SACKETS HARBOR — On Saturday, the 17th annual SpokerRide will take off from this village, with cyclists heading out to courses of 50 and 30 miles for both fun and serious competition. But if one looks to the SpokerRide sidelines, an example of a generation gap in the sport will be played out that overall is gearing up to present a challenge for cycling’s future.
The SpokerRide traditionally has included a 10-mile “family ride.”
“The intent was to get the families out to ride, and give something for the younger riders to do — at least participate if nothing else,” said Jeffrey A. Wood, founder of Spokerride.
The most cyclists the family ride has hosted has been 10 riders. Last year, “six or so” participated, said Mr. Wood. The decline is reflective of a national trend.
In June, the Washington Post, using figures from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, reported that the number of children ages 6 to 17 who rode bicycles regularly — more than 25 times a year — decreased by more than a million from 2014 to 2018. The figures from the association included both casual rides around the neighborhood and more serious cycling for fitness and competition.
The decline is worrisome to Mr. Wood.
“I know that we can do better,” he said. “Society is moving us away from outside recreation.”
Society has also seen the near demise of the “free-range” children concept, which encourages kids to function independently of parents as much as possible. A bicycle is key to the freedom in “free range.”
“My parents encouraged my independence and mobility,” said Mr. Wood. “If I wanted to do something, go somewhere, my bike was the method of transportation.”
Mr. Wood recalled growing up in the Kellogg Hill area and as a teenager riding 6 miles to his job at Jreck Subs in Adams.
“I remember coming home on Saturday nights at 11:30 on Route 11 with one of those generator lights on my front tire for illumination,” he said. “Can you imagine anyone doing that today, at least not on purpose anyway?”
Indeed, with distracted driving a growing issue, night treks like those taken by Mr. Wood as a youth may no longer be a particular good idea. But overall, the apparent risks of road cycling may be discouraging to parents and children.
“Distracted driving is a huge issue,” said Kimberly S. Cummins, a Plattsburgh-based certified cycling instructor with the League of American Bicyclists. “I think a lot of parents and kids are apprehensive to get on bicycles because of the perceived risks. It’s not just drivers not seeing them. It’s drivers being distracted behind the wheel.”
Miss Cummins, who designs websites as a career, has collaborated with the town of Plattsburgh as an on-bike instructor and the 2019 Bike Block Party, held in May. Since becoming a LAB instructor in 2017, she’s also spoken to driver’s education students at Burlington High School. She’s made it her mission to get people back on bicycles by providing on-bike education to build their confidence.
Her mission is personal. Miss Cummins, 33, said she was 5-years-old when her 8-year-old brother died when he was struck by a vehicle while cycling.
“I’ve taken it (education) upon myself,” Miss Cummins said. “There’s all these resources out there. The only problem is lack of education.”
Educating children especially, Miss Cummins said, can empower them and give them encouragement.
“They know how to navigate their community safely and it also makes them better drivers in the future,” she said. “Cycling is a two-path thing. With a lot of people being afraid of motorists, how about we educate motorists on what to do around cyclists and not leave it an open question mark? Teach kids about being a cyclist first, and then they know how to navigate around cyclists in the future.”
The best safety precaution for bicycling, Miss Cummins said, is to be predictable when it comes to rules of the road. But for many, those rules are unknown.
“When on a bicycle, there’s some basic things that people were never taught,” Miss Cummins said. “It’s OK they were never taught those things. “Especially, working with adults, there’s this kind of sense of shame that they don’t know how to ride a bicycle properly, like how do I tell someone I’m turning, or when I come to an intersection, do I take the middle or do I go to the side?”
Cycling confidence can be built on vehicular traffic-free trails, such as the Black River Trail. But such trails bring their own distractions and safety issues.
“Sometimes, a trail is more dangerous because you have people who are doing whatever,” Miss Cummins said. “They have a dog and sometimes they don’t put the dog on a leash. But I found overall, in Plattsburgh, it’s a great place. It’s usually in a beautiful area to introduce someone to ride in a low-stress environment.”
Todd Phelps, owner of the Black River Adventurers Shop, Watertown, said introducing kids to cycling involves an easy equation:
“Get more adults/parents to ride and the kids will follow,” he said.
But Mr. Phelps said that getting more adults to ride is a “chiciken-and-egg scenario.”
“More bike lanes and paths equal more riders versus more riders demand more paths and lanes.” Mr. Phelps said. “Riders can’t be expected to take the first step. Riding in unsafe conditions cannot be required. Government needs to look at the data and realize how bike paths and lanes improve the quality of life for everyone.”
In the window of ReCre’s Bike Studio on Court Street in Watertown, a stash of children’s bikes, in bright colors that resemble so many M&Ms, are invitingly displayed. A few of the selections are balance bikes, which are pedalless and can teach toddlers younger than 2 to balance on two wheels. The bike shop, which opened last July, is owned by Jennifer A. and Aaron Austin.
“Kids aren’t riding bikes longer,” Mrs. Austin said. “When Aaron and I were kids, you rode your bike up until you got a driver’s license. You just enjoyed it. If they do get a bike at a young age, it’s very short-lived.”
But Mrs. Austin questioned the data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association that in addition to recording a decline in youth cycling, children’s bicycle sales from 2014 to 2018 decreased 7 percent in dollars and 7.5 percent in bikes sold.
Many customers, Mrs. Austin said, have asked for used bicycles, which aren’t reflected in the industry’s sales figures.
Miss Cummins, the certified cycling instructor, has also seen that used bicycle trend.
“Among my peers, they have 8, 9 and 10-year-olds,” Miss Cummins said. “Far and wide, they’re searching for used bicycles at yard sales and things like that and taking them to the local bike shop to get repaired or there’s usually a person who were like in my hometown, the retired guy who just fixes bicycles because he loves them. I think we have quite a few of those people in the north country.”
Children, Mrs. Austin said, may be happy with a bicycle from a big box retailer, but as kids age, things like bike weight and quality components found in bike shop bicycles could play a larger role as they continue to ride.
“Keeping a child active on a bicycle is what we recommend to keep enjoying it,” Mrs. Austin said. “It’s stimulating mentally. You’re enjoying the creation around you.”
To help address the growing problem of distracted drivers, which affect cyclists of all ages, ReCre’s carries an assortment of bicycle strobes and daytime running lights.
“More and more people know that if they’re riding with a light, you’re going to be seen, especially if they’re strobing,” Mrs. Austin said. “After dark, by law, you’re supposed to have lights. But during the day, like when we host rides on Saturday mornings, everybody has to have a light. It’s one of our recommendations.”
In addition to Saturday morning rides, Mrs. Austin said ReCre’s hopes to soon start Thursday night family rides.
“It’s so bigger groups will be seen in the city, and to just encourage people to ride their bikes but also to get families, kids involved,” she said.