Quarantine Week 7: To hit the bike trail or stay home. For some, that's this week's question

More people are turning to bikes as a way to relieve stuck at home syndrome. Mark Wedel tells us what we should know before going pedaling into the world with a new virus on the loose.
You're stuck at home, feeling trapped. Maybe you're working in the home office, and now job and home-life are mushing into some hazy time continuum. 

You're probably not even wearing real pants right now.

I know how it goes. I've been a freelance writer in my home office for decades.

In 2011, I realized I'd been getting pudgy and unhealthy and squirrelly in the head, and needed escape. I got out the old bike from the back of the garage, went for a ride. Discovered an activity that's mentally/physically rewarding. It felt like fun and freedom.

I know that for those now staying home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the bicycle could provide much-needed stress relief. 

For others, a bike provides practical, affordable transportation to their essential job outside the home, now that there's no more regular bus service.

But there are new questions of safety thanks to this virus humanity has never dealt with. And though motor traffic is down, first-time riders should know how to stay safe from the hazards that have always been on the roads.

The new toilet paper

Tim Krone, owner of Pedal Bicycles, laughs about how many people are discovering biking during the pandemic.

"One of my managers said, 'Bicycles are the new toilet paper.'" 

He says, "I live in a pretty bicycle-friendly neighborhood, and I see tons of people out. It's fantastic."

Last March 25, the Kal-Haven trail has surprisingly heavy traffic for a cold Wednesday afternoon.

Krone's Kalamazoo and Portage shops just reopened for business. The state stay-at-home order kept them closed in March and April, but restrictions for bike shops were lifted April 24. Pedal is now doing no-contact sales and repairs, with a "dirty in/clean out" system, cleaning and disinfecting every bit of each bike before working on them and after working on them.

"It's been hard," Krone says of the closure. "We're down enormously. And now we're back, and we're trying to meet somewhere between four and six weeks worth of demand in a couple of days. So it's a little bit intense right now. But yeah, I'll be curious to see how it ends up," he says. 

"And yes, there has been a huge run on bikes, and our suppliers are very low on inventory. This could make for an interesting summer."

Can one social-distance on crowded trails?

Of the new wheels on the ground, Krone says, "I've been super happy to see so many people doing it. Maybe it will stick! That would be kinda fun."

Jeff Green, vice president of the Friends of the Kal-Haven Trail, would like a bit more isolation. For the past five years he's had the habit of hiking in the Allegan State Game Area. "And I've discovered places there that are so isolated, I've been going there years and never saw a footprint in the mud," he says.

"Starting about six or eight weeks ago, all my favorite secret places now have people stomping all over them, you see their footprints in the trail. On the one hand, I'm kinda sorry that I lost my space, but on the other hand, I'm happy there's a new demographic coming out to hike those trails." 

Jeff Green (left), of the Friends of the Kal-Haven Trail, chats with DNR manager Matt Metzger at a bike event on the Kal-Haven last September.

He's glad that more people are seeing the benefits of hiking or biking in the semi-wild and rural areas of southwest Michigan, though it's unfortunate that it took a global pandemic for that to happen. "But it's certainly put a lot more people on the Kal-Haven," Green says.

The Kal-Haven has seen an unusual amount of traffic for April, he says. On any sunny weekday, "it's kind of like a peak summer weekend."  The most-crowded areas are at the ends of the 34-mile trail -- South Haven and Kalamazoo.

The problem with the crowding is, "People are not taking physical distancing in a serious way," Green says. 

"Over the weekend there was a wedding party at the trail. And they had all their chairs set up in a big circle -- but I'm sorry, that just defeats it," he says. The CDC-recommended social distancing limit of six feet, "that's in a lab, under ideal conditions. But if you're outside and there's a bit of a breeze, how far can that breath travel? So those people at that wedding party, they endangered themselves and their family and whoever they're quarantining with."

Until there's a vaccine, Green pleads for users to wear a mask if they are near other users on the trail. 

He's been in touch with the Michigan DNR. "They've been monitoring the situation on the trail, to see if they need to change their policy." Green worries that the trial could be closed for public health reasons. "We can head that off with people behaving a little bit more responsibly for themselves and others when they're on the trail. Which means, if you're on the trail and there's a lot of other people around, wear a damn mask. Just wear it."

Green also recommends that if a trailhead parking spot is full of cars, to drive your bike to any of the emptier areas between South Haven and Kalamazoo -- Alamo, Mentha, Pine Grove, Kibbe.

Can bicyclists, joggers, and walkers, transmit COVID-19?

In early April, Dutch and Belgian engineers released their findings of an experiment. They used a spray particle generator to simulate the droplets exhaled by bikers, walkers, and joggers. They concluded that people using the same pathways should be much further apart than six feet to avoid coronavirus infection, especially when traveling behind someone.

However, Vox, Wired and Bicycling Magazine noted that the experiment was self-released, not in a peer-reviewed publication, and didn't involve any epidemiologists or virologists. 

The Wired article adds that according to experts, "30 to 60 minutes of daily exercise -- even when done alone or inside -- boosts the immune system."

The virus that causes COVID-19 needs further study -- something blindingly obvious. 

I asked the members of the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club Discussion Group if they had any personal rules for going out on a ride these days. Many Kalamazoo bicyclists are going with the better-to-be-safe-than-sorry rule. They're abandoning group rides for solo outings or rides with household members. Many are wearing masks if they expect to ride near others, or they ride where there are few people. 

Valerie Vuc: "I ride by myself out in the country, no mask, and give a very wide berth if I see anybody I have to pass."  

Cathy Cheron: "I'm staying on the (indoor) trainer. Anything can happen on a bike and I don't want to go anywhere near a hospital." 

Jillian Howland: "Ride alone -- learn to fall back in love with the sport because you're spending time with only your bike."

Some remark on the empty state of roads, especially rural roads. Gordy Vader writes, "I am riding solo, and riding 5-6 days a week, weather permitting, on rural/country roads. I am finding that most drivers have been very courteous. I can't remember the last time I got honked at or yelled at."

Follow the golden rule 

Paul Selden, head of Bike Friendly Kalamazoo, knows the rules of the road for bikes. 

For this year, the group rides and events like the Kal-Haven Trailblazer for BFK's Kalamazoo Bike Week (May 9-16) are "out the window," he says. But their focus on educating bicyclists and drivers on bike use will still be happening virtually and through media interviews. It's needed more this year since so many new riders are discovering bikes. 

Selden's advice for all on the road is, "Follow the golden rule. Treat others -- drivers and bicyclists -- as you would like to be treated," Selden says. "We're realizing we really are all in this together. There's no better time to practice the golden rule."

Mark Wedel’s bike on a Kalamazoo River Valley Trail ride May 2. Kalamazoo area parks and park facilities have been closed due to COVID-19, but so far the trails have remained open.

For all the new riders during the pandemic, he has a long list of basic rules. "Obey traffic signals and signs. Use turn signals. Let drivers and other cyclists know what your intentions are," he says.

His list includes: Be visible with bright clothes and lights on day and night. Wear a helmet. Ride with the flow of traffic, not against. Know that "riding on the road, surprisingly enough, you're safer than on the sidewalks." And ride "in a predictable manner -- kids have a problem with this one." 

Drivers should know that Michigan law requires them to give bikes three feet of space when passing, and Kalamazoo and Portage ordinances require five feet. 

"But give them six feet, think about social distancing," he jokes.

The roads have a bit more room, now, so give people some space. "Vehicular traffic, according to the law enforcement people I talk with, is down at the moment between 60% to 75% in some places. There's no excuse. Slow down if you can't pass a cyclist safely," he says.

But what are the rules to prevent potentially exhaling and breathing in viruses? 

"It's a question I've thought about a lot," he says. "It's an evolving picture. I take my cues from public health officials, the Governor's executive orders, that's how I personally conduct the rides that I do." 

Selden is 68. "I've made it this far," he says with a chuckle. "And because of bicycling, I've stayed fitter than most people my age.... But because I'm in an older age group, I have to be really careful" to avoid COVID-19.

He now rides solo or with his wife, and gives pedestrians or bikers "a wide berth." 

If the traffic is clear, Selden will swerve to the other side of the road to go around someone. "I'm not being anti-social. I'm being courteous to them," he says. 

"I like looking at things from all sides. I'm not giving people prescriptions, that you've got to do exactly like I do, or you're irresponsible or anything, but I just have to take care of myself following the recommendations of public health officials and people who are experts in the field, and know a lot more than I do." 

For Selden, the benefits continue to outweigh the risks. "I used to run, but my knees can't take it anymore. But cycling, for some reason, I can do that, and feel really good and adventurous, awake, when I do cycle."

He rides because of "a love of adventure. When you can bike long distances, go different places and bicycle around them, you can cover a lot of ground, enjoy contact with nature, and the scents and the sounds that it offers that you can't get when you're driving around in a car."

Sam's Bikes

Another message Selden wants to get out is, that biking gives life to a community.

"Civic leaders are getting the idea that bicycling is a part of community-building, building a strong community. Building a sense of community. It gives people a physical place to connect with each other and with other places."

Some ride for fun or for health, others ride to get to work. Selden points to Ministry With Community's "Sam's Bikes" program. 

"It's not a hand-out, it's a hand-up," Don Jones, Ministry With Community's program director says of the program that gets free bikes to the local working poor. It earned MWC and Zoo City Cycle and Sport the 2020 Friend of Bicycling Award by the Kalamazoo Bicycle Club.

Elchico Reid receives a bike from Ministry with Community.

For the past "couple decades," Ministry has been calling for donations of used bikes, in need of light repair or better.

Zoo City repairs the bikes for free, sometimes donating new bikes. They then go to Ministry With Community clients who can show they have "solid and intact" employment. Recipients must also have a bike lock. "We just have to make sure it doesn't walk off within four hours of somebody having it," Jones says. Bike theft is a frequent crime in Kalamazoo, "especially to vulnerable populations." 

Bikes have always helped workers gain independence from the bus schedule. Before the pandemic, workers often faced the problem of being able to take Metro Transit to work, but having to walk home because their shift ended in the early morning hours. He tells of some "having to hoof it" from Comstock greenhouses after 2 a.m. 

These days, the buses aren't running, and Metro Connect (appointment rides) can only give about "200 rides a day, so it's very constrained," Jones says. Members with essential jobs still need to get to work.

"Bikes are utterly sustainable, durable, affordable. They're one of the best sources of transportation around that the working poor can have. There's no oil changes, no car insurance, nothin'. It's just awesome," Jones says.

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.