Sometimes, the ride route takes me away from anyone. Heading out to west of this county, or by picking certain combinations of trails, I can ride for hours and see only a few people in passing. (This might actually have a bit to do with my penchant for getting out of the house before 7:30 on a weekend, it’s really a fine way to greet the day.) But, if I head off in a more north-south direction, even leaving reasonably early, about the time I’m turning around, the waves of mid-morning riders begin to wash over me.
There’s a curious quirk of topography which tends to herd cyclists heading north out of San Francisco. Unless they enjoy the mixed-terrain route of the coast, they swoop down Bridgeway, then continue up the Mill Valley Bike Path. Once heading north, there are minor dispersions of riders towards Mill Valley, but most continue to the path “end” at East Blithedale, from there branching right for a Tiburon loop or wiggling left to jump up and over Camino Alto and northern Marin County. The end result is that you are among riders you don’t know for several miles, and as all things freeway tend to go, it generates odd behaviors and creates some statistical anomolies.
You have to understand this is a mixed-use path of the highest order. It passes by an assisted living development, a major dog park and soccer fields. There is cross traffic. There are bird watchers. Horses are not unheard of. Because it is flat, there is also a good number of kids-on-bikes being wrangled by parents, pushed in strollers, and solitary runners both plodding and briskly striding along.
I find myself usually stopping by the Bike Shop near the south end of the path. There is a water fountain there and a good place to top off my bottles so I don’t run out before home. It’s also a good place to start munching on a bar or some food, so I’ll ease back onto the northbound path and pedal easily while chewing and stretching a bit. Lots of riders zip or ease past - few with a hello or warning - but once my mini-break ends, I’ll usually roll up behind them as they deal with pedestrians, idiots riding three abreast towards us, the bridge crossings or exhuberant dogs.
This is a bit of mild entertainment for me, as I really do enjoy seeing what people are riding and how they ride. There are his/hers bicycles that match exactly, seldom taking into account the different builds of the riders. There’s a whole cult of folks-who-need-to-lower-their-saddle. There are shiny carbon mini-frames and aluminum-carbon masters of vertical compliance, and big-tubed aluminum torque-transferring demons. Curiously, we all end up plodding along at about the same speed…
Regardless… the thing I’ve been noticing is the continuing proliferation of prayer bars*. This has caused some questions in my mind. First and foremost, “…what the hell are you thinking?”
Don’t get me wrong - I have quite a bit of respect for any cyclist willing to hang their nose out that far in front of the bike, commit to the position by forcing torso weight down into the forearms and then poach your bits on the front, skinny end of the saddle. And if you are really, truly a competitive racer or triathlete, who needs to spend time in that position, you’ve already found your answer.
But, the rest of you…c’mon… is that really enhancing the experience?
My own guess is that might be making you grumpy, and here’s my anecdotal evidence:
Since nobody works on July 4th, I’m rolling north on that bike path I mentioned earlier, and come upon a group of six riders who have collected. The two people bringing up the back end of the group are both stretched out and locked down on their prayer bars. Since I’m easing back up to speed, it’s quite easy to tuck in behind them for a while we slalom several of the aforementioned obstacles. I lay back just outside the draft, because one of my Cycling Commandments is to assume that a prayer bar rider is an erratic rider. The traffic thins out, and since they are easing along below a comfortable pace, I say “hidy” and go past them and tuck back in on the far right edge of the paved path.
Oh, you also have to bear in mind that I’m riding the Quickbeam, so now they see a big honkin’ rear tire, a seat bag that may weigh as much as their bike, and some yokel who is spinning along, fairly upright, with his hands on the tops of his bar.
This is all fine and good for a little bit, but then as I slow slightly for a particularly happy lab-on-a-leash, a carbon-based lifeform impaled upon a carbon-weave bike-thing edges up on me. I hear breathing and feel a strong sense of purpose as one of the riders has closed down the gap and is intent on passing me, despite the upcoming pedestrian/canine cross traffic. “Go for it cowgirl!” thinks I, and she goes forward, having clearly notched it down a couple of sprockets to gain a big, rumbling gear since we had parted company earlier. Still, by the time we’ve all collected a mile or so up the road at the light, she’s gained all of a couple seconds. Nary a word.
Almost the exact scenario had played out just a few days before on the previous weekend. Again, I’m heading north, buzzing along, clicking at dogs, waving at single oncoming cyclists and trying to be the polite sort of fellow my mother hopes she brought up, when I hear it - that clattery buzz of carbon supported by narrow, high pressure tires. This time again not a word of warning, and certainly passing within the “gee-I-wish-I’d-showered” range. The prayer-bar affixed pilot working reasonably hard, but not really going all that much faster than old-flappin-in-the-wind here. I say, “g’mornin’” but don’t even receive an acknowleging grunt. So, that was one for what would become two for two.
When I’m climbing, watching them descend is downright ugly. Most of the folks have these integrated antannea-like things which give them bullhorns instead of drops. That is, their hands are where yours would be if in the drops, but if they slide forward too far, there isn’t much there. Actually, there isn’t anything there, as if you hopped on a bovines back and grabbed ahold of the first thing that made sense. Using a well designed drop bar, there’s a bar there, and plenty of angles to grab and brace yourself against if you have to hammer the brakes for any reason. It gives you confidence, and lets you relax while you descend - suprise - making you a better descender.
Most of my rides involve traversing the Camino Alto hill a couple times, and I’ve lost count of riders who have been just inching their way downhill towards me, with a look of unbridled panic on their faces as they hold onto this erector set of angles and superstructure and try to coax their bike into following something resembling a line through a turn. That don’t look like fun to me…
Again, I have to ask “what gives”? Even on the brevets, you don’t see too many, and those folks are notching some serious mileage. If it’s a way to make yourself more comfortable - and I do recall that part of the pitch in the literature - have you tried raising your bar? Heresy? Yeah, but, if you are comfortable on your bike, and you have a variety of useful positons on the handlebars, you can always vary things enough to stay as aero as you think you need to be while not introducing the potential for RSI.
Oh well, just one of the many things I ponder when out riding about.
*Sorry - if this phrase baffles you - I’m talking about aero bars and/or aero extensions; the type of superstructures you see on TdF time trial bikes where you position your elbows in pair of holders and grab the two semi-horizontal sticks that jut out the front.