Two Bike Lengths, Face Masks, Six Riders Max and No Spitting. Cascade’s Free Group Rides Resume.
With the resumption of Free Group Rides under Phase II, bicyclists eager for camaraderie after the Stay at Home order can now ride together--with restrictions. We tagged along for a ride to see how riding with others has changed, and what remains the same. Should you go? Yes. No. Maybe. It depends.

Breathing through a face mask and feeling a sense of excitement mixed with mild trepidation, I stand with my bike in a leafy park near Seattle Pacific University and prepare to do something that feels odd in a pandemic: ride bikes with strangers.

With me are two others: Cascade Bicycle Club volunteer ride leader Paul Soreff, and Lloyd Hawes, a Cascade member who was eager to do his first group ride in months. After we exchange hellos, Soreff launches into a series of COVID-19 related questions.

 “In the past 24 hours have you experienced any of the following? Fever or chills?” Soreff asks. 

“No,” we reply. 

“A new or worsening cough, or shortness of breath?” Soreff continues, reading from a list of mandatory questions and precautions prepared by Cascade’s Free Group Rides program. “Have you been tested for COVID-19?” 

After we answer all of his questions, Soreff delivers his normal safety briefing about obeying the rules of the road and riding responsibly, then urges us to maintain at least two bike lengths of space between us while riding (no more drafting), to wear our face masks, to fix our own flats and not share tools, and to maintain at least six feet of social distancing when stopped. And most importantly, no spitting or (gross) blowing snot.

With the safety briefing and COVID questions done, we saddle up and head out for the 30-mile SPU to Edmonds ride, pedaling over the Fremont Bridge and up Stone Way toward Greenlake and the Interurban Trail, and journeying into the new realities of group riding.

With King County and most other states here in Washington having entered Phase II, Cascade has resumed its Free Group Rides program with restrictions, including a maximum of five participants plus the ride leader, mandatory online registration, and the recommendation that anyone with heart disease, lung disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or other serious underlying health conditions not participate. 

While I was eager to join a ride, make some new friends, get some exercise, see some sights and learn a new route, a question lingered in my mind: should I be doing this?

The answer to that question is highly personal and varied depending on the individual: Yes. No. Maybe. It depends.

“We’ve trained our Ride Leaders on appropriate precautions and are taking extra steps to ensure we can ride together safely and enjoy this beautiful summer weather,” says Rides Program Manager Davíd Urbina. “We have limited the number of riders to meet public health guidelines for each phase. At the end of the day, we are counting on our Cascade community to understand their risks and to take precautions, including bringing their own hand sanitizers and masks.”

Back on the road, Soreff leads us up several stretches of Stay Healthy Streets and neighborhood greenways before connecting with the Interurban Trail and arriving in Shoreline, where we ride past Shoreline Community College and descend the steep Innis Arden Way, then climb to a hilltop with views of Puget Sound. The weather is perfect, sunny and 70, with light mid-day traffic.

Soreff and Hawes use hand signals to indicate stops, obstacles, broken glass and potholes, and we avoid talking and yelling to one another when riding to avoid emitting unnecessary aerosols from our mouths. 

I’m wearing a thick cotton cloth face mask sewn by my wife. Masks are essential but they are not always pleasant. At points my mask becomes moist from my exhaled breath. My sunglasses fog up when we stop at traffic lights. Breathing is more labored when pedaling up steep hills. When riding solo over the past few months, I’ve often worn a buff, a stretchy face covering preferred by many cyclists for one reason: it’s easier to breathe. Alas, these breathable buffs are highly porous and far less effective than the tight weave of a non-stretch cotton mask. 

I do my best to keep the mask on for the entire ride, but on several steep hills I drop back 20 feet from Hawes’ wheel and, with no riders behind me, pull down my mask to breathe more easily, feeling safe in the fresh outdoor air.

Descending into Edmonds, we ride to the waterfront and stop at the Ferry Terminal to use the restrooms before pedaling to the nearby Top Pot donut shop, where we line up 10 feet apart and order donuts (glazed old fashioned) and coffee at the drive-through window, then sit on benches to eat our snacks and get to know one another. Socializing is one of the best aspects of Free Group Rides, and we stay physically distant while enjoying our pastry and conversation.

Soreff is a semi-retired immigration lawyer who became a volunteer ride leader about five years ago. This is his first Cascade group ride since the program resumed. “My primary concern is safety because it’s clearly spread through talking and coughing,” he says. “Since I’m 72 years old I feel more vulnerable than a lot of younger riders, so I ask that riders stay behind me. On steep hills if there are faster riders, I ask them to take the hill ahead of me and wait at the top.”

At Cascade’s urging to avoid crowded bike trails best left to families and new riders, Soreff changed this ride’s route, which would normally follow a section of the Burke-Gilman Trail, instead using neighborhood greenways and roads with bike lanes when possible.

Like myself, Hawes appeared fit and healthy, and he was primarily concerned with being socially responsible. “I’ve been riding by myself and trying to be careful,” he says. “I’m not so much concerned with myself, but rather I’m concerned about being around other people and not wanting to accidentally infect other people.” Indeed, Hawes huffed up many hills with his mask on because I was behind him. 

Rejuvenated after our donuts, we pause for a photo on the waterfront and then resume our ride, following Soreff uphill out of Edmonds, descending back to Fremont and heading over the Fremont Bridge and back to the start. I say goodbye and head back to my home office, feeling refreshed. 

Thanks to Soreff’s precautions, the ride felt completely safe and, aside from the soggy mask, was extremely enjoyable. Should you participate in a Free Group Ride? That’s a highly individual decision. For me, the ride seemed far safer than entering a supermarket or other indoor space. As a healthy and fit individual who exercises almost daily for both physical and mental well-being, and with no underlying medical risks, I felt the small risk was worth the reward.