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A Work in Progress

This week during the Ride on Chicago we met Richard Fries, a journalist, race announcer, advisor to PeopleForBikes and self-proclaimed cycling evangelist. As we rolled out of Kansas city, MO on Thursday he told stories of commentating with Phil Liggett, taking road bikes off road, and cracked jokes about the previous years adventures as we shaped our own story for the week. One story he told with pride, though, was about a good friend and former intern.

Richard Fries: The intern sat at the desk we provided at our regional cycling magazine for him to work. He lackadaisically flipped through other cycling magazines while chewing on free energy bars and drinking the latest electrolyte mix we were supposed to be reviewing, while massaging his quadricep made sore from Sunday’s race.

Not a whole lot got done.

En route to events with this intern, I would spend hours with him discussing transportation policy, environmental data, public health initiatives, energy studies, and global politics.

He would read Maxim.

To find common ground, we would discuss the sport we both loved: cycling. As a racer, I had to pound out mile after mile to gain any success. For him it came naturally. I helped him get frames, parts, eyewear and clothing to start. And he won races.

Appropriately, we parted professional paths. He chased his cycling dream of racing; I chased my cycling dream of journalism, advocacy, promotions and marketing. We both loved bicycles. We stayed connected around races.

Over time, I cultivated a lot of relationships with the zealots of bicycles being primarily a great means of transit. I love that concept and I love those people. But when I encountered a Canadian journalist who lived in Vancouver recently, I made a suggestion: “You should get to know Ryder Hesjedal. He’s a good guy.”

“Who?” was her reply.

“He won the Giro d’Italia.”

“Oh,” she said, dismissively rolling her eyes. “Some racer dude.”

I realize that not everyone cares about bike racing, it’s only a fraction of the cycling population. And despite Dorothy Rabinowitz’s warning of the “all powerful” bicycle lobby, only 1 percent of trips taken in America are by bike. About half of all the trips taken by bicycle in America are for sport or recreation.

Charity riders, who may not care about bike advocacy, today generate one out of six dollars in the U.S. bike business. Scofflaw college kids could care less about bike-ped legislation, but with the number of 18-year-olds with drivers licenses down to just 29 percent, they are ripping around town to classes and jobs. And triathletes have been steadily converting runners and swimmers to cyclists. But all these individuals could think more about the roads they travel on and what it takes to make them safe.

They are out there, on the roads, encountering pedestrians, vehicles, cops, buses, and other cyclists. Some ride better than others. Some are infuriating. Some are hysterical. Too many are angry.

…And all of them are works in progress.

We cannot afford to ostracize any of them. And the successful pro racers, despite what you think of them, have the potential to be tremendously influential in advocacy, at so many levels. Children are inspired by them. Politicians want their pictures with them. Charity riders want to ride with them.

That former intern blossomed into a successful pro, earning spots on such teams as Saturn and UnitedHealthcare. He won several national titles. And on perhaps the most insane lark of my promotional life, I invited him, and a sponsor, to join me at the National Bike Summit.

Having achieved some celebrity status over his 10-plus years in the sport, he arrived expecting to know the audience, at least some of these advocates. Accustomed to being the center of attention, he walked into a room where he knew not a single person. This stunned him. He became drawn to all they had achieved; all they had overcome; all they had dreamed of.

That racer was Tim Johnson.

These days my phone lights up with his name. He wants to meet; wants to talk; wants to connect advocates to his sponsors, his followers, and his fans.

We meet from time to time. He spends hours with me discussing transportation policy, environmental data, public health initiatives, energy studies, and global politics.

He created his Ride on Washington in 2011, raising almost $200,000 for PeopleForBikes over three years. This year he lead the Ride on Chicago with equal ambition. They’ve already raised over $100,000.

This pro rider, who once seemed so unaware or “incorrect” by so many who have strict guidelines on how and why a person should pedal a bicycle, has evolved into a gloriously complete athlete-advocate.

I believe that by simply bicycling, if done enough, countless self-evident truths are revealed.

We simply need to exercise patience while those truths emerge and recognize that, regardless of what drives one to ride, we are all cyclists.

What would it take for you to ride?

A question that’s not a question for us, but we have to understand the challenges and motivations of others who may want to use the bicycle – and the barriers they face. Safety, convenience, technical barriers, peer pressure, access, financial (not all bikes are expensive, not all are toys for kids). - Tim Johnson

Tim has found that for some, it’s as simple as “if I had someone to ride with”. More often, it’s “if I felt safer”. With a response like that, he says “a clearer picture develops and it is something that I want to help change. Next time you go for a ride, I ask you to think about your friends that don’t and try to understand why.”

Add your response or perspective in the comments below.

  • MLinde

    It’s not about what it takes for me to ride, as much as it is getting there. I look at my town (which somehow was/is a Bronze city in 2013), and then I look at getting anywhere on a bike from and around town, and I see roads without shoulders – even new ones, and when I ask I’m told that “the plan has been in place for years” – and I don’t know how to help people see that they can change plans. I want my kids to safely ride to school, but they’d better not want to do anything else since getting out of our subdivision/neighborhood involves a 45 mph 4-lane road with no shoulders.

  • VeloCityGirl

    There are lots of perspectives on bike advocacy, and I — a non-bike-race-fan transportation advocate and for-fun-tandem-stoker — welcome Tim Johnson with open arms. One concern I have (not demonstrated here by Tim) is that there are *factions* among advocacy! And each think they are right and others wrong. Separated facilities, bike lanes, ride-in-the-full-travel lane, ride on the sidewalk — it frustrates me no end when discussions of pros and cons turns to “you’re wrong, so you don’t belong in the discussion.” Thank you for making this new connection for me — racers can be advocates, and here is an example. We need more working together.