A few years back the church youth counselor called to tell me she was going to take the kids in the middle school and high school youth groups on a bike ride. “Would you like to come along?” she asked.
I told her, “Sure, what time are you leaving?”
“8:00 on Saturday,” she said.
So I rolled up on my mountain bike prepared for a leisurely ride with a bunch of kids. Then I asked the youth counselor. “Where are you taking them? What route?”
“To Sycamore. We’re going out the Great Western Trail.”
Standing there a few shocked seconds, I glanced around at the group of kids and their bikes. The assortment ran the gamut all the way from short little stunt bikes to big fat cruisers. A few had mountain bikes. Another few were holding onto oversized hybrids obviously borrowed from their parents.
I turned to the youth counselor and said. “That’s 34 miles out and back. People will die.”
It was a warm, overcast May morning. Muggy for early spring. A good day for a ride. But not 34 miles with a bunch of clear novices.
“We’ll be fine,” she insisted. “They all have water.”
People will die
“No, they won’t be fine,” I replied. “People will die.” And I laughed. The youth counselor and I go back a ways, you see. I could be honest with her.
It took some earnest discussion, but I convinced her to modify the route they would ride down a bike trail to the town of North Aurora and back. Round trip the ride would be 15 miles. Still I doubted half the kids would make it all the way down and back.
“That’s not very far,” my friend protested.
“That’s plenty far,” I assured her. “And we’re going to need two vans to follow us, to pick up the stragglers.”
The start of the ride looked like a scene out of Mad Max, with kids on weird machines weaving down the street toward the bike trail. I put an adult in front and one behind. Between the lead and trail riders was a scene of pure chaos. It looked like it had been years since some of those kids actually rode a bike, much less 15 miles down a river and back.
By the 2-mile mark a couple girls in short shorts were chafing badly at the crotch. Their blue jean shorts were cutting into their thighs, so they got sent back home. At 4 miles a group of boys tried pulling off the trail to go who knows where, probably for a smoke. So they had to be corralled and put back on course.
At the 7 mile mark, the halfway point of the ride, there were only 4 willing riders out of 25 who started. The rest had thrown their bikes into the van and thirstily gulped down a Gatorade or two.
The kids who finished fared pretty well overall. In fact they picked up the pace toward the end. The horse always smells the barn. I slapped them on the back for their two-hour effort and told them to drink plenty of water when they get home.
Circumstance is a funny thing, except when it gets serious. Had this rider not been present to change the program of that ride, there might have been kids strewn along the bike path from St. Charles to Sycamore.
The right roads
The whole point of this story is that even well-meaning intentions can result in circumstances that are dangerous. There have been more than a few Saturday mornings on which I’ve seen local charity rides or church groups heading down roads that are not fit for cycling. The roads are heavily traveled and there is hardly any shoulder for riders to edge off during heavy traffic periods. All it takes is a rookie rider getting tangled up with one tarsnake and boom, that’s an accident waiting to happen.
Planning for emergencies
Even highly sophisticated rides (and runs) can fail to anticipate problems or take their emergency plans for granted. When my bike wobbled on a Wisconsin ride and I was scooped up by the ambulance and taken to the emergency room, the ride directors never received word that a rider was taken away. The friend who had been speeding ahead of me on the downhill never heard me go down. And the friend who was trailing behind did not see me in the ditch. Yet when they asked the ride officials at several stops if anyone had been taken off the course, there was no information.
The random universe
Riding is a great sport and generally safe and fun. Yet bad planning can put people at risk, as can assumptions about how a ride will transpire. The one rule of cycling is that you literally are part of a random universe, one fraught with bad odds against so much traffic, weird road conditions and equipment failure.
The lesson is to ask questions of yourself and your fellow riders whenever possible. Do not assume that anyone in the group really knows what’s going on. People tend to just roll with it. That’s not always the safest idea. The random universe simply does not care whether you live or die. Would God have protected all those kids on a church bike ride when the sun started beating down and the water ran out and heat stroke and dehydration kicked in?
Why find out. Do not needlessly put the Lord Your God needlessly to the test. if the Bible teaches us anything, God frowns on idiots just as he frowns on sinners. But those with prudence and good judgment can be blessed.