Monday, April 13, 2020

Is Cycling Safe During the COVID-19 Pandemic?


Introduction

You know what? Pandemics are overrated. This COVID-19 thing is causing a me lot of uncertainty … how do I balance responsible risk avoidance measures with trying to have some semblance of a full life? This post examines the question of whether cycling outdoors is a reasonable and responsible activity during shelter-in-place. I base my conclusions on personal experience, feedback from bike teams I’ve surveyed, and a popular—but contested—article on the subject.

Confusing advice

If everybody shelters in place, we’re told, and if we all wash our hands constantly, everything will be fine. Or at least … well, it won’t be fine, actually; everything is going to get a lot worse. But you should shelter in place anyway. You probably won’t get COVID-19, unless you do, and even then you’ll probably survive it, unless you don’t. Young, healthy people either experience mild, flulike conditions, or hospitalization and even death. Nobody knows for sure. Just shelter in place because we know that will help. This will all be behind us sooner or later, or maybe much later, or even later than that. Don’t worry, the bubonic plague only lasted for four years, unless you consider that it actually started in Constantinople 800 years before it hit Europe.

Should we wear masks? For months the CDC said not to bother, but now it says we should. (I, for one, have been pro-mask all along, though not enough to wear one, until recently.) A mask probably won’t help us from getting COVID-19, but it may help us not transmit it. Not everybody believes in masks, though; in my neighborhood, only about half the pedestrians I’ve seen wear them. About the only thing we all agree on is that we need to be stockpiling toilet paper.

Sometimes we want to believe something because it looks like good news. A family friend sent us this article contending that here in the Bay Area, many of us might have immunity already because COVID-19 may have arrived here as early as November and we’ve built up a “herd immunity.” It’s tempting to credit this with how well we’re doing compared to other metropolitan areas. The rate of infection in San Francisco county is 1 in 1013, vs. New York at 1 in 80. In Alameda County, our rate is 1 in 2063; Westchester County, adjacent to New York, is at 1 in 50.

The problem is, the herd immunity article is pure malarkey. I was skeptical right off the bat because I don’t understand how herd immunity is supposed to work … the article just says “Herd immunity in [sic] the idea that a large percentage of a population has already contracted the virus which would slow the rate at which it spread to others.” Wouldn’t a large-scale infection increase the rate at which it spreads? Isn’t that the whole rationale behind shelter-in-place?

Beyond that, I’m shocked at how many grammar and punctuation errors there were in the article. Don’t these journalists have editors? The source, KSBW Channel 8, also seemed a bit obscure for such an important story, so I googled around to see if other publications had corroborated any of this. In the process I found this article totally debunking it.

Knowing I’ll never get totally reliable information from the news, I figure at least I can base my own behavior on the letter of the law: the official shelter-in-place policy promulgated by the county. Most of it was pretty clear from the beginning, except the rules around bicycling. The original shelter-in-place order prohibited “non-essential travel on foot, bicycle, scooter, automobile or public transit,” suggesting we shouldn’t bike at all, but it also said we’re permitted to “engage in outdoor activity, provided the individuals comply with Social Distancing Requirements as defined in this Section, such as, by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, or running.”

Cycling is covered by that “without limitation” clause, but this guidance still wasn’t as warm and fuzzy as what the county later published. When they further tightened, and extended, the shelter-in-place order, their updated Frequently Asked Questions document included this note: “Bike repair and supply shops are considered an essential business.”

So cycling is allowed … does that mean it’s safe?

Knowing I was allowed to ride my bike for exercise (but not transportation) did help. For a while, I continued to ride outdoors, only by myself, and giving other cyclists as much room as I feasibly could on the assumption that six feet wouldn’t be enough when cycling. After all, the Berkeley Bicycle Club stopped its team rides well ahead of shelter-in-place due to the “snot rocket” problem. (That’s their term. I have generally called them “snot comets” … perhaps mine have a longer tail.)

My experience, though, was that my rides seemed more hazardous than usual, and not just because of the threat of infection. The problem was the other people out getting exercise, whose adherence to the social distancing rule often took them right out into the middle of the street. In one case, a jogger was giving a hiker six feet by running right down the middle of Wildcat Canyon Road, next to the double-yellow line. I couldn’t pass them by going into the oncoming lane, because I was heading into a blind curve. I had to hit the brakes and go between the two. They probably weren’t too keen on my violation of the six-foot rule, but what was I to do?

Meanwhile, I’ve had joggers and pedestrians wander right out in front of me without looking, on the assumption that nobody drives or rides on the roads anymore. In one case, also on Wildcat Canyon Road, I had to brake and call out, “Yo,” because this jogger running across the road was totally oblivious. I made my “yo” just loud enough to be heard because I didn’t want to scare the crap out of the guy, but he was totally caught off guard anyway and scurried one way, then the other like a frightened squirrel. When he made it to the road shoulder he regained his composure a bit and yelled, “Shut up!” It was bizarre … I’d said one thing, comprising one syllable, simply to alert the guy of my approach. I hadn’t uttered another peep. Perhaps the added mental strain of social distancing has people a bit flustered.

But the most unsettling behavior I’ve witnessed is cyclists wanting to draft or race me. Twice, guys rode exactly six feet behind me to benefit from my slipstream, and when I picked up the pace to drop them they’d speed up as well. Granted, they weren’t presenting a threat to me (based on how wind resistance works), but I didn’t want to pass my germs along to them. As a hayfever sufferer I do sneeze from time to time; also, I might not remember to call out before launching a snot comet or a loogie. Thus, in both cases I had to hammer to drop these drafting riders, which is annoying because I’m getting old and like to set my own pace. A couple times, when I caught up to someone going roughly my speed, I pulled over to stop, wait a while, and start back up.

The most annoying incident came when I caught up to a guy going up Spruce, a fairly long climb before you leave the city limits. I started to pass him, and then he sped up and rode next to me. I continued to accelerate and so did he—so he was basically half-wheeling me, while I was way out in the road to give him his six feet. So I thought, fine—you’re faster, I’ll drop back. I gave him about a twenty foot gap and continued at his pace. But then he started to tire out, so I had to keep lowering my own speed to maintain the gap. This pissed me off to the point that I finally shifted up several gears, stood on the pedals, and completely attacked. This worked fine, but it was early in my ride and not how I like to warm up.

The other thing that unnerved me during these rides was that I didn’t see anyone on the road I knew, and very few club racers (who normally comprise like half the riders I’d see). Where were all the veteran cyclists? Did they know something I didn’t? I’m not knocking bike enthusiasts and I truly love the idea of more people taking up the sport (which is why I coach high school mountain biking). That said, cycling is a complicated sport, and those who have done it for decades learn subtle lessons over time. For example, I once hurled while leading a four-rider paceline and was amazed to see that the rider on the very back of our line was the one who took it in the face. I’ve also noted, with wonder, that when riding in a headwind, I can sometimes clearly hear the conversation of riders in another group like 100 feet ahead because their voices carry in the wind. When it comes to judgment calls, sometimes there’s no substitute for experience. It’s never a bad idea to take cues from the experts. So where were they?

Ultimately, and partly based in input from my wife, I stopped riding outdoors and went to riding only on my rollers, indoors. I lasted about a week before I started going crazy.


The Belgian-Dutch study

Right around the time I started contemplating heading out for another real ride, a guy on my road team sent around an article in Medium, an online magazine, titled “Belgian-Dutch Study: Why in times of COVID-19 you should not walk/run/bike close to each other.” Not long after, I received the same link from a cycling friend in Colorado. Within a couple days this rebuttal made the rounds as well. The rebuttal, and this coverage in cyclingnews, contend that the article has gone viral (though I’m not sure exactly how that claim is established or what threshold something must reach before it’s declared viral).

My initial reaction to the article was positive, since it validates concerns I already had around the increased risk of passing on a virus when breathing hard and riding fast, vs. simply walking by somebody or standing near him or her in a line. A friend of mine works for Ansys, the company whose software was used in the study, and he vouched for the accuracy of the modeling done (while acknowledging that the level of threat presented by aerosols cannot be determined by the study alone). This blog post by Ansys gives an interesting overview of how such studies can help.

I will say that I took the article with a grain of salt based on its source, medium.com, which states at the top of the screen, “Anyone can publish on Medium per our Policies, but we don’t fact-check every story.” In this regard it’s arguably even less trustworthy than KSBW since it’s not purporting to be real journalism to begin with. I have a bit of experience with these auto-publishing sites: I once submitted a restaurant review to Patch.com for a fictitious new restaurant, Vostock, specializing in Antarctic cuisine. I gave no indication my review was a farce. (That would, after all, spoil the joke.) Here’s an excerpt: 
The Antarctic Chaika for $10.25 is shredded gull brined with slush and served with pickled gull eggs, steamed ice, black gravel and a little pile of yellow snow. The presentation of the dish was simple and the aroma was enticing without being overwhelming. The gull was tender and smoky, but I began to lose interest after a few bites. Nothing about the ice or gravel really stood out either. The entrée felt like, well, discomfort food, and I had the vague feeling that someone’s grandmother does a better version.
As I discovered from the reader comments, a couple of people didn’t get the joke and were shocked to discover a restaurant in their town blatantly defying the Marine Mammal Protection Act. One guy was really offended. This is the problem with Internet “news” sources: something about the official-seeming format can put people off their guard. Naturally, there are quasi-authorities who capitalize on this.

(The Daily Mail in the UK ran an article about the Belgian-Dutch COVID-19 study titled “Horrifying simulation reveals the dangers of jogging during the coronavirus pandemic.” Horrifying? Really? Looking over that filthy rag, I can’t say how many Brits actually take it seriously. Perhaps it’s no more trusted than The Onion … I can only hope.)

Criticism against the Medium article was mainly around the study not being peer-reviewed; the lead researcher has acknowledged that he spoke to the media about his findings before publishing them, in the interest of getting his info out sooner. This breezy attitude has drawn yet more criticism, and pedestrians and cyclists are predictably bickering about the article’s implications across the various social media platforms to which it has spread.

Myself, I’m not about to discredit the idea that we need to be more careful when riding than when walking, nor the idea that this study presents legitimate information. Meanwhile, having seen how quickly things change in these strange times of pandemic, I went out and rode again to see if behaviors have changed. How viral is this article, and how influential?

More tales from the road

I rode on Saturday morning and the first cyclist I encountered gave me a very wide berth. The second seemed oblivious, due to headphones, but was well to the side of the road so I passed easily. Then I came across a couple sets of clustered riders like these ones.


Note that I cropped this photo; I was much farther back than it looks. I found a long straightaway where I could build up a lot of speed and use the left lane to pass them. I suppose it’s possible the members of that trio were all related and/or live in the same household. But this next group? (Look closely, there are four of them.)


The guy on the recumbent is clearly crashing the party … I have never known regular cyclists to mingle with recumbent riders. (In fact, those who choose recumbent bikes are almost by definition iconoclasts, loners, and pariahs.) This was the most hazardous group because they were descending by the time I encountered them and thus not going so slowly, plus the recumbent guy was wobbling a fair bit in the middle of the road, as they do. I passed them at top speed, sprinting while holding my breath so my head felt like it’d explode.

As I reached the twisty, steep part of Wildcat, I caught up to a guy who was clearly somewhat new to the sport. Not only was his speed pretty low, but he didn’t know to put his inside pedal up through the curves. In a perfect world he’d have perhaps sensed me behind him and pulled off to the side as a courtesy, but he didn’t. No worries … I patiently rode about 20 feet behind him, taking the descent at the most leisurely pace of my life. One reasonable argument against cycling right now is that it carries the perennial risk of injury, and it’d be a shame for a fallen cyclist to tax a hospital’s resources when they’re already so slammed.

Things got a lot better on this little road, a favorite of mine because I’ve encountered exactly zero other cyclists on it, ever (and it’s closed to cars). I won’t disclose its location unless you ask, so I can vet you for gnostical turpitude (e.g., a willingness to lead a group ride over this road in the near future).


I did encounter, to the side of this road, a gathering of some sort of worshipers in a clearing. They were in a big circle doing some kind of séance, or prayer, or sun salutation. They were the regulation six feet apart, but no more. For their sake, and in case I encounter one of them at the grocery store later, I hope the virus sticks to the letter of the law as assiduously as they do.

A brief survey of veteran cyclists

I saw a ton of cyclists on that ride, but mostly casual enthusiast types and only four riders whom I recognized, which seems like not many given how long I’ve been in the Berkeley area club racing community. Again, this makes me wonder if veteran cyclists’ assessments of this activity differ significantly from mine. So when I got home, I created a survey and sent it to my road team, a UCSB cycling alumni group, and a few other cycling friends. I sought to learn the following: 
  • Were they still riding outdoors, and if so how much;
  • Were they influenced by the Medium article and/or did they agree on its conclusion as a matter of common sense;
  • Are they riding more indoors, and if so are they doing virtual group rides via the Internet (e.g., on Zwift)
The second and third questions were out of curiosity and also to test a hypothesis: could I be seeing more cycling enthusiasts, vs. racer types, simply because the those in the former group simply don’t own stationary trainers, much less the expensive kind that interface with the Internet?

A total of 26 riders responded to the survey. Here’s what it turned up.

Outdoor riding:

Still riding outdoors at all?
23 out of 26 (88%)
Riding outdoors the same amount as usual?
10
Riding outdoors but less often?
12
Riding indoors more often
8
Not riding at all
2
Indoor only
1

I had an “other” category, with plenty of space for comments, and though many did add color, nobody indicated they were still riding in a small group and/or drafting.

Medium article:

Article made me reconsider riding outdoors
0 out of 26
Article influenced how I ride outdoors
10
Article had no influence
5
Haven’t read the article but probably will
4
Haven’t read the article and probably won’t
6

Of those who read it, 10 of 16 modified their behavior somewhat but didn’t stop riding, and  5 weren’t influenced. My general impression is that the article wasn’t a game-changer. My pals either dismissed it, or felt it simply corroborated common sense.

Virtual group rides:

Don’t ride indoors at all
10 out of 26
Participate in virtual group rides frequently
2
Participate in virtual group rides occasionally
2
Ride indoors and are considering trying out virtual group rides
3
Ride indoors but are not considering virtual group rides
8

Some highlights from the survey response comments:
  • No more mountain biking :-(
  • I’ve always ridden outdoors alone – I hate riding with people because they’re slower than me ;-)
  • If you can smell them you can get corona
  • “Software modeling” – you sound like an art major
  • I think it’s a bunch of charlatans who want to publish papers
  • The roads are emptier now than any time in the past 30 years. Maybe you can ride indoors “with” Peter Sagan, or your friends from around the globe, but you don't get to lean a bike over in corners, feel the exhilaration of descending, get fresh air, see new & interesting sights, etc.
Conclusion

As with so many matters of personal safety, I don’t see any simple answers or magical truths. Given how infrequently, hastily, and ineffectively my children wash their hands, I don’t kid myself that my risk of COVID-19 is totally up to me. As with life, I have to manage my risk as best I can, making compromises where necessary to keep myself sane. 

On the balance, I’ve decided that includes leaning my bike over in corners, feeling the exhilaration of descending, getting fresh air, and seeing new and interesting sights. I’m resting a lot easier about riding outdoors now, having some assurance from my fellow cycling veterans that I’m not crazy. (Or at least no crazier than all the people hoarding toilet paper.)

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