Social and Solitary

If you look at most cycling blogs today, the discourse tends to stress the social aspects of riding a bicycle. Cycling is presented as an activity that fosters a sense of community- with an emphasis on interaction with other cyclists, neighborhood initiatives, various workshops and co-ops, group rides, community action programmes, and city or state-wide coalitions.

I find this interesting to observe, because to me the bicycle has always been a symbol of solitude - something that brings complete independence and freedom. When I think of "riding a bicycle," I imagine cycling for miles and miles through changing landscapes, alone with my thoughts and at peace with the world; a meditation of sorts. But I can certainly understand that others imagine group rides, bike workshops, and other social activities - they see the bicycle as a shared interest that makes it easy to connect to others.

Often I am asked why I do not participate in group rides, and the reason is simply that for me socialising and cycling are two distinct activities that are best enjoyed separately. It makes me nervous to chat while trying to navigate traffic, so I fully enjoy neither the discussion nor the ride. I also feel that group rides - even slow ones - are more hazardous than cycling alone, because you have to watch out not only for traffic, but for the wheels of other cyclists; I know probably a half dozen people whose only cycling accidents happened during group rides. I can cycle pretty happily with one person at a time (though it depends on their style), but beyond that it starts to get stressful.

This is not to say that I am "against" the socially-oriented portrayal of cycling. I just don't think that the bicycle = community association is universally applicable. And after all, it is rather fascinating that the bicycle can be a symbol of two diametrically opposite things: the social and the solitary.


  1. Group rides are a bit like book clubs: both are efforts to share the experience of an object that is really only designed to be used by one person at a time. Just as you can like a book but be repelled by the idea of discussing it in a book club, you can love your bicycle but have no interest in taking it on a group ride; disliking one doesn't invalidate your feelings for the other. And in the same way that, say, Oprah's book club is at least in part about marketing a certain book to a large segment of the population, group rides are at least in part about generating excitement for and awareness of cycling. I think because of the fact that cyclists are a rare breed in the US right now, it makes sense that much of the online discussion tends to focus on the social aspect.

    But don't worry, Velouria. I think you come across as quite a lovable misanthrope!

  2. Very true. I was amazed at the number of injured cyclists and crashes I saw at last year's Hotter 'n Hell 100. I do few large rides partly for that reason, but there is always a bond when I pull up next to someone on a bike at a stoplight.

  3. Lovable misanthrope! I'll take that as a compliment : )

    Steve - In Boston I find that any feelings of a bond are often dispelled when that person attempts to pass me on the right because I am cycling away from the door zone or nearly crashes into me at an intersection because they ran a red light...

  4. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
    I'm with you though. I do prefer to cycle alone. I definitely see it as a meditative experience.

  5. Great post today.

    I have joined my local bicycle club for the last few years. However, I find that I only join the group for one or two rides a year. When I ride with the group, I find that I get frustrated by many things: I get angry at riders who failed to follow the rules of the road, I get frustrated because I feel that I end up riding faster or slower than I really want to ride, and I feel compelled to make small talk with my fellow riders simply because I am riding next to them on the road.

    I love having discussions about bicycling with other people. However, I have come to see my time on the bike as my time to get away from everything -- to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet and escape the pressures of daily life!

  6. I would point out another aspect of how cycling (and walking) fosters community - it gets you out of a car, which is like a little bubble of protection, and straight onto the street where you interact with your environment. This decreases fear of "otherness" that you come in contact with, and also increases your appreciation, or at least awareness, of the community as a whole. It's not just about other cyclists or individual encounters, it's the whole package of life in your area that gets a boost!
    That's the most important overarching impact of cycling as a lifestyle in my opinion. Getting people just to be in the same space together rather than divided by walls all the time will decrease fear and hate, improve the built environment, and in the end increase wellbeing from a community at large perspective.
    Ok idealisic rant over!

  7. hmm... i can see both sides to this coin. for me, i practically lived on my bicycle, mostly riding with my best friend. literally, we probably clocked thousands of miles together during grade school, and even did a 128k tour together on my 13th birthday, just the two of us (we even planned the route ourselves). so, i think my association of the bicycle with those memories is an extremely very positive one, and to this day i enjoy rides together with another person as much as i enjoy riding alone. as for "groups", i actually prefer two or three people riding together as opposed to a larger group (the word "group" to me suggests more than a handful). however, i also don't mind group rides as long as they are kept to a reasonable number-- small enough that you can get to know everyone's name. i don't prefer large organized groups of hundreds of riders; that to me is just too chaotic. i've never enjoyed large groups of people... in ANY type of event.

    margonaute-- i would disagree with your comparison of group rides with book clubs. at the very least, i think it depends on the type of group. i know people who comprise an ad-hoc cycling group and they get together monthly for group rides. they've been doing it for years, and it ranges from two people to about 10 each ride. however, i wouldn't say these people do it to help foster a sense of awareness and/or excitement for cycling. for these people, it's more of a tight-knit group of friends, and those two aspects of cycling are already deeply instilled in their psyches. they do it simply because they love the feeling of riding together, of exploration, and of camaraderie. it's social, it's healthy, and the scenery is great. i don't see any problem with those components!

    yet, i can also see velouria's point about being distracted when cycling in groups, and also wanting to be in one's own private world. i think it really depends on the person as well as the group. however, i'd be careful speculating on differences in safety re: cycling alone and in a group. i think each has its own inherent set of benefits and disadvantages.

  8. Well, I'm kind of a loner to start with... I also can't shake the feeling (I'm sure it's not actually true) that group rides attract people who need validation for their lifestyle choice and are compensating for the fact that cyclists are still treated like second class citizens.

    I (pretend to) treat my bike like a vacuum cleaner and (IRL) don't admit to spending hours obsessing over it and other cycling related issues.

    I believe putting a lot of time and effort into bicycles and cycling takes away from the charm of their simplicity and utility. So I pretend not to. :)

  9. +1, I'm not a group-ride person (in any of its meanings) :-D

    Critical mass has become a rather dangerous event here in Madrid due to overcrowding.

  10. I, too, like the solitary rides: In fact, all except one of my multiday tours were done solo. Sometimes I would meet someone en route and we'd cycle together for a morning, afternoon or day. Then he or she would return to the rest of his or her life, and I would continue my tour.

    Back when I first started cycling seriously, it was all but necessary to belong to a club in order to learn about it. There were far fewer cyclists, at least in the US; there were fewer books and other resources, and there was no Internet. Steve A, who's been cycling even longer than I've been, probably recalls something like what I've described.

    I still belong to a club but, to tell you the truth, I can't remember the last time I rode with them. Really, the main benefit I get from them now is discounts from local bike shops.

  11. I'm glad someone else feels this way! Various acquaintances are constantly hassling me to go on some "ride" with them. I hate it. Just because someone else rides a bike doesn't mean that I will have anything in common with them. In fact, many other cyclists irritate me with their bad habits. Riding with a group is just extra traffic and forced socialization. On the other hand, I do enjoy it when a couple of friends and I go out to dinner or drinks via bicycle. That feels very different.

  12. I'm kind of in-between somewhere. I do like going places with people on bikes, but I'm really not that excited about using a bike for non-practical purposes. If I'm going to meander, I'd almost rather just walk, and I'm not really excited by the prospect of touring or any kind of really long-distance stuff.

    I generally don't really like group rides (or any kind of large groups, for that matter), and would much rather be with 5 or less people at a time.

    I do appreciate the community aspects of cycling, but not so much in the sense of getting together a bunch of people who ride bikes and saying "look, we ride bikes, let's band together!" More in the sense of how having a lot of people on bikes calms traffic, encourages neighborhood development and just makes the city more enjoyable than if those people were all in cars.

    I do agree with you that the bicycle can be an empowering tool both for social gathering and for escaping from society, and that's one of the great things about the bicycle, it's a flexible tool.

  13. somervillain: I think some book clubs can be like that too! Does "book club" automatically sound like a bad thing? I didn't mean to imply that in my comparison. My only real group (i.e., more than two people) ride so far has been the Tweed Ride, and I thought that was lots of fun.

  14. What a lovely post!
    I would say I personally fit somewhere in the middle as does; long rides off to new places either in the morning or right after work are best done alone, but I also do a weekly Trail Watch safety patrol ride that is anywhere from three to ten individuals riding on two urban trails in Minneapolis to keep them safer. The community building component of the latter ride is great, because comprehensive safety is only possible in an aware, cooperative community, while the peace and reflection time of the former is necessary for re-centering myself.
    Thanks for drawing attention to an oft neglected side of present day cycling!

  15. I prefer to ride alone, too. Bikes are a great way to get away from it all.

    Having said that, do you see any irony, or outright hypocrisy, in your post? As a person who chooses to blog almost daily about your own cycling-related minutiae, it seems strange to have reservations about the social potential for cycling. I'd wager that you spend more time documenting your rides both in prose and photographs, posting them to this blog, and reading other cycling blogs, than you do actually riding. In other words, you're getting a major social component (ie: internet attention) out of your cycling activities, and it ultimately doesn't matter if that's happening during a ride or as a series of related activities, yes? If you were truly interested in biking for it's own sake as an individual activity, I find it hard to believe you'd even be motivated to maintain this blog--if you just had questions about bikes, you'd ask people you know in person, or check out places like BikeForums. Public blogs, on the other hand, are mechanisms intended for receiving attention.

    I don't think biking alone is "an oft neglected side of present day cycling." It may not be frequently documented in trendy cycling blogs, but that's precisely one of its advantages: it doesn't require the e-support of others to sustain itself. It has existed, and will continue to exist, without the need for the support and approval of anyone who isn't already doing it.

  16. Fluxus,

    I wouldn't say there's hypocrisy in the post. Perhaps her impulses are enigmatic, and her position is an irony, however unintentional.

    Some writers are the most solitary people imaginable. Yet nothing is more public than their work--at least, when they're published and read. Also, I've known performers who were very shy and introverted people.

    Remember that human beings--at least, any you'd want to talk to or whose writing you'd want to read--are complex. Enjoy it! I think now of what Walt Whitman wrote in "Leaves of Grass": "I embrace my contradictions."

  17. I am surprised to read that so many others enjoy cycling alone; nice to know.

    The Book Club comparison is funny. I would also compare it to walking or hiking. I like to walk, but it would not occur to me to go on a group walk with strangers just because they also like walking. To others it might. It's all good really.

    Fluxus - Thank you for your profound commentary : )

    Justine - I am aware of the irony of my position and I assumed (perhaps wrongly!) that there was an obvious tongue in cheek element to all this! But regardless, I think it is a mistake to equate an "internet presence" with actual socialising.

  18. Justine: indeed-- we contain multitudes! :-)

  19. Justine: I agree that hypocrisy may be too strong a word. And I'm certainly guilty of the same ironies and contradictions: I'm reading the blog, after all. As an artist myself, I'm certainly aware of the potential for contradictory behavior. I write songs critical of consumer culture and endeavor to sell CDs and shirts related to them, for example.

    But I do question if the tone comes across the way you intend, Velouria. The "obvious tongue in cheek" vibe sometimes comes across as simply naive. This post, for example, and several of the posts related to drop bars. As a contrasting example, my wife can't use drops, either, because of an adolescent injury that broke both of her wrists--she simply can't put much weight on 'em. So we did a little research, realized that lower-end 80s road models usually have relatively slack geometry aimed at the occasional cycling audience, found representative lower-end mixte, (ten bucks at a garage sale!), slapped a sprung Brooks and riser bars on it...problem solved. Perhaps my own experience with the topic made posts about that topic seem naive and overly obvious to me, but that's how they felt.

    Ergon mountain bike grips, by the way, are awesome. They're aimed at the mb racing crowd, but they do wonders for folks with wrist/arm issues.

    Anyway, I don't mean this as an attack or whatever--just for information's sake. And I agree that it's a huge mistake to equate "internet presence with" real-life connections, but it's become a particular concern of mine in recent months. Lately, friends and acquaintances of mine quite literally have more fun taking photos of each other and commenting on them on Facebook and blogs than they do actually interacting at social gatherings, and it's making me possibly hypersensitive to the issue. They seem to be drifting toward lives lived through their own documentation rather than the primary experience they're ostensibly documenting.

    Maybe I just need new friends--or at least a nice long solo ride to clear my mind! Please do carry on, and pardon my digressions.

  20. Fluxus - Thanks for your follow-up, that was nice of you. I do understand your point. Of course I am naive about stuff I have never done / components I have never used before. Naive and earnestly excited - a combination that invites mockery, I know. And I think that's the point - I am learning. Sometimes I read a post from a few months back and think "God, this is so stupid. Should I delete this?" But decide to keep it as "evidence" of my development, and so others don't feel so bad when they are learning and making silly mistakes. I realise that this exposes me to ridicule, but so what.

    As for attention, self-documentation, etc.: People make websites and keep blogs for different reasons; you just never know. The things I document here are not my private experiences, and in a sense that is why I feel comfortable posting them. You do not see descriptions of my artwork here, or of my dayjob, or pictures of my non-cycling friends, or details about my married life other than the rides we take together. Neither do I post any of those things on facebook or any other social networking sites. And I cycle an average of 20 miles a day in the spring-fall, most of which I do not document : )

    In any case: I sometimes get annoyed by things I read/see on other blogs, so it is only fair to accept someone having that reaction to me. It's good to know what people think. We are all different.

  21. Last week-end I did a group ride, actually a charity ride called Ride Yellow to raise money for cancer research. Several hundred riders participated. I rode with a group of eight who tried to stay together most of the ride which was 62 miles. It was quite enjoyable.

    More than half of my riding is solo. I have solved a lot of problems riding solo over the years. The rest has been group rides. Years ago I use to go for long solo rides in the country, but a few confrontations with people driving cars pretty much put an end to that. It made me aware that in the middle of nowhere these crazy people could cause me harm and no one would ever know of my where a bouts. So now my solo rides are closer to home.

    I come from more of a racer background where learning to ride in a group is essential. Most of my riding is for exercise and I am currently trying to get back into racing shape. So I ride with a group a few times a week to keep my pack skills in tact. Sure, I get quite frustrated at some of the other riders in the group and sometimes even get angry when they do stupid stuff to almost make me crash. But, the same things happen in a race. I really enjoy riding in the pack for the most part and enjoy the rush of racing.

    I have been reading this blog for many months now and it is my favorite blog. Velouria has opened my eyes to a different type of riding, one which I hope to participate in as well. In fact, I have been made aware of all sorts of bicycles and riding. The central theme being that we all love our bicycles and the freedom that they give us.

    One point that I would like to make about group riding is that I have found it to be safer. I believe that there is safety in numbers. When I ride in a group, cars give us more room that they do when I ride solo. But, I don’t live in a large city as many of you do. My hometown is a small city. So maybe that is also a difference.

    Thanks Velouria for all the posts. It has been exciting watching you grow as a cyclist. And because of your blog I believe that I have also grown as a cyclist leaning to respect all who are on two wheels.

  22. This is a really great and thought provoking post, and I really enjoyed reading it as well as the comments. I'm surprised that more people didn't stand up for the social aspect of riding. I guess I've never thought the binary of social and solitary to have to be mutually exclusive. I am also a runner and I run races on a regular basis. I race for a multitude of reasons - and benefits (as I see it) - and I often relish both the company and satisfaction of running alongside so many other people who share my excitement for a given activity while still being mostly in my own mind and with my own thoughts. I think the same can happen in a group ride situation as well.

    I like to run and bike alone and to get lost in my thoughts and I also love joining a pack of runners or cyclists, or my husband or best friend and logging the miles with them. I will argue that cyclists, like so many other things, run on a continuum and don't have to firmly align themselves with one side or the other, right?


  23. Hi Velouria, I'm with you on the cycling alone front. There's something wonderful about just getting out there, maybe with your partner, maybe alone, not worrying about being social but just enjoying the moment of the wind in your face. Being able to stop when you want and look at the scenery. Being at one with your bike. Being at one with your thoughts (and I bet you get some great ideas when you're on your bike). There's a real sense of freedom in cycling alone.

    I've never tried a group ride for several reasons: firstly I'm not fit enough. Cycling clubs here suggest you have to be able to keep up an average of 30km/h on their rides. Um, no. I don't want that kind of pressure. Secondly, it's nerve racking enough cycling with my husband, who wobbles about when he's riding next to me. I couldn't handle a group of people cycling around me, wobbling or not. I do presume that bike club riders don't waver about on their drop bar road bikes like my husband! :-)

  24. Love this post!

    The cycling bug bit me last year, so I've been trying all types of biking to see what's a good fit for me. I've been to several group rides, thinking that it would be amazing to hang out with other bike geeks. I've met some fantastic people, but I could not figure out why I always pedaled away feeling a little disappointed.

    Thanks for being so articulate about this issue and having the insight to share it with others.

  25. Interesting to hear about your point of view on solitary versus social cycling. Makes sense to me!

    Since most of the comment discussion is about solitary riding, I'll contribute what I enjoy about the social side of bike riding. Most of my riding is solitary by necessity (my commute), but I love riding with friends. (I also prefer any type of travel - planes, trains, automobiles - to be with friends.) Any time I can meet up with my husband or my friend for the commute home, I enjoy myself 10x more. Part of the enjoyment is slowing down and relaxing instead of constantly stressing about the traffic situation. We laugh and talk and catch up on each other's busy lives. We are also safer due to the greater visibility of two bikes over one. Outside of commuting I also like to take leisurely weekend rides with friends to destinations like brunch or the farmer's market (as opposed to riding for the sake of riding).

    Group rides are very different than cycling with a few friends. I don't participate in many. I pick and choose (or organize) ones that are up my alley - tweed rides and cocktail party rides - and always have fun. And seeing lots of bikes in one place makes me giddy, though I certainly agree with Bike Snob about the silliness of so many group rides.

    Apart from the fun, I'm passionate about bike advocacy and need to connect with others who are working to improve my city.

    Finally, so many of my activities - reading, writing, photographing, wandering around - are solitary, if I did not combine socializing with cycling, I'd never see anyone. :)

  26. Prentiss wrote: "I come from more of a racer background where learning to ride in a group is essential."

    That is basically the one element that makes me doubtful I could ride on the velodrome even if I do get pretty good at riding a trackbike. I have terrible coordination and I panic when other people cut into my space. On the roads I can just stop when that happens. But on the velodrome that won't be an option. I would like to train in team-cycling skills, but I have a feeling it won't come natural to me!

  27. I guess I hit about up the middle...when I first started riding many decades ago it was solitary and a means of escape, then we moved into the city and I discovered friends to ride with, still did solitary rides, but also rode all over creation with my junior high school buddies. Moved along into racing, some of that was in groups other times it was solitary against the clock.

    Today I still do both, but I much prefer small social group rides over larger group rides.

    I think there is room for both, different strokes for different folks.

    Some people might never ride a bike any distance if not for the group rides.


  28. Velouria...Is your panic response something you can work on? I mean will you always be 'skittish' on a bicycle when your sense of space feels threatened? Just wondering how this will impact the rest of your personal evolution as a cyclist.

  29. Now that you mention it, I think I prefer to ride alone, too. I want to decide myself where and how I ride and if I follow the traffic rules. And I want to see and hear my surroundings instead of concentrating on chatting with another rider. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy a little group ride from time to time - unfortunately there aren’t any in my town.
    But I like it when group rides happen accidentally in traffic, i.e. when you catch up on slower riders and ride with them in single file. In my opinion you get taken more seriously by car drivers then because you’re not the only rider around.


  30. RidingPretty - Yes, when it comes to people - because their movements are unpredictable. I generally have terrible coordination in most activities involving having to react to the movements of other people. Oddly, things like dancing and modeling are an exception. But any kind of team sports? - forget it!

  31. Too many people want everything to be political.

    Thus, riding a bicycle is, for them, a symbol of their Current Political Obsession, which is Making Everything Be About Bicycles.

    Being on two wheels, for them, means you Must Be Part Of The Movement.

    (Socializing is one thing; "initiatives" and "action programs" are another entirely.)


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