, I find that the Blur matches performances of each.

Most notable to me is that when climbing grunts, rollers, or long hills, the Blur’s suspension system (Santa Cruz’s VPP) is nearly “silent” in that it feels like a hardtail in terms of the MTB responding to your pedal strokes.

Finally, I am a fan of black bikes, and quality (but simple) graphics. This Blur is a beautiful bicycle in person (picture doesn’t do it justice). Santa Cruz does a great job with how bikes look and paint/graphics finish and quality.

From Santa Cruz to SRAM and Fox to Competitive Cyclist (and my LBS, Trek Spartanburg), I am a very happy customer and cyclist.

If you are looking for a light and nimble MTB for technical and challenging trails with climbs and dense trees, you will love the Blur.

Rule 5: HTFU

In many ways, this past Tuesday was mostly a typical flight night at a local tap house, Growler Haus. We gathered and took over the room to the right, what we have come to call “The Office.”

But this Tuesday we were 15 gathered to say goodbye to a friend moving, as we say around here, “up North,” or in his case, back up North.

CJennings FW3-X2

The “we” in this case is the Spartanburg, SC, cycling community—or at least a part of it. Cycling is vibrant—although the people change and the intensity shifts over the years—in the Upstate of SC from Spartanburg to Greenville especially.

Chris, pictured above holding a mock-up of a plaque in his honor, is moving away, and we spent a couple hours over pints, flights, and food smiling and laughing about his moving to Spartanburg years ago and finding his way into our not-so-warm-and-fuzzy cycling clique; in many ways we are worse than high school, we road and MTB cyclists who have also branched out to gravel riding (anything to justify even slightly the code of bicycle ownership—Rule #12: The correct number of bikes to own is n+1).

If you zoom in, you see the plaque mock-up includes below his name Rule #5—one of the dilemmas faced by those organizing the gesture of farewell.

You see Rule #5, among The Rules at Velominati, is mostly NSFW—Harden the fuck up, or as we say in most public settings, HTFU.

The 15 in attendance and pictured above range in ages from their 20s into their 60s, much like our cycling community, and we all at one point or another have found ourselves stressed to our limits, probably questioning why we were voluntarily participating in a hobby, for fun, something that left us near the brink of death—or simply wishing death would offer a bit of relief.

Recreational cycling is often competitive, both spontaneously on any bicycle ride including more than one rider and during organized events (even the ones that explicitly announce “this is not a race”).

When we are the ones dishing out the pace and pain (a few above are always in that group), we smile and quip: “You know what to do when you are getting dropped? Speed up.”

It is that sort of nonsense that has bonded this group, nonsense that is about the same percentage sincerity as nonsense.

I have been cycling “seriously,” as we say, for well over thirty years. Those early years, I was mere fodder, a peon, but several of the elite locals gave me the treatment that we honor to this day, a sort of loving hazing, a relentless demand that “do better, damnit” is about the same as saying “love you.”

One of my friendly torturers was Fred; I still see him from time to time at mountain biking trails. He has shifted to solitary riding, and I have throttled back significantly my mileage and intensity. But I feel something unnameable every time I see Fred (Rule #3: Guide the uninitiated).

Fred was ruthless and his ability on a bicycle left me in awe. I never came close to Fred in ability, but I creeped toward his tenacity—and I certainly for a few years was a much better cyclist.

And I still know a hell of a lot about bicycling.

Several people in the photograph were shepherded into the flock as I was many moons ago. Now the grasshoppers have become masters; we guard our own Rules vigilantly even as we quote The Rules with a bit of a smile.

I hear our 20 and 30 somethings sigh and lament things aren’t like they used to be, shaking their heads at new riders. And I understand.

We are varied people. Bicycles and most of all riding bicycles join us, even when we don’t think alike, even when we can barely raise our heads or turn the crank in exhaustion.

Maybe especially when things are the toughest.

Only a few years ago four of us above were struck by a motorist (with six others), and a few of us were injured, some badly, one permanently.

And very recently, we were all visiting Chris in the hospital after a freak cycling crash that sent him to the hospital with a broken collarbone that put his cycling on pause for many weeks.

You see, it is just riding a bicycle, something children do, and it is far more than just riding a bicycle.

Cycling is not our entire lives—we have family, careers, and beer—but most of us cannot imagine our lives without cycling.

We will miss Chris, and I am sure, Chris will miss us, and this community.

In any moment of sadness, tugs of weakness, however, we have something to guide us through—HTFU.

Rule #1: Obey the rules.

Safety Dance: Cycling as if Your Life Depends upon It

After a few weeks more than a year-long hiatus from road cycling prompted by a fourth bicycle/car accident, I returned to road cycling because mountain biking alone simply never fulfilled the reasons I have been a cyclist for over thirty years.

In that time, several local cyclists’ lives were lost and many had been injured by negligent motorists—all of which had transformed the cycling community I had enjoyed for decades. Local cyclists had begun to work in earnest toward greater cycling safety, including most cyclists now using day-burning tail and head lights as well as shifting to hi-visibility cycling kits.

Image may contain: one or more people, bicycle and outdoor
Globalbike’s Spartanburg chapter has adopted hi-vis kits for 2018.

My hometown bicycle club, the Spartanburg Freewheelers, launched a safety initiative also.

However, despite the lights and hi-vis kits, despite the increased rhetoric around safety, I have to admit that the actual cycling I witnessed upon returning to my road riding has not changed much; it remains too often punctuated by unsafe practices, and notably by veteran cyclists, some of whom are on the cycling club’s safety committee.

In fact, a recent Ride for Safety on July 4 highlighted for me that too much of what is happening in our cycling community is rhetoric without action*.

While the increased use of day-burning lights and hi-vis kits are important, I remain concerned that too many cyclists fail to acknowledge what exactly safe cycling looks like, and thus, here are some recommendations:

  • Obey traffic laws governing motorists and cyclists. In my home state of South Carolina, cyclists are mostly bound to the laws applicable to motorists, but some cycling specific rules apply—a few of which, such as riding two-abreast, are actually antagonistic to motorists who are unaware of the laws.
  • When joining posted or organized group rides, know the plan and expectations for the ride, and then conform to those expectations. In short, do not turn a posted or organized ride into your event or training session since the other cyclists will be expecting the posted ride. If you prefer a different ride or need a different training session, organize that yourself.
  • Cycle predictably; hold your line, maintain even accelerations and decelerations, and use verbal and hand cues. Know the norms of group riding, or sit on the back of the group until you do. How to do a paceline, for example, is an essential skill for joining rides and riding safely.

Group riding is a community of cyclists.

  • Safe cycling requires each cyclist to have a bicycle in working condition, including safe tires and the needed items in case of a minor mechanical (flat tire, etc.).
  • Safe cycling also means being prepared with fluids and food that match the intended ride. A bonking or cramping cyclist is not a safe cyclist.
  • Know the cycling route and help the entire group navigate that route by stopping completely at stop signs, calling out and pointing directions for all turns, and checking on and communicating the status of the group regularly (for example, if the group ride is a no-drop ride, confirming the group is together). Great rule to follow: If you do not know the route, do not ride at the front.
  • Ride at your ability level, including monitoring your effort (such as taking pulls) relative to your fitness and experience. If you are a beginner or your fitness is lacking, the group will appreciate you skipping pulls so that you are able to maintain the group pace and complete the ride.
  • Use verbal cues and hand signals to identify potholes and objects in the road. All cyclists in the group, not just the lead riders, are responsible for identifying dangers in the road and for moving the pack safely and calmly to avoid them.
  • Communicate forward and backward. Pass up and back any verbal cues from other riders.
  • Be careful not to use a group ride to socialize, but if you wish to chat with a friend, move to the last two riders so that your focusing on the discussion doesn’t interrupt the group.
  • Virtual socializing also creates unsafe cycling; just as using your smart phone while driving endangers motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians, your urge to take pictures and selfies while cycling probably should be reserved for stops or pre-/post-ride. At the very least, do your smart phone gymnastics at the back of the group.
  • Drinking, eating, and clearing your throat and nose are all behaviors that must not interrupt your safe cycling or impede other cyclists. Learn how to use your water bottle and eat while cycling safely, and drop off the back of the group to spit or clear your nose. Do not cross the yellow line to create that space, however (see below).
  • Remain two-abreast (or conform to the laws of your area) except when rotating off the front. Do not initiate wider than two-abreast during climbs or at stop signs/lights.
  • Do not overlap wheels or wedge into or overtake other riders who are riding safely two-abreast. If you want to take a pull, work through the group in a safe manner as people rotate, or wait for a stop sign/light and ask to move to the front.
  • Don’t cross the yellow or center line of a road**. This is the ultimate unsafe and inconsiderate cyclist move since it endangers yourself, the other cyclists on the ride, and motorists.

This last point hits as the larger concept of safe cycling: Always ride as an integral part of a community of riders recognizing that any action you take (or don’t take) impacts other cyclists.

Cyclists are extremely vulnerable on open roads, but for many of us, that risk is worth the huge benefits to group cycling. As is common in life, those most vulnerable carry the brunt of responsibility—unfairly.

Unsafe motorists are far more dangerous for themselves and everyone else than unsafe cyclists. None the less, cyclists must take it upon ourselves to model good stewardship of the open roads.

Safe cycling also helps foster the sort of community awareness that would serve us well in our full lives as workers, family members, and citizens.

I am glad my local cycling community has sought ways to be seen better, but I worry now that we are more visible are we in fact showing others what it means to cycle as if our lives depend upon it.

* This reminds me of when I first joined my university where the campus was blanketed by flags stating “Engaged Learning,” but when I walked the halls, all the classes were silent, attentive students in rows listening to their professors lecturing, often from notes.

** How many of us have crossed the yellow line to avoid a dog, or to avoid a crash? I have. Certainly, emergency situations create the necessity for emergency maneuvers, but far too often, crossing the yellow line while cycling is just careless bicycle handling and negligence. Yes, we can distinguish between the two, but in normal safe cycling, we should not cross the yellow line.