Sunday, June 14, 2015

Cycling Guidelines, or How Not To Be a Fred - Part I


I want to start off this post by stating something important:  I think novice cyclists are great.  These are people making the transition from non-cyclist to cyclist, which is a difficult transition all of us cyclists have had to make.  I earnestly wish to make cycling as friendly as possible to all newcomers, which is why I chafe at the (albeit sometimes jocular) elitism of the so-called Velominati, and why I criticized “The Rules” in these pages.

That said, I suspect that many newcomers (to cycling or, really, to anything) would prefer not to wear their novice status on their sleeves.  Nobody wants to be a Fred; that is, nobody wants to be this guy:

To the extent that cycling is a social sport, people will naturally want to fit in—but that’s not the same thing as being told what to do, especially by a self-appointed expert.  A set of widely accepted guidelines, which the novice cyclist may choose to heed or ignore at his or her whim, strikes me as a useful thing.

To sidestep the matter of whether my authority counts for anything, I created a survey and sent it to my cycling buds.  This is an accomplished group of no-nonsense road cyclists, most of whom have been riding for at least twenty years.  I based my survey questions on several sources:  behaviors I myself find questionable; behaviors cited in various Internet “are you a Fred?” articles; and pre-survey ideas from my cycling buds.  The overall gist was, “How would you react to this behavior if displayed during our club ride?”  I had respondents rank each behavior according to these descriptors:  “Totally Normal/Acceptable”; “Borderline/ I Wouldn’t Do It”; and “Laughably Fredtastic.”  The results of that survey, along with copious commentary and caveats, are presented herein.

But first

To reiterate, I’m not trying to tell anybody what to do.  Rebelliousness has been a part of this sport for generations, and I’m all for it.  What I think most people would like to avoid is being an accidental iconoclast—i.e., a dork.  It’s useful to know what the norms are, whether you intend to adhere to them or flout them openly.  So take each of these guidelines with a grain of salt, and jettison them as you see fit.

I hasten also to point out that I use “Fred” as a kind of shorthand.  I don’t actually get any smug pleasure from labeling this or that rider a Fred.  Codifying behaviors is as much about helping people rest easy as it is warning anybody about potentially sneer-inducing behaviors.  So if, for example, you’ve been feeling self-conscious about buying house-brand bike clothing (i.e., Nashbar) instead of springing for mainstream brands like Pearl Izumi, you can relax:  49% of the seasoned veterans surveyed find the low-cost choice perfectly acceptable and normal, while only 14% think it’s Fredtastic.

One respondent suggested that “the main reason we care about these behaviors is that they act as a signaling system for safety—a sign that the rider is a newbie and may need a bit more space.  It’s not just that we’re dicks (although that’s part of it too—good social skills are not a requirement for participating in a quasi-individual sport).”  I think he’s onto something.

A final bit of perspective:  I was riding recently with a cycling newbie—my 13-year-old daughter Alexa—and she asked, “Dad, were you ever a Fred?”  I said, “Sure.  I had big tube socks that were usually stained with chain grease, and I tipped over a lot when I first got toe-clips, and I had a particularly ugly helmet with a visor.”  She asked, “Did you know you were a Fred?”  I replied, “No, I didn’t.  Freds never do.  But after my best friend complained about my visor, I did snap it off.”  After a pause, Alexa asked, “Dad, will I ever be a Fred?”  (She likely perceives that, for now, she’s too young to be judged, which may well be true.)  I replied, “No, you’ll never be a Fred, because I won’t let you.”

But then I caught myself.  What if she doesn’t actually care?  Who am I to stand in the way of her individual expression?  So I asked, “Is that okay?  Are you even looking for my opinion?”  She rolled her eyes and said, “Dad, I’m a teenager.  I’m self-conscious.  Thank you for giving me advice.” 

If that’s where you’re coming from, this blog post is for you.  On the flip side, if you’re looking for ways to get under the skin of overly uptight bike fascists, this post is also for you!

Survey results:  part one

My survey comprised 41 questions.  About half of the behaviors surveyed didn’t produce a sizable negative response; for example, “Wearing mountain bike shoes instead of road shoes” was tagged “Laughably Fredtastic” by only 2 out of the 37 respondents (i.e., about 5%), and 35% of respondents found this behavior “Totally Acceptable/Normal.” 

The variety of responses across many of these surveyed behaviors suggests something I’ve long suspected:  that, as a group, cyclists’ perspectives actually aren’t that homogenous.  One respondent commented, “Many of the ‘borderline’ (and even some of the ‘Fred-tastic’) I have committed and/or seen committed on EBVC rides.  Conclusion:  hypocrisy is ‘completely normal/acceptable’ among ‘serious’ cyclists.”

I quite agree.  Consider the mountain bike shoe question:  my friend Peter, a former pro road racer, wore mountain bike shoes on the road for like two years even though he actually owned a brand-new pair of road shoes.  He was just too lazy to set up the cleats.  On the flip side, a current teammate of mine was so bothered by Alexa’s mountain bike shoes, he offered to take up a collection for me to buy her some proper road shoes.

Here’s a summary of what appear to be the least frowned-upon behaviors surveyed.  Click on these to zoom in:

Survey results:  part two

Next I’ll go through 10 of the top 20 offending behaviors.  (I’d do all 20, but so many people complain that my blog posts are too long.  The top 10 will be covered in my next post.)

 20th Most Fredtastic:  Abruptly Rising

Asked for their opinion on “Abruptly rising from the saddle so your rear wheel is thrust backward,” 53% of respondents cited this as borderline behavior, and 47% deemed it laughably Fredtastic.

This behavior clearly identifies a newbie, because it’s a somewhat dangerous move that, because it comes naturally, must be unlearned.  Whenever you stand on the pedals, the bike automatically goes back (actually, it probably just slows down for a beat), which requires evasive maneuvers on the part of anybody drafting you.  I wonder how many newbies don’t realize this, and are puzzled by how often guys in the group start cussing for no apparent reason.

19th Most Fredtastic:  QR on Right

Queried about “Wheel quick-release lever on starboard (i.e., wrong) side,” 47% of respondents found this borderline, and 50% Fredtastic.  One respondent found this normal/acceptable.

Why should this matter?  Well, many road tires are directional, though I couldn’t say whether mounting them correctly actually makes a difference. If you’re old-school and have a magnet on one of your spokes for your bike computer, this would be a problem.  Most of all, the backwards skewer shows a lack of attention to detail.

I don’t see this mistake very often, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.  I was riding with a pal who noticed, before I had a chance to, that his front wheel was on backwards.  He actually took me to task for failing to call him out on this, but we both agreed it was an understandable error simply because my friend was a new father and wasn’t getting enough sleep to function properly.

18th Most Fredtastic:  Too much watt-related commentary

When asked their opinion on “Commenting too frequently about power output,” 51% found this Fredtastic, 37% said borderline, and 11% said normal/acceptable. 

This behavior suggests an interesting dichotomy:  expertise vs. experience.  It tends to be the serious rider who lays out the cash for a power meter and understands the readings well enough to talk about them.  On the other hand, the true veteran probably tired of all this performance-related (and, more generally, cycling-related) conversation long ago, and has little appetite for it.

17th Most Fredtastic:  No socks

Riding without socks was tagged as Fredtastic by 53% of respondents, with 36% finding it questionable and 11% normal/acceptable.  The fact that four respondents approved of going sockless surprises me, because I cannot remember the last time I rode with someone who didn’t have socks.

In road racing, socks are mandatory.  Way back in 1985, when my feet were at their adolescent stinkiest, a friend of mine showed up to race having forgotten his socks.  He had to borrow mine—after I’d raced in them.  He was an even stinkier dude than I was, and I said, “Just keep ‘em.”

16th Most Fredtastic:  Pie plate

Responses broke down as follows:  57% found pie plates Fredtastic; 34% questionable; 9% acceptable.

What?  You don’t know what “pie plate” means in a bike context?  Well, you’ve come to the right place!  Check out this post for a full explanation of why spoke protectors are such a grind.  (Short answer:  “We didn’t call them spoke protectors though,/ As ‘pie plate’ better mocked how big they were./ They caused the largest cog to seem to grow—/ A mean illusion, awful to endure./ A bigger cog meant lower gearing, see;/ The stuff of weaker boys, embarrassing./ We longed for smaller clusters, finally free/ Of pie plates. Lack of metal was our bling.”)

15th Most Fredtastic:  Sleeveless jersey

For “Sleeveless jersey when it’s not that hot,” 54% came back with Fredtastic; 41% borderline; 5% acceptable.

To me, nothing says “newbie” like a person who is woefully ill-prepared for the weather conditions.  I clearly remember the first time I wore a sleeveless jersey on a not-so-warm day.  In my defense, I’d just moved to San Luis Obispo (where the weather is often cooler than it looks) from Boulder (where sunshine almost always means glorious warmth), and I’d listened to too much “Beach Boys” music and got the wrong idea about California.  Sleeves, even short ones, make a huge difference, and I froze my ass off that day.  I never made that mistake again.  So when it’s 60 degrees and cloudy here, and feels like 50 degrees, and I’m rocking two jerseys and a pair of arm warmers, and I see some biker in a sleeveless jersey, I think, “Either this is your very first ride, or you never learn.”

14th Most Fredtastic:  Half-wheeling

Half-wheeling is Fredtastic to 56% of my panel; borderline in the eyes of 33%; and normal/acceptable to 11%.  I think that 11% is more along the lines of “normal,” as in “an inescapable evil we’ll never be rid of.” 

This behavior—whereby the offender is riding next to a pal, and keeps pulling slightly ahead, so his bike is half a wheel ahead—is surely based on the competitive impulse.  Resisting this impulse demonstrates the triumph of discipline over instinct.  Probably because I ride so much by myself, I have to struggle against this one constantly.  It’s not that rare for a pal to grab my shoulder and pull me back so our wheels are lined up again, and whenever this happens I’m completely mortified.  Let me take this opportunity to apologize in advance for the next time I do this to you.

13th Most Fredtastic:  Bento Box

If you don’t know what a Bento Box is, in the context of bike gear, congratulations.  You must enjoy a more rarified biking environment than I do.  A Bento Box is this little bag that mounts behind your stem.  I’ve circled it in this photo:

One of the Fredtastic things about the Bento Box is the company it keeps:  the bike above has a pie plate, aero bars, and saddle-mounted water bottle cages (all of them flagged in my survey).  No, I don’t know what the junk is on the top tube of that bike, nor what the white thing is mounted to the aero bars.  Maybe it’s a diaper-wipe dispenser or a blood bag.  Man, I just looked too closely at the far-forward position of the saddle on that bike, and I almost barfed into my mouth.  If my daughter ever tricks her road bike out like this, I’m sending her to boarding school.

No, not all Bento Box users are triathletes.  But every time I see one of these things, it’s on a way over-accessorized bike that generally looks way too expensive for the speed it’s being pedaled at.  Not that an over-expensive bike is a sign of Fred-dom, exactly; only 17% of the panel found “Quality of equipment clearly surpasses rider’s ability” to be Fredtastic, and 39% found it normal/acceptable.  One respondent commented, “Riding equipment above the ability of the rider should be acceptable if, and only if, the rider aspires to higher quality [defined as fitness, skill and élan] AND the combination and configuration of that equipment is otherwise PROfull.”  Bikes overly loaded with accessories are never PROfull, and particularly egregious examples like the Bento Box suggest that a silver-tongued bike shop salesman had a field day with the bike owner.

My main issue with the Bento Box is that it’s utterly needless.  I’ve done unsupported rides of over 200 miles and I never needed more room than my jersey pockets provide.  (And I don’t even use a seat bag.) 

Survey response:  56% of respondents tagged the Bento Box as Fredtastic; 31% found it borderline; and 14% of these softies said it was acceptable.  I wonder how many of that 14% thought I was talking about Japanese food as a glycogen-window snack.

12th Most Fredtastic:  Jersey riding up

“Jersey that rides up over non-bib shorts, exposing skin.”  There’s no easy phrase to describe this, and there’s no easy way to tolerate being stuck behind it when you’re in a paceline.  Back in the ‘80s my brother did a really long ride while afflicted with this sartorial malady, and he got this terrible crescent-shaped sunburn on his lower back.  Like many teens of that era, he liked to go around shirtless (when off the bike), and his low-riding non-biker shorts showcased that sunburn and the golden brown tan that followed it.  It was kind of creepy, like the Cheshire Cat’s grin that remained long after the cat himself was gone.

Perhaps it’s mostly novices who don’t grasp why bib shorts are worth paying more for.  Myself, I haven’t worn non-bibs since I was junior, when it was popular to ride up behind a guy, grab the waistband of his shorts, pull it down, and hook it under the back of the saddle—and then attack.  This was as effective as it was humiliating to the victim, and I wouldn’t rule out a nefarious plot concocted by the Sportswear Industrial Complex.

Not a single respondent found this scenario acceptable.  It was deemed Fredtastic by 57% of the group, and borderline by the other 43%.

11th Most Fredtastic:  Clip-on mirror

Not surprisingly, 58% of respondents found it Fredtastic to use a little mirror that clips to the helmet or the glasses.  Another 39% deemed it borderline. Oddly, one respondent thought it was acceptable.  Must be a really nice person.

My issues with this accessory are threefold.  First, if you crash, you’ve got broken glass right near your eye.  (Yes, I also favor plastic lenses for sunglasses.)  Second, if a motorist is behind you, it’s better to make eye contact with him (by turning your head) than to assume he’ll notice your mirror.  (He won’t; you’re lucky if he notices you.)  Finally, it could be that the guy who buys this mirror lacks the skill to look over his shoulder while riding—in which case you may not want him in your group.

Okay, you caught me.  I was inventing rational reasons to support my predilections, which I confess are largely aesthetic and stylistic.  Go right on ahead using your clip-on mirror, your Bento Box, and your pie plate.  I promise I won’t say anything, especially if you ride me off your wheel.

Stay tuned...

Watch these pages, because next week I’ll unveil the top-ten most widely denounced signs of newbie knowledge gap.  Here’s a little teaser:  behavior #1 was rated “Laughably Fredtastic” by 92% of the panel!


Click here for Part II of this article ... the top-ten Fredtastic behaviors!

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