Lance Armstrong wannabes and weekend warriors alike shift into high gear, thanks to local cycling clubs. Stop spinning your wheels and come along for the ride!
By Karen Gardner
Photography by Michael Polito
Throughout the sum-mer, you couldn’t help but notice them. They glided in small
pods of eye-catching Lycra, or snaked along back roads in their bright attire, looking streamlined and fit even as they labored up a long, steep hill. Perhaps the sight of them made you think of your own bicycle gathering dust in storage. Maybe you told yourself, “I’d ride, too, if I had others to ride with me or knew some good routes.” But suddenly autumn is on the horizon, preparing to set leaves ablaze in colors reminiscent of the cyclists’ outfits, and your bike is still untouched.
Even if you haven’t dusted off your bi-cycle, it’s not too late. And whether you’d like to join the masses or just find a couple of cyclists who ride at your pace, a local bicycle club is an excellent place to start. In fact, finding camaraderie—and an extensive selection of bike rides—is as simple as contacting one of the several local bicycle clubs about their memberships and ride offerings. And membership does have its privileges: The benefits of joining a bicycle club include discounts at local bike shops; free advice from more seasoned cyclists along with a built-in rooting section on challenging routes; an expanded circle of friends who can be called upon for non-club rides; and, of course, improved fitness.
Within Westchester and Fairfield Counties, there are a variety of bicycle clubs from which to choose. There are clubs for those who prefer a recreational pace (where smelling the flowers is not frowned upon), and there are clubs for those who aspire to be like six-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong—and everything in between.
“Our mission is to get as many people as possible out on their bikes in ways that are safe, enjoyable and rewarding,” says Emil Albanese, president of the near 1,500-member Sound Cyclists Bicycle Club based in Westport, CT. “We offer more than 400 rides for cyclists ranging from novice to racer.”
Ride levels for clubs with members with diverse skill levels, like the Sound Cyclists Bicycle Club, the Westchester Cycle Club (WCC) in Hartsdale and the Hat City Cyclists (HCC) in Bethel, CT, are rated from A through D or E. The “A” rating indicates a pace of approximately 18-plus miles per hour, often with very diverse and challenging terrain, while “D” or “E” is gen-erally designated “entry” or “beginner” level, with easier, flatter terrain covered at a more relaxed, recreational pace of eight to 10 miles per hour. (Incidentally, the average person rides approximately 12 miles per hour, according to Ryan Morris of the League of American Bicyclists, and many can comfortably propel themselves at 13 or more miles per hour.) Club newsletters will indicate at what level a ride is designated, along with distance, terrain and opportunities for regrouping. Most clubs also offer a “new member ride” to help newcomers get acquainted with other members and with riding in a group.
“I’ve become a stronger, better cyclist since joining the club eight years ago,” says Roz Kaufman, president of the 700-members WCC. “As you see that you can go longer distances and climb steeper hills, you get a real sense of achievement. Also, I’ve learned skills that have helped make me more efficient on the bike.”
While most local clubs tend to have a recreational focus, two clubs in particular—the Unione Sportiva Italiana Cycling Club, or USI, in Scarsdale and the Sleepy Hollow Bicycle Club—focus on racing. The Sleepy Hollow club is an offshoot of the Sleepy Hollow Bicycle and Sports Center. The USI, established in 1908, is the second oldest cycling club in the country and has a history steeped in racing (the Century Road Club Association in New York City, established in 1898, is the oldest club). The USI also boasts the oldest club member, Jack Visco, who stopped riding two years ago at age 100. Still supportive of the club and cycling in general, he now lives in Florida. The second oldest member, 72-year-old Otto Eisele, nearly single-handedly kept the club going in the 1960s, when cycling popularity was at a low; he was one of the club’s only members.
According to USI President Tom Chiudina, “In the early 1900s, when the USI was formed, cycling clubs were broken down by ethnic groups. Cycling was one of the more popular sports in the nation, and races, sometimes multi-day, were staged at Madison Square Garden.”
Chiudina reports that the club recently has begun to offer rides “to members who prefer a less intimidating pace,” that is, rides in which the pace averages 14 to 16 miles per hour, rather than the grueling 20-plus miles per hour required on training rides. This year, the USI also introduced a youth program, run by Jeff Busch, a teacher who got into cycling when he was a Boy Scout pursuing a scouting merit badge. The youth program is offered at six-week intervals to girls and boys between the ages of 13 and 16.
“The idea is to get kids comfortable on the bicycle and learn basic maintenance,” says Busch, who also works as a bike mechanic at Yorktown Cycles. “If, afterwards, they just want to ride recreationally, that’s great. And if they are interested in racing, the club sponsors their racing. Either way, they have an avenue to fitness that’s fun.”
In general, although bicycle clubs offer rides during the week, not surprisingly they have more extensive offerings on Saturdays and Sundays. Some clubs—like Sound Cyclists, HCC and WCC—also offer weekend getaways to such locales as New Hampshire, the Berkshires and Cape Cod. And many also host or support special events.
Earlier this year, on an overcast May morning, an endless stream of cars carrying bicycles arrived at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, CT, where Sound Cyclists was hosting its 27th Bloomin’ Metric. Numbering a record 3,200 particpants, the faithful cyclists hoped the clouds would clear to make way for sunshine and a warmer temperature. The cyclists eventually got their wish as they completed picturesque routes of either 25 miles, 75 kilometers (46.6 miles), or 100 kilometers (62.14 miles).
Many of these events are connected to charitable endeavors, benefiting local community programs. For example, this fall, the WCC’s Golden Apple will again support Friends of Karen, an organization that helps families who have children with life-threatening diseases through advocacy, counseling and financial support. And, Sound Cyclists will hold their autumn Harvest Rides to raise funds for the Connecticut Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“The Harvest Rides were begun in the wake of 9/11, since so many of us were personally touched by that tragedy,” says Emil Albanese. “We pulled the whole event together in less than three weeks. About 150 people came out and filled a 10-gallon jug with checks and cash, raising $5,000.”
The clubs also team with local bike shops, which offer mechanical support at special events, sponsorship of teams, in-store clinics and discounts to club members. For example, High Caliper Bicycle Company, a shop in White Plains opened by Harlan Matusow in 1993 after Metro Cycle closed its doors, sponsors the USI. And in June, Dave’s Cycle and Fitness in Cos Cob, CT, hosted a women-only “Babes on Bikes” evening that featured a ride at three different pace levels, followed by an in-store overview of basic bicycle maintenance (see “Shop Smarts” below for additional details).
“There is so much beauty throughout the area, in both Westchester and Fairfield,” says WCC’s Kaufman. “From a car, it’s just a blur, but from the seat of a bike the rewards are many. And when you reach the summit of a long hill, or see just how far you’ve moved yourself under your own power, you feel great!”
Karen Gardner is a freelance writer and avid cyclist who lives in Pelham, NY.