Dirt is suddenly resplendent.
Dirt is suddenly resplendent. (Photo: Dane Cronin/Tandem)

Scared of the Road, Cyclists Are Migrating to Dirt

With deaths spiking on pavement, riders are choosing to go where cars can’t

Dirt is suddenly resplendent.
Dane Cronin/Tandem(Photo)

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Bicyclists are dying on our streets, and, if you hadn’t noticed, people are pissed off about it. The statistics are grim: in the U.S., 2016 was the deadliest year for cyclists in a quarter century. In 2018, fatalities jumped 10 percent over 2017. In New York City, where 19 cyclists have died so far this year in crashes compared to ten in all of 2018, bikers staged a mass die-in protest in early July in Washington Square Park. A lot of factors have contributed to the bloodshed, including too many cars, distracted drivers, piecemeal bike lanes, and more cyclists on the roads. Yet despite the efforts of many American cities and towns to make neighborhoods more walkable and bikeable, people are increasingly fearful of riding—or even running or walking—around cars. 

It’s no wonder we’re all migrating to dirt. Trail running now counts nine million participants, up from only a few million a decade ago. A Canadian Shimano distributor informs me that bike shops in Toronto are selling gravel bikes (beefed-up road bikes with fatter rubber) at a nine-to-one ratio to road models. On the participation front, mountain biking is also on the rise. The Vermont Mountain Bike Association, which can be read as a bellwether for the collective health of the sport, has grown from 1,250 members in 2014 to more than 6,250 members today.

Vacationing in search of dirt is also all the rage. Summer tourism to mountain towns and mountain resorts is booming right now, with many mountain lodges doing more summer business than winter. And what’s the biggest driver of that—other than the fact that drinking White Claws on the beach (and then dodging traffic on the walk or ride home) gets old? The build-out of hike-bike-run trails both at ski areas and around towns. Trail construction is currently a major initiative in the resort business, and local tourism boards are behind it, too, supporting the efforts of trail associations.

Dirt is suddenly resplendent. Athlinks, the tech platform of Life Time, which owns and operates health clubs and participatory events like the Leadville, Colorado, race series, Dirty Kanza, and Chicago Half Marathon, reports that off-road events—gravel and mountain-bike rides, trail and mud runs—dominate the wish lists of their members. Meanwhile, says company spokesperson Kimo Seymour, its data on timed races shows “modest to significant declines in events on pavement over the last three to four years, specifically road running, road cycling, and triathlon.” Also surging right now, he adds, is youth mountain biking. 

Beyond the fact that our nation’s roads have grown too unpleasant and just downright deadly, people are flocking to dirt because, as we understand better every day, spending time in nature can improve our health in numerous ways. Personally, I’ve largely quit my longtime road-cycling habit after many years of road riding recreationally five days a week. (I was also bike-commuting 150 to 200 days a year but work from home now.) During my decade and a half of living in Boulder, Colorado, I advocated for safer roads. I adopted lights and brighter clothing. I stopped at stop signs and signaled my turns. But over time, as I lost friends and friends of friends to tragic bike crashes, I found myself feeling safe only when riding in pelotons. And since pelotons are widely scattered in western Montana, where I now live, it’s dirt for me. Many in my wider community of cycling buddies have followed a similar trajectory.

We really shouldn’t abandon the road, though. According to cycling-advocacy group People for Bikes, bike commuting currently accounts for about 10 to 12 percent of all cycling, and it’s vital for our health and the health of the planet that we grow those numbers. But the only safe way to do that is to follow the lead of bike-friendly places, like the Netherlands, and do more than merely paint bike lanes. We need physically protected bike lanes and paths. The goal isn’t coexistence; it’s segregation. In big urban areas, this will require large-scale capital investments. In places like Boulder and Park City, Utah, where it’s possible to commute on dirt, how about more of those low-cost options we call trails? 

In the meantime, let’s fight more vigorously to get the word out that bikes are an important part of our transportation infrastructure. Tim Blumenthal, president of People for Bikes and a former editor at Bicycling magazine, told me that the group’s advocacy has grown from pushing for bike lanes and infrastructure to now include the message that bicycles are a public good, improving health while lowering transportation costs. He says this is especially important in a social climate where a lot of anger is directed at bicyclists.

As for diehard roadies, Blumenthal sees signs of hope in self-driving cars and bike computers that talk to them via GPS. Such innovations, he posits, could dramatically reduce crashes (though that could be wishful thinking). He also thinks that in the near future car makers, phone companies, and government will collaborate on a strategy to make it impossible for drivers to text behind the wheel. But these are small improvements to a fundamentally broken system. 

“Will the road experience ever return to the point where we feel truly comfortable and safe again?” Blumenthal asked rhetorically. “The tough answer is that it won’t. And that’s a sad thought.” He pegs the cause to simple volume: Americans drove 600 billion more miles in 2017 than they did in 1997. “To think that the experience of safely riding on the road is done—it’s hard to even process. Improving or just recovering the recreational road experience is the biggest challenge that People for Bikes faces. And we just don’t know what to do. The nation accepts 40,000 car-accident deaths a year. In the current climate, the lives of road cyclists aren’t held in much regard.”  

I would argue that the same is true for road runners and pedestrians. Until that changes, we’re all better off getting dirty.

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