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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  7/1/2020

Just Do It!

With a nod to Bo Jackson—“Now, where is that Tour dee France?”—I am borrowing his signature line for the header on this column. What is it that I am urging you to just do? Please, just wear a mask.

I’m not the first to use the Nike-ad line in promoting mask use. A bipartisan group of California governors—Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown, Gray Davis, Pete Wilson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger—invoked it in a public service message. Their appeal was to the general population. Mine will have a little bike spin.

I had not thought to write a column about masks or even about the pandemic this month. But a ride I did a few days ago got me thinking about masks and how we are adapting to them…or not. My ride happened to include quite a few miles of our local bike paths as well as some pleasant, bike-friendly back roads. Over the course of the ride I probably had close encounters with over 100 people, split fairly evenly between walkers and cyclists, with a few runners thrown in. By “close” I mean any encounter near our social distancing limits, such as passing on a bike path.

Among those 100-plus people, I counted a total of five masks. Four of them were on cyclists. The only pedestrian I saw with a mask was a guy standing in his own driveway. Perhaps some of the others had masks in their pockets, available for whenever they deemed them appropriate. But if so, a close encounter with me, on my bike, didn’t appear to rise to such a standard.

Since then I’ve been paying attention to mask use in outdoor, public places. On a seven-mile hike on trails above the Sonoma Coast beaches, mask compliance was better than 50% but still a long way from universal. On a more recent ride with many bike path miles, I watched the cyclists and I would estimate mask use was in the 40% range…somewhat less than half. Better than the five masks on that previous ride but still woefully low. So what’s going on?

Ignorance is no excuse. You cannot be awake and aware in the current world without knowing that mask use in outdoor, public spaces is mandated by Sonoma County ordinance and has been for months. Now it has become a state-wide ordinance as well, with plenty of publicity (cue the five governors). This does not mean you have to wear a mask every minute you’re out of your house. You need to have a mask with you and use it whenever you’re close enough to other people that the social-distancing limits are compromised. 

Also, let me reiterate that I am only talking about wearing masks in this column, plus a good-faith effort at following the social-distancing guidelines. The much larger matter of the lockdown of society—the closures of restaurants and sporting events, schools and workplaces—is another matter. But the point here is that while the costs—the pain—of the lockdown can be immense, the cost of wearing a mask is virtually zero.

If you are already using a mask when appropriate and are committed to sticking with it for the duration of this crisis, then you can take this as an affirmation that you’re doing the right thing. Good for you! If, on the other hand, you are adamantly opposed to masks because you think the whole pandemic hoohaw is just some deep state conspiracy—fake news—then I doubt I can change your mind. (Or, as my Irish friend Brenda says: “Bill…you can’t fix stupid!”)

(I don’t want this column to be a political wrangle. Unfortunately, some people, for reasons almost too complex to fathom, have chosen to make the virus a political football and masks are seen by some as a symbol of oppression…whatever. We have to factor that point of view into any discussion of the matter. But for the purposes of this column, I am accepting that the pandemic is a real and present and future danger; that it is going to be a part of our lives until a vaccine is up to scale. If you agree with that premise, then you have to also agree that the virus doesn’t care who you vote for. All it cares about is propagating itself via close contact among its potential hosts…us.)

Between the two poles—already compliant mask users and obstinately obtuse virus-deniers—there is a broad middle ground inhabited by people, including many cyclists, who aren’t wearing masks for many little reasons. It’s the folks in this middle ground I’m really trying to reach.

Political posturing aside, much of the push-back against masks seems to boil down to two things: comfort and convenience. Added onto that are rationalizations about the level of risk. Let’s look at this in the context of cycling. For the run of this pandemic, think of a mask as just another item in your bike kit, along with your gloves and shorts and shoes, your sunglasses and helmet and jersey. Or perhaps an auxiliary item for special conditions, like your winter rain jacket and arm warmers and long-finger gloves. If you’re any kind of regular rider, you are going to look for clothes that are comfortable and work right for the task of moving you on up the road. If you make the mistake of buying a pair of shorts with what turns out to be a funky chamois, you won’t wear them too long before shopping for a better pair. You rear end will file a grievance that will be hard to ignore. Ditto for shoes, for glasses, for gloves.

Now here’s a new item in our kit. It should be judged and used according to the same standards we would apply for any other piece of bike gear: find one that works…that’s comfortable and convenient.

Helmets are the obvious parallel here. If you’ve cycled long enough you can remember when none of us wore helmets. We modeled our kit on that of the pros. We liked the wind in our hair. Helmets were uncomfortable and looked dorky. (Ever own a Bell V1-Pro? ’Nuff said!) But over time the designs of helmets improved and meanwhile, bowing to public pressure and just plain common sense, the UCI was moving toward mandatory helmet use in racing. Fast forward to the present: with all pros using them, almost all amateur and recreational riders use them too. The designs are so good now you hardly know you have one on. Hardly any serious cyclist these days would question the good sense and efficacy of a helmet. Now we’re on a similar learning curve with masks. And while a helmet may cost well over a hundred bucks, a mask costs pennies.

NasksWhen I hear a biking friend say, “I hate those f__king masks!”…I will wager the biggest issue is comfort and that he simply has not yet found a mask that’s comfortable and easy to use. He may have tried one model, hated it and quit trying. I started out with an N-95 mask and couldn’t stand it. I felt as if I were suffocating. Since then I have had the opportunity to sample other models until I found one I can live with. My wife—a skilled hobby-seamstress—has been making them. About 500 so far, which have gone to medical personnel and clerks in stores and so on…and to me. (Her fabric has been donated by a local yard goods store and the semi-elastic ties are strips cut out of surplus Terrible Two t-shirts.)

I favor the standard pleated model with ties that go around my neck—not just looped behind the ears. This allows me to leave the mask hanging around my neck most of the time. When I approach a person, I can quickly pull it up over my nose and mouth. As soon as we’re out of each other’s vapor plumes, I let the mask drop below my chin again. In just three months, the little process of pulling up or dropping the mask has become so second-nature to me that my left hand does it before my brain even tells it to: see the upcoming encounter…the mask is up. Same as shifting or braking: just one of those things we do pretty much without conscious volition. Most of the time, when I’m riding, I’m alone, so my mask is not in use. I would guess on a four-hour ride I might actually have the mask over my face for a total of only about ten minutes…fifteen, max. Not much of a hardship or hassle.

But even for short spells it has to to comfortable and easy or it will remain an aggravating bother. If it is a bother, you won’t want to do it and you will begin to rationalize not doing it with assorted logic-chopping. The most common argument I hear pivots around the relative risk factor: that everything we do in cycling involves some risk and that this is just one more very minor risk, one we are willing to accept and assimilate into our cycling lives. Okay, I get that. I’ve said in this space many a time that the assumption of some risk is understood for any serious cycling. That said, any halfway intelligent and responsible cyclist takes all sorts of steps to minimize those presumptive risks. 

Start with the helmets…almost a given at this point. Then bike care: we keep our bikes in the best shape we can manage, either doing the work ourselves or taking the bikes into the pros in the shops. That’s not just so they’ll run fast and efficiently; it’s also so they won’t fail in some disastrous way while we’re bombing down a mountain road. We wear sunglasses to cut down on glare but also to ward off little flying or bouncing projectiles. We slather on the sunscreen so we don’t end up having chunks carved out of us by the dermatologist. We pop a couple of Advil to get on top of joint pain and inflammation. When we ride we pay attention to hazards and do what we can to avoid them, from potholes to gravel to clueless drivers. And so on. We acknowledge the risks but we do what we can to neutralize them. Why is the risk of inhaling the virus any less compelling than any of the other dangers we work to guard ourselves against? Especially when the mask that wards off the potential risk is so easy to use and so inexpensive.

If your jury is still out on this one, try a few other masks. I don’t like masks any more than you do. In fact, if I had to use a bad mask I’d go flat out bat shit. But I can tell you there are comfortable masks out there…easy to pull up with one hand and comfortable to wear. And if this virus is still with us this coming winter, you might like having your face covered to cut down on the wind chill on a brisk descent.

A quick thought about social distancing. On some of my recent rides I’ve been passed by faster riders. In almost every case, they have not given me a wide berth, even though the quiet country roads leave loads of room for taking a wide line around me…for distancing. They just blow by, a foot off my shoulder, like we’re in a rotating pace line. That’s just rude…thoughtless. It’s disrespectful to me that they think no more of my welfare than to envelope me in their vapor trail. C’mon…

And that brings up riding in groups. I see it all the time. The couples I can understand. We’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they live in the same house and breathe the same air. Fine. But four or six guys cruising together? No masks? How do you figure that makes sense? It’s like having unprotected group sex during the AIDS pandemic. When you inhale the exhaled breath of the guy in front of you, you’re also inhaling the breath of all the other people he’s been close to, etc, etc. And now you’ll take his breath—and whatever is in it—and pass it along to anyone else you come into contact with. We know how the virus spreads. Why are people so carefree, so cavalier, about the potential risk? I’ve always figured cyclists were fairly intelligent people. Now I’m beginning to wonder.

Those are all the functional, practical reasons for wearing a mask (and distancing). There are also the reasons that we might file under the heading of community relations…the greater good for the greater group. There have been a few cranky letters to the Editor in our local paper about those darn cyclists riding without masks. That creates ill will for all cyclists. Bad PR. I submit the walkers and runners are at least as bad as the cyclists. But just because others do it doesn’t make it okay for you to do it. As your mother admonished you: two wrongs don’t make a right and 95 wrongs out of a hundred just adds up to a lot of wrong.

I get seriously pissed off at the twenty-somethings who are thronging the clubs and brew pubs and beaches, elbow to elbow, no masks, no distancing. When asked, they say they’re not worried about getting sick (or dying…they’re immortal, right?). They see the virus as only attacking some vulnerable groups…old people, primarily. Or poor people. The self-absorbed, me-first myopia is staggering. They hang out in a crowd…somewhere in there the virus makes a few jumps to new hosts…next thing you know it’s worked its way from the blithely clueless party-hearties to someone who works in a nursing home…and then 14 grandmas and grandpas in the nursing home get sick and eight of them die….and while they’re dying they infect a doctor and a couple of nurses in ICU. All because some ignorantly arrogant brats were bored with being cooped up and just had to get out and party.

We sometimes refer to our parents or grandparents as “the greatest generation.” They lived through the Depression and then World War II. In this country, for the four years of the war, they endured austerity and rationing of all sorts of vital commodities, from gas to sugar to beef. Cars and home appliances and other essentials wore out and couldn’t be easily replaced. Life was hard. Four years of it, right on the heels of over a dozen years of the Depression. But most folks did what they could to share the load, to help one another get through it. They were fighting another kind of evil virus and they understood it was in everyone’s interest to make the effort…everyone together. Now? After just two or three months of not being able to go to a bar or restaurant or ball game, people are whining and puling about tyranny and their precious, god-given freedom like a bunch of spoiled three year olds. The concept of the greater good for the greater group seems to have gone up in a haze of barbecue smoke.

Forgive me for ranting. I get a little het up about it. Admittedly, those are the extreme cases, what they show us on the evening news. But the same implacable math applies to cyclists not observing the simplest safety constraints because they find them inconvenient…because they’re tired of being sequestered and oppressed and want their world to be normal again. But the world isn’t normal right now and won’t be for a while. Get used to it. 

We can’t do much about the overall lockdown—or the reopenings—except perhaps exercise a little caution regarding when to venture out into a group environment again. But we can do those simple, easy, inexpensive things on our rides that will help: masks and distancing. We can do it because it’s the practical, functional thing to do, to protect you from me and to protect me from you. But we can also do it because it says something important to those who see us with our masks on: that we respect them and don’t want to infect them; that we appreciate the gravity of the current crisis; that we don’t blow it off as some crazy hoax…and that we’re all in this together until we have a cure.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net



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