The Spokes of Community

The Spokes of Community
Words by Sarah Pitts
Photos by Bryan Johnson
Cycling has a particular way of bringing together people of all sorts. Lycra-clad dads on high-end race bikes, urban commuters on vintage steel rigs, kids decked out in safety gear on training wheels—cycling belongs to all of them. Riding bikes is about fitness and transportation, but above that, it’s about community and connectedness. It’s about people. 

Originally, I took up cycling for exercise. My dad had been biking for about a decade and seemed to be in better shape than my friends’ dads, so I got an entry-level bicycle and started tagging along for the last five miles of his 20-mile weekday morning loop. Quickly, our shared bike rides became about much more than a workout. On these rides, which grew in length and duration as I continued to cycle, I built a relationship with my dad that went beyond parent and child. We developed an ongoing stream-of-consciousness dialogue that ebbed and flowed with the cadence of our pedaling, one that we could pick up easily on each ride as if there had been no interruption. We talked about biking (of course), but we also talked about the past, the future, family—anything and everything. The bike gave us a common point of interest as well as quality time together as we spent hours upon hours in the saddle sharing an activity we both loved, exploring our state, and getting to know each other. As I continued to ride, the fitness aspect of cycling quickly became secondary to the incredible potential for relationships and community.

Biking unifies people and connects neighborhoods; it transcends socio-economic, political, and cultural differences; it traverses boundaries of age, ethnicity, and gender. Whether you rely on a bicycle for transportation or you’re training to race, you know the pure joy of the unrestricted mobility that a bike brings. It is impossible not to share in this joy with others who know it; it is impossible not to feel a sense of connection with others who love to ride.

I’ve become part of the cycling community everywhere I’ve ever lived. Whether in Birmingham, Alabama, or Bogotá, Colombia, there is a community of cyclists that attracts people of all types, brought together by the magnetic pull of the bike. Somehow, riding allows for the suspension of prejudice, and it facilitates easy conversation in a way nothing else does; when sharing a bike ride, political disagreements, economic disparities, and cultural differences don’t seem so important or insurmountable. There is a humility and a humanity to cycling, and an automatic connection between all those who include “cyclist” among their personal identifiers. No matter what neighborhood we live in or the number of zeros on our income, we are all just people who can share in the simple pleasure of pedaling a bicycle.

Because of the inevitable sense of connectedness among members of the biking tribe, group rides are an integral part of cycling as sport. Low-speed, low-distance community rides attract riders of all types. It’s perhaps the only environment in which corporate employees earning six figures, homeless community members on Walmart bikes, and tattooed punks on brakeless fixed gears stand on equal footing, riding side-by-side in perfect communion and harmony. A group ride might take the shape of a casual weekday after-work cruise or a monthly “critical mass” ride that saturates the streets with hundreds of ridermais, but no matter the form, it’s a place of cohesion and belonging. Bikes come at all price points, yet they act as a great equalizer—it’s not the caliber or quality of the machine that makes the cyclist, but the love of the ride.

What is it about biking that makes it universal? Above all, a bicycle is a tool of empowerment for communities and individuals alike. Teaching children to bike gives them autonomy and independence. Giving bikes to people without access to transportation provides them with mobility and opportunity. Biking is for everyone. Many groups and nonprofits around the country and the world work to teach people to bike or to provide bikes to those who can’t afford them, breaking down the barriers to entry in a sport that requires basic skill and financial commitment. With each new cyclist, the global community grows, and we bike toward a world of increased understanding and compassion as we strengthen our feelings of connectedness and companionship with those alike and different from us.

More and more, even nonprofits and foundations not directly involved with cycling have identified the sport as a force for good. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Deep South Cancer Foundation, among many others, organize yearly charity rides in which riders of any skill level participate in rides of varying length and raise money as a donation to the cause. What makes a bike ride a successful fundraiser for an organization that has nothing to do with bikes? It’s the cycling community: that particular group of people always looking for a ride, always holding each other accountable, always building up their community. These rides are a demonstration of solidarity and symbiosis: cyclists in perfect unity with each other and community services in perfect unity with community members. 

Biking makes better people who feel more connected to each other and to their surroundings, and therefore biking makes better, stronger, more connected neighborhoods. The sport powerfully impacts health for individuals, and even more so for communities, which thrive on the increased participation and integration that bike culture facilitates.

No matter where you are, you can find a community of cyclists to welcome you, whether you’re a casual beginner or a seasoned veteran. Find a local group ride or try commuting to work and you’ll immediately feel connected to your neighbors and your neighborhood in a new and profound way. There’s truly nothing like cycling to bring people together and build community.