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 by: Bill Oetinger  1/1/2021

A Happier New Year

Happy New Year…? Is that really the right salutation this time around? If you’re reading this anytime close to its publication date of January 1, 2021, it will be the obvious and obligatory greeting. Taking it at face value, we can at least hope that 2021 will be a happier year than 2020. Which isn’t asking for much, 2020 having been about as dismal as a year could be.

This is ostensibly a column about cycling and I will work cycling into the conversation eventually. But everything that happened this past year, including our bike lives, has to be filtered through the lens of current events. It is not the remit of this column to descend into partisan political rants or even the general news of the day. I get that. I appreciate that cycling is supposed to be non-partisan. I have made that point in other forums, including my club’s chat list, whenever someone starts venting about this or that political hot button. In theory at least, being out on the bike, rolling through this wonderful world of wonders, with the oxygen and blood and prana coursing through our bodies, all of that stress about the latest news and stews…that’s all supposed to be rinsed right out of our systems. And yet…

And yet, it’s difficult to take our biking out of the context of what has been the overarching reality of this past year: the plague that has beset us, far and wide. (The pandemic itself is not political. The virus doesn’t choose sides. But how the virus is being dealt with has political import. More about that later.) Things are not normal. We’ve had to cancel all our pay-to-ride events—our crits and centuries, doubles and brevets. We’ve had to postpone—for at least a year—any plans we had for touring in far off, exotic places. Most of us, if we have half a lick of sense and pay attention to the doctors and scientists, have pretty well given up group rides of any sort. Weekend club rides are a distant memory. After-ride burritos and beers are ancient history. The whole social component of our rides is on hold for the duration.

We are all buoyed up at present by the roll-out of two vaccines, with two more a month or so away. The timeline for getting these vaccines up to speed has really been amazing—call it a Christmas miracle if you want. It has given us all a huge psychological boost, to think that the end may be in sight. But as others have reminded us, while we may now be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we are still in the tunnel and will be for at least a few more months. That tired old bromide about it always being darkest just before the dawn really rings true right now. Even as we’re seeing endless news loops of needles spiking into shoulders, the numbers of infected and hospitalized and dying just keep on keeping on. The experts predicted a dark winter and we are in it, right up to our facemasks.

So while we may be able to see a day in the not-too-distant future when we’re past this and life is back to something approximating normal, we are not there yet. It’s going to take patience and perseverance and strength of character to ride this out for the next few months. Instant gratification isn’t on the menu. Tough it out…settle in for a long slog. I was part of the lead team in organizing two week-long tours in 2020, one in May and one in August. Both were of course called off. At this point, I am tentatively, cautiously, beginning to make reservations for the tour in August…to reboot it around those same dates. But the tour slated for last May is being moved to September because we don’t think we’ll be out of the woods by May. For the larger world of recreational cycling, I doubt we will see too many events back on the calendar before mid-summer. The whole spring schedule, perhaps the most fertile and festive time of the year for weekend warriors, will still be null and void. What the pro racing scene looks like this year remains to be seen. I’m glad I’m not one of the people tasked with figuring that out. Just rescheduling two group tours is headache enough for me.

Meanwhile we carry on, hoping for brighter days ahead but weathering the unfolding catastrophe day by day, week by week. I’ve used this space in recent months to discuss various ways we can tilt the odds slightly in our favor in the battle with the wily virus. Social distancing…that is, no group rides with those outside our households. Giving other riders and pedestrians a wide berth when we meet up out on the roads and trails. Thinking twice about refilling water bottles at public restrooms or fountains (in other words, sticking to shorter rides that can be done on two bottles). And above all, wearing masks. My observations still reckon mask compliance among cyclists as pretty poor. No better than 50%. That still drives me a little batty. I don’t understand it. I doubt it’s political posturing for most of the riders I see; some hare-brained notion that the virus is a hoax or that a mask is an infringement of our liberty, etc. I am more inclined to think most non-users simply find masks inconvenient or uncomfortable or perhaps even a violation of some style aesthetic. I don’t know, really. It’s a puzzle. But I want to add just one more thought on that topic…

During this year’s Tour de France, the crowds along the roads were not what they normally are. Organizers imposed restrictions on how people could access the routes. So no, not the crazy mob scenes we are used to. But still fairly large crowds. On all the most important mountain finishes, the most decisive sections of road were packed solid with spectators. I watched all those stages first thing in the morning in real time, then, in a few cases, again in replay in the evening. The second time around, knowing what had happened already, I allowed my attention to stray away from the racers and take in other details. And one thing that struck me was that mask compliance among the spectators was virtually 100%. I really started watching the crowds. There might have been one person without a mask for every thousand fans. Presumably, with all the travel restrictions in place, most of the fans out there were French. The French are fiercely protective of their liberty. After all, Liberté is part of their national motto. And yet these staunchly libertarian citizens had no problem donning their masks when in a crowd. So why is it that so many Americans still see masks as a problem rather than a solution? If the French can manage it, why can’t we? As I say, I don’t get it.

Finally, back to the matter of politics. I am going to adhere, as best I can, to the stricture of not turning this into a political rant. But to ignore the topic entirely would be to ignore the elephant in the room. All I will say is this: what a thoroughly nutty fruitcake this year has offered up with respect to politics…to the wildly divergent points of view that divide us. I have my own theories about how we got to this polarized place but am less certain how we can get back from this hot mess to anything like comity or civility or common ground. Anyway…the only reason that politics earns any ink in this column is this: just as we are still in the midst of this dark winter with respect to the pandemic, so too are we still deep in the mire of political wrangling and probably will be for at least the next month. It’s hard to predict how it will play out. Perhaps it will all fizzle out into a few whimpers and feeble squabbles. Then again, it may blow up into something so cataclysmic our lives will never be the same again. As of January 1, I have no idea how it will unfold. As is the case with the pandemic, it feels like we’re heading in the right direction but it’s going to take some patience and pluck to chug on through to that better place.

So keep your head down and keep your chain lubed. Put on your winter kit and get out there on the back roads, rolling out the miles and cooking the worries out of your troubled soul. Let the spinning cranks and wheels be your therapy—your yoga—for getting past this craziest and cruelest season. Hang in there…happier days are just around the bend.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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