The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Biking

The New Rules of Fitness

Decades ago, fitness consisted of two workouts: all-out, all the time; and “LSD”—long, slow distance training. Then fitness went high-tech. Personal-metrics devices from companies like Polar, Garmin, Nike, and others became a billion-dollar industry. Nutrition took wild turns, too. Rocky-style raw-egg shakes were replaced by beet juice smoothies as the (legal) performance-enhancing drug of choice. At last, science-based training had replaced superstition.

But along with the research came the meaningless buzzwords, pseudo-science peddlers, and gimmicks (Shake Weight, anyone?). What's more, every age-grouper suddenly seemed to be an expert in exercise physiology. We've been following this stuff for a long time (37 years, to be exact), and we know how challenging it is to ferret out rules that actually work. Here are the 12 you need to know—and apply—starting now. Welcome to the new rules of fitness.

#1: Stop Overdosing on Vitamins and Supplements

The multivitamin industry is widespread and lucrative—but it’s always been difficult to demonstrate that taking supplements offers a real benefit, says Thomas Sherman, an associate professor of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown’s Medical Center. For years, multivitamins were considered a low-level insurance policy and performance upgrade. Pop one if you’re worried you’re not getting the right nutrients, and you’ll be healthier—perhaps even stronger and faster. The problem: “There is a lot of theory, but no real data,” Dr. Sherman says. To make matters worse, a string of recent studies suggests that antioxidants get in the way of training adaptations, making them detrimental to performance.

#2: Go the F*ck to Sleep

Somewhere along the way, Americans, with their Puritan work ethic, decided sleep was a bad thing. But if you're an athlete (or, hell, just a human), you need to take sleeping as seriously as you do training and eating. “In the past, many athletes would continue to train well past their body’s physical ability,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D., author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep. Less sleep theoretically means more time for PRs, but your body doesn’t see it that way. Performance rests on a good night’s sleep, when your body chemistry shifts, and all kinds of beneficial bodily repair gets underway.

Need proof? In a recent study, 11 Stanford varsity basketball players maintained their sleep schedules for 2 to 4 weeks then slept as much as possible at night for 5 to 7 weeks—aiming for about 10 hours. Researchers measured timed sprints, shooting accuracy, and reaction times after every practice, and levels of daytime sleepiness, and mood throughout. The results: Athletes sprinted faster, shot more accurately, and felt better

#3: Get Away from Your Chair

You probably go above and beyond the American Heart Association’s guidelines for 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week, but that may not be enough if you’re planted in a seat all day. That’s according to a new study that found an hour of sedentary behavior increased people’s risk of being unable to perform basic functions—like doing household chores—by 46 percent even if they still met the exercise requirements. “We don’t like to be idle,” says Allen Lim, Ph.D., founder of Skratch Labs.

There are ways to lessen the blow, though—without having to actually train more. Research by James Levine, Ph.D., M.D. of the Mayo Clinic found small movements throughout the day—fidgeting, walks, or getting up to go talk to someone instead of hitting send on an email—can work toward counteracting the effects of sitting.

#4: Train Specific to Your Sport

Ten thousand hours of practice may not make you an expert—if you’re training at the wrong intensity. A recent study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance that studied Olympic medal-winning speed skaters and their fitness regimes reached an interesting conclusion: While performance increased throughout the years, there was no increase in training or skating hours. The shift, instead, was to polarize training—training at a very high intensity in this case.

“It’s important to ask yourself what you’re training for,” says Lim. “Speed skaters do short, high-intensity events, so it makes sense that they train specifically for that,” he adds. But if you’re training for a century—and need the fitness to survive six hours in the saddle—then you need to put in that time. After a disappointing showing at the 2010 Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins revamped his training to meet the exact demands of the 2012 Tour. Forgoing many of the early season races, Wiggins spent time on the island Tenerife, preparing for the races's high-altitude summits. And his approach paid off: In 2012, he became the first British cyclist to win the race.

#5: Quit Flexing in the Mirror

The media has driven home the same message for years: If you look good with your shirt off, you’re healthy. The truth? “You can be protected from disease if you exercise—even if you are over eating and gaining weight. Unfit and skinny may be worse than fit and fat,” says Lim.

The new mantra is simple: “Beat yourself up over whether or not you are getting enough daily physical activity not over how you look,” says Lim. “Thin man syndrome”—or being skinny, but lacking muscle and having a high percentage of body fat—can put you at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, says Stacy Sims, MSc, Ph,D., co-founder of Osmo Nutrition. Carrying a little extra weight—so long as you have the muscle—won’t negatively impact your hormone profile or appetite like being scrawny, she says. Fit versus fat is an ongoing debate—and the jury’s still out on how much fat you can have without being “unhealthy.” The bottom line: Lean muscle is critical for overall health—even if the mirror isn’t reflecting those results yet.

#6: Be a Little Salty 

“Sweat sodium is much more variable than we thought with a stronger genetic link than previously known,” says Lim. What he means: When you sweat and lose salt, there’s huge variability between you and the guy next to you. “Someone can lose 200 milligrams (mg) of sodium per liter of sweat an hour and someone else could lose 2,000 mg per liter of sweat per hour,” he says. That’s like having a shoe store and needing to stock size 2 to 200 to accommodate everyone.

The practical application of this is listening to your body—and not assuming that salt is always so bad for you. “Our own mechanism for taste can be affected by how much you salt you lose,” he says. So if you’re athletic, you sweat, and you crave salt, eat salt,” Lim says. The "salt is unhealthy" mantra probably doesn’t apply if you workout frequently.

#7: Stop Playing the Age Card

There’s a common misconception about aging that needs to be laid to rest—and it’s that you get old, and you lose your ability to move. Some research suggests that you lose 8 percent of your muscle mass each decade after age 40 and muscle loss increases significantly after age 75. But in a recent University of Pittsburgh study of 40 competitive athletes ages 40 to 81 who worked out four to five days a week, researchers found that athletes in their 70s and 80s had similar thigh muscle mass as those in their 40s. The 40-somethings were also just about as strong as the athletes in their 60s.

Those results make sense when you look at people like Kelly Slater—the 42-year-old pro surfer, the oldest to ever win the Surfing World Championship—or American cyclist Chris Horner, who last fall became the oldest champion of one of cycling's three-week grand tours. Though a calendar would tell you their time has passed, a lifestyle of movement has kept them in the game. 

“As you get older, you simply have to take training in a different approach,” says Sims. Plyometric work and pure strength workouts help maintain neuromuscular connections and muscle mass and help generate speed and power.” 

#8: Minimize the Junk Miles

Give those long, slow jogs a break. According to a 2008 study in the American Journal of Physiology, one and a half hours a week of high-intensity intervals will improve arterial structure and function just as much as five hours a week of lower-intensity workouts. Even more: When highly trained recreational cyclists reduced their distance from 200km per week, swapping it with 12 x 30s sprints a few times a week and four minute intervals, their performance improved.

With intensity, your body learns to recognize stress, and overcome it without taking hours out of your day. Being more responsive to immediate stress increases your aerobic capacity, decreases bad cholesterol, works to build lean mass—much more than a long, slow fat-burning workout can offer, says Sims.

#9: Experiment on Yourself

"There’s a tendency to say, 'This is the average result, so this is the result,’” says Lim. But at the end of the day, we are our own experiment, Lim adds. Take research that looks at how different athletes respond to variables like altitude. In a recent Australian study of 16 highly trained runners with maximal aerobic power who simulated “live high, train low," researchers found that there was incredible individual variation in both physiological changes and performance. Some people have no response at all—others have a massive response.

Another noteworthy study that discovered great variability in results was the A to Z study, which tested people on four different kinds of diets. While statistically, all diets yielded similar weight loss after a year, a closer look at the data reveals incredible variation. “People who were outliers in one group did better on a different kind of a diet,” Lim explains. When it comes to diet performance, it’s—again—so particular. What works for you may not work for everyone else—and vice versa. 

#10: Embrace a New Era of Hydration

In 1965, when Gatorade was introduced to the sidelines of a University of Florida football game, a craze was born. “The typical mindset is to replace carbs and electrolytes,” says Sims. “But the bottom line is that anything’s that over a 4 percent carbohydrate solution can dehydrate.” Why? Water goes from a low concentration to a higher concentration, she explains. So drinks that are too sugary can force your body to move water out of your blood and muscles instead of into them, she says.

Hydration should be about just that: Hydration. And as research continues, low-concentration approaches to hydration like Nuun, SOS, and Sims’ own OSMO, have become popular.

#11: Workout Before Breakfast

Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day, but if you’re waking up to a fast sweat, it can wait. In a recent study, two groups performed a high-intensity workout before or after eating the same morning meal. The results? The group that sweat before eating lost more weight, says Lim.

One reason: When you wake up, you have plenty of fuel stored from the night for a short workout—your blood glucose levels are stable and your body is in fasting mode. “Your workout stimulates muscle sensitivity to insulin, so when you eat, most of the food goes back into muscle rather than fat,” Lim says.

#12: Train Your Brain 

Ten years ago, hardly anyone trained their minds like they trained their bodies. Now, just about every serious athlete practices visualization or specific relaxation techniques—arousal control or pre-performance routines. “Everyone on the world class stage is closely linked when it comes to physical capabilities and technical proficiencies,” says Michael Gervais, one of the best sports psychologist’s in the business who coaches the likes of Olympian Kerri Walsh and professional daredevil Felix Baumgartner.

That’s why the U.S. Olympic Committee staffs five full-time sports psychologists: In order to win a gold, you must have a mind-body connection that’s strong enough to stop worrying about the crowd, failure—or arguably worse, brimming success. Take Team USA Swimmer Eric Shanteau: After receiving a cancer diagnosis weeks before the Beijing Olympics, he spent days at a facility near his home undergoing brain training simulations for focus. While Shanteau didn't medal at Beijing, he set a personal best in the 200-meter breaststroke and went on to earn a gold medal four years later at the 2012 London Olympics.

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Shave Your Way to Better Cycling

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Want a longer-term solution? This sport-specific depilatory lotion (think Nair) weakens hair follicles with alkali salts, so they fall out at the root. albabici.com

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Clean up before breaking out the razor with this natural soap. Available in five scents, including eucalyptus and mint. donkeylabel.com

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L.A.'s Marathon Crash Race Hits an Obstacle

Since it first ran in March 2010, Los Angeles’ Wolfpack Hustle Marathon Crash Race has grown into one of the most popular unsanctioned, unpermitted, and uninsured cycling events in the country.

At 4 a.m. on the morning of the L.A. Marathon, thousands of riders hammer along the city's recently-closed streets. Racers from as far away as Japan have ridden the 26 car-free miles along what are usually the most famously gridlocked streets in the world. The event has grown exponentially each year, and in 2013 4,000 cyclists showed up in pursuit of the military-style dog tags awarded to the winners.

But five days before this year’s race, the Bureau of Street Services sent a letter to Don Ward, the head of the Wolfpack Hustle bicycle crew and organizer of the Marathon Crash, warning him that he could face up to a year in jail and potentially tens of thousands of dollars in fines and fees if he didn’t secure the proper permits, the costs of which can run into the six figures.

Ward told city officials that even if the race were officially canceled, people would still show up “and race like they did before we brought organization and police cooperation to it.” Nevertheless, by nightfall Ward blasted out cancellation notices on social media. Outrage quickly took hold within the cycling community; some participants had traveled from out of state for the event, others trained for a year with the dog tags in mind (they lend serious street cred and even more tangible benefits like sponsorship deals for the unknowns who have won in the past). Bike activists in Washington, D.C. even started a #SaveMarathonCrash photo campaign on social media.

“Everyone has known for months that the race was coming up,” The Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote, chastising the city. “And no doubt an arrangement could have been reached that would have allowed it to go forward.”

Of course, with unsanctioned races on the rise, cities (and event organizers) face real logistical and liability issues. Some, such as steep insurance bills and overtime costs for municipal employees who police and maintain public spaces, are obvious. Others aren’t: before it’s cancellation the Marathon Crash race had to move it’s finish line three blocks over—it typically ended on the same ocean-front intersection as the foot race—so that Homeland Security, prompted by the Boston Marathon bombing, wouldn’t have to perform sweeps of the area twice.

At the last minute the Mayor’s office and the Los Angeles Police Department brokered a compromise between Ward, the city’s attorneys, Los Angeles Marathon organizers, the Bureau of Street Services, and Homeland Security, allowing the event to take place as a “fun ride” according to Ward, instead of the usual race. 

“Hopefully the official story is that we are working together,” Ward said. “But I feel like I am being pushed into it,” he told me before the race. At the time, he said he hoped only “ten people will show up,” given the last-minute uncertainty swirling around an already unwieldy carnival. An official in the mayor’s office said that the dispute fell on their lap with little warning, days after the city’s Bureau of Street Services sent the letter to Ward—who had never before been ordered to obtain permits for the event.

Strings came with the compromise though: riders were told not to exceed 15 miles-per-hour (they did), and stay behind a police escort (they didn’t, for long). Riding a tandem with his girlfriend, Ward, in an idle monotone, urged riders passing him and the police escort to slow down. But that appeared to be the only consequence. Some took off on quick drag races along the way, and plenty lost their way as a few participants shifted barricades at key intersections.

After the 2013 event, Velo News wrote that previously small and casual unsanctioned “street races have begun expanding into increasingly competitive and prestigious large cycling events. Lycra has replaced cut-off jeans, corporate sponsors are beginning to take notice, and the races have begun attracting some of the most competitive racers in the world—battling it out in the saddle for sometimes little more than a case of beer.”

Adding to that, every year the Crash Race’s growing numbers of participants from the upper echelons of competitive, sanctioned racing are followed by a ballooning, gonzo horde of thousands more cruising on double-decker and tandem cycles, toting flasks of whiskey or Nalgenes full of Patrón.

Although increased police presence at last week’s event and a turnout of only about 1,000 riders meant fewer crashes, after years of exponential growth, some are wondering whether the event will ever be the same.

The Marathon Crash Race’s growing pains mirror the challenges that cycling communities across the country face. The number of cyclists who want to participate in these types of races is increasing faster than cities can adapt the legal changes necessary to accommodate them. It creates an environment like last Sunday night’s. This time, the bikes won, but the chances of anarchy erupting felt much greater with the safety guidelines up in the air, barricades removed, and animosity between officials and cyclists lingering, during an event that had previously gone forward with at least a controlled, somewhat predictable level of chaos.

“Bikes are becoming more popular in cities, which are full of very creative people with skills outside of biking,” says David Trimble, organizer of the Red Hook Criterium, a closed-entry, fixed-gear race that started out un-sanctioned and un-permitted on a cobble-stoned, desolate Brooklyn waterfront area, and now receives major sponsorship deals and full permitting. Trimble explained that the Red Hook Crit lucked out by attracting major sponsors by its fourth year; they could afford to move to a more formal venue just when the New York City Police Department was getting ready to crack down on an event that started as a 26th birthday celebration (with a milk-crate podium and jar of granola for the winner) and quickly attracted thousands of spectators.

“With these kind of events, we’re not just organizing a sporting event, we're organizing a whole atmosphere around it," he says. "There's a much wider range of creative people involved these days who can help promote it and legitimize it.”

This kind of support proved crucial in the Marathon Crash’s survival this year, and that’s why it’s a good bet the event will be back next year. Ward is optimistic he’ll be able to secure permitting and cooperation between the various jurisdictions and the city agencies with stakes in the matter, and the Mayor’s office and LAPD seem committed to making it happen. But can it stay true to its roots, where at no cost, anyone with two wheels and a strong cup of coffee could join in the 4 a.m. ride of a lifetime? Or will the marathon race be a crash no more?

A friend of Ward’s, Trimble added that, “It’s a miracle that it lasted as long as it did.”

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Guerillas on Two Wheels

Last March, Charles Komanoff, a New York City-based statistical analyst and consultant, rode his bike from his home in Lower Manhattan to the Flatiron District to engage in some light vandalism. Looking fit, rugged, and energetic, Komanoff stopped his bike near the corner of 23rd Street and Madison Avenue to meet some co-conspirators. Everyone was on a bike, though unlike many city cyclists, everyone was wearing a helmet, and had travelled to the site in strict observance of their rights and responsibilities on the road: always riding with traffic, on the right side of the street, and obeying stop signs and traffic lights along the way.

Ten days before, a woman riding her bike east, towards this intersection, had been struck and killed by a private dump truck pulling out into traffic. After seeing video footage from a nearby security camera, Komanoff and others in the bicycle advocacy group Right of Way concluded that the cyclist had had, well, the right of way. Knowing that no arrest had been made or summons served by the police officer investigating the collision, but believing that there should have been, the Right of Way-ers unloaded some pieces of cardboard from a trailer behind Komanoff’s bike, taped them down to the ground, and set about spray-painting a message onto the pavement.

A few members acted as lookouts on either end of the street, while others used their bodies and their bikes to shield the spray-painters from public view. In a similar demonstration near the Barclays Center in Brooklyn a few months before, the group briefly co-opted a pair of traffic cones that happened to be sitting on the street, unused, and narrowly avoided a confrontation with police officers on their way to the Long Island Railroad station nearby. Then, as now, the phrases “NO CRIMINALITY SUSPECTED,” and “WHY RAY WHY?” were neatly painted onto the blacktop when they were finished.

“Ray” was Ray Kelly, then the Commissioner of the NYPD; pointing to the fact that no charge was filed, the other stencilled message referred, ironically, to a phrase frequently used by the police to describe a collision involving a non-motorist, including those in which the motorist was driving recklessly or otherwise breaking the law. Later that day, the group would paint similar memorials around the city for pedestrians who had been killed by drivers who had been speeding, jumped the curb, or run a red light. In each of these cases, no driver had been charged with a crime.

{%{"quote":"“Last summer, a San Francisco a police officer deliberately parked his car in a bike lane during a Safe Streets rally, apparently to make the point that collisions involving cars and non-motorists were ‘the bicyclist's fault.’”"}%}

A running joke among riders in New York is that the best way to kill someone, and get away with it, is to run that person over with your car. Depending on who you ask, the hostility to cyclists is not limited to their hometown. In October, Toronto's mayor Rob Ford allocated $300,000 to remove a bike lane, having declared cyclists “a pain in the ass,” and their deaths “their own fault at the end of the day."

Last summer, a San Francisco a police officer deliberately parked his car in a bike lane during a Safe Streets rally, apparently to make the point that collisions involving cars and non-motorists were "the bicyclist's fault." In Seattle, a lawmaker proposed a carbon tax for cyclists, on the grounds that cyclists, with their higher respiration, expel more CO2 into the atmosphere. And many people saw the colorful reaction of Dorothy Rabinowitz, a conservative columnist at the Wall Street Journal, to New York’s Citibike bicycle sharing system (or its subsequent parody on The Colbert Report).

After watching a RoW intervention in Midtown, one cab driver rolled down his window to solemnly tell the group: “You know what you’re doing is wrong.” There is plenty of of acrimony to go around, so much that it’s probably not stretching things to suggest that we are in the midst of a proxy culture war over the place of bicycles on our roads and in our cities, or that the occasionally illegal guerilla efforts by Komanoff and company is simply stoking the fire; at least after the confrontation with the cab driver, they were undeterred. “We’re doing something for the public good,” Stephan Keegan, Right of Way’s chief organizer, told the NY Times last September, “So I think it’s O.K., even if it’s illegal.”

FRUSTRATED WITH CITY OFFICIALS doing nothing or very little to protect cyclists, a growing number of groups around North America have taken to this kind of DIY activism, much of it unauthorized if not downright illegal—painting bike lanes, putting up speed limit signs, installing unsanctioned barriers, or drawing “sharrows” (chevron-shaped arrows meant to encourage motorists to share the road with cyclists), which they feel the authorities should be doing anyway.

Others, while still meant to provoke the police, have been more sanguine. In 2010, members of Right of Way wore white hazmat suits labeled “Bureau Of Organized Bikelane Safety (BOOBS),” and rode around with a set of portable speakers to play “The Safety Dance,” by the 1980s synth-pop group Men Without Hats. A year ago, participants in a sister group called Times Up! dressed as clowns and handed out authentic-looking parking tickets to cars who were parked in bike lanes.

Stephan has been arrested multiple times, and at least once for his involvement in “clown rides,” when he was accused of impersonating a police officer. (At the time, Stephan was wearing a comically fake-looking uniform, as was his accomplice, Barbara Ross, whose red, adult-sized tricycle was confiscated. The two countersued for wrongful arrest, and in January, the city settled in mediation, agreeing to pay Stephan and Ross $11,000 apiece.)

Stephan has an idea of what attracts attention, and of what’s funny, even though when speaking about his work with Right of Way, his voice is usually flat and matter-of-fact. 286 people died in traffic collisions in New York last year, including 173 pedestrians, and while he is encouraged by the prospects of Vision Zero, a plan unveiled by the new mayor, Bill De Blasio, to end traffic fatalities by 2024, Stephan is at least a little skeptical, and a little indignant.

“We still have people dying,” he told me in recently. “You have to constantly push the envelope forward, or you’re going to go backward.”

GORDON DOUGLAS, A PHD candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago, uses the term “DIY urban design” to describe some of the work Right of Way is involved in. Some of its practitioners describe themselves as “radicals,” but most, he says, are simply private citizens working on their own to make public space more livable. “Often they’ll pretty explicitly acknowledge that the city doesn’t have the resources, or doesn’t have the authority,” he says. “So they say, ‘We have 300 bucks, and we know how to go to Home Depot and buy a lane striper. So why not?’”

Douglas says the typical DIY urban designer is a practical, civic-minded person who isn’t looking for trouble. This, by most accounts, was the attitude behind a bike lane painted by the Other Urban Repair Squad, an anonymous group in Toronto.

In the fall of 2005, members of the group turned their attention to a planned bike lane near the Huron-Sussex branch of the University of Toronto, which never came into being. Located near a subway stop, the stretch of Bloor Street between Spadina Avenue and Bathurst Street was a main artery for students. It had been a candidate for a bike lane conversion since the mid-1990s, and was singled out for a lane in the city’s official Bike Plan in 2001. The OURS members believed they had waited long enough, and so in October, they intervened by laying down a stenciled image of a cyclist, complete with a diamond shape used by the city. They even donned orange vests to redirect traffic, while waiting for the paint to dry.

Martin Reis, a photojournalist who lives in Toronto, noticed OURS’s work a few days later, and was chagrined when a manager of city road operations had it painted over (at the reported cost of $1,973.74).

“City council is bizarre in Toronto,” Reis said over the phone. “They see cycling either as a fringe activity, or an inconvenient form of transportation that they have to deal with.”

Members of OURS have described the 2005 action as “a test run.” It was replaced by a pink stencil, on the same street, in March 2006. Reis posted a picture of the painting on his blog, and soon, he was receiving emails from cyclists around the world, with photographs of projects like the one he saw. Through Reis, OURS also shared a pdf of a do-it-yourself manual for people who wanted to copy them.

“Despite their small size, these interventions make an impact,” Douglas wrote in an article last spring. “Even if these interventions are removed by authorities, they suggest the sort of city that residents actually want to see, something that authorities occasionally even recognize.”

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/komanoff_fe.jpg","caption":"Charles Komanoff in his New York City office."}%}

By and large, the projects Reis has documented are, indeed, small, but in cities where cyclists don’t necessarily feel welcome, they tend to stand out. Jimena Veloz, a blogger who lives in Mexico City, heard about the project in Toronto around 2009, when she was still in school. She has since joined a like-minded collective called Camina Haz Ciudad, and has searched for places for them to install DIY bike lanes that will attract attention.

“What we concluded here in Mexico City is that even though we want it, we can’t make the infrastructure ourselves,” Veloz says. “It’s too expensive, it’s too big for us to do that. But what we have done are very strategic projects that can catalyze government action.”

Rather than avoid police, members of CHC engage them deliberately, and in the past have painted bike lanes directly in front of the capitol, where the Congress of the Union meets. Most passersby—including a few members of Congress—spoke approvingly. When they were approached by the police, the group simply asserted that what they were doing was necessary and legal.

“It’s also the Mexican context, where mostly everyone does whatever they like,” Jimena says. “The police don’t have much. Of course they can arrest you, but they usually don’t, not even if you’re doing something really illegal. But if you are, they will stop you and ask you for money.”

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/prioridad-bike-safety_fe.jpg","caption":"Colective Camina, Haz Ciudad painted the streets and posted signs like this near Mexico City's Congress of the Union building."}%}

So far, no one in CHC has been arrested. Indeed, as much as stories about a “war on bicycles” (or, for that matter, a “war on cars”) might gather public attention, it is a challenge to find even one cantankerous urban planner who actually hates guerilla bicycle groups. In some cases, city governments welcome the citizens’ interventions, and say thank you.

THIS PAST APRIL, A GROUP in Seattle decided to modify a steep stretch of Cherry Street, a few blocks from City Hall. Tom Fucoloro, an Illinois native who moved to Seattle in 2009, rode through the area frequently, and while there had been a painted bike lane for a long time, he never felt entirely safe.

“It wasn't very comfortable to be huffing your way up the hill,” he said, adding that the road was very close to on-ramps to I-5. “When you're only going a few miles per hour, it can be really unsettling.”

With about $350 worth of equipment, members of the group Reasonably Polite Seattleites placed some plastic pylons along the path, photographed them, and then, like OURS, emailed their friendly local blogger. Fucoloro, who authors the Seattle Bike Blog, also received a few paragraphs explaining how the pylons would make riders feel safer, and noting that they were in any case put in place with a light adhesive (instead of epoxy, which is more permanent).

“If they so choose,” the group added, “Mayor McGinn and SDOT [Seattle Department of Transportation] can remove these in a matter of minutes.”

The pylons were, indeed, removed, but not without an equally polite response from Dungho Chang, Seattle’s Traffic Engineer, followed by another email, a few months later, explaining that the barriers they had originally installed would be made permanent.

When I spoke to him over the phone, Chang was busy making preparations for a parade to honor the Seattle Seahawks, who had just won the 2014 Super Bowl. He sounded cheerful and heartened, said he’d “always dreamed” of having his current job, and described the RPS intervention as “very humbling.”

“You are absolutely correct that there are low cost and simple ways to slow traffic, increase the sense of protection, and provide bicycle facilities that are more pleasant and accommodating for a larger portion of people who ride bicycles,” Chang wrote in an email to RPS. “I am truly appreciative that you care enough to take time, money, and risk to send your message to me and my staff.”

IN HIS OPTIMISM, his friendliness, and his eagerness to work with the anonymous group, Chang is in a minority. Perhaps because of the inherent pushiness of city life, or perhaps because the groups’ strategy is innately subversive and sneaky, attempts at a detente between motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians have continued to feel like the opposite: confrontational, and, at times, nasty.

Last spring, while riding downhill on Troy Avenue in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, stencilers from RoW were tailed by the driver of a grey SUV, who honked his horn, frustrated at their taking up the whole lane, and accelerated when the vehicle finally sped past. A few blocks further down, he narrowly avoided two pedestrians, a Hasidic couple, who were pushing a stroller across the street.

When I asked Komanoff about it later, he shrugged. “It’s like going to the zoo,” he said. “You’re observing some kind of some species that you know you’re connected to, and yet it’s quite alien.”

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