Over the weekend, despite the rain, one of my friends actually trekked all the way from Manhattan to visit my new pad in Flushing. We had planned on touring the neighborhood so I can introduce him to my running grounds and the aquatic center around the corner where I will hopefully be learning how to swim over the winter. By because of the foul weather, we ended up spending most of the early afternoon watching reruns of the Ironman Championships from the recent past on Universal Sports. As we watched the athletes swim, bike and run their way through the difficult course, analyzing and critiquing the strength and weaknesses of the showcased athletes, we did our best to tackle the burning questions of the day, the issues that most recreational athletes like us care about.
One of these topics has to do with the question “Why are there so many more cyclists than runners in California and why is it the exact opposite here in New York? Is it mere perception of is it really true?” Hmmm…interesting right? So before I reveal what we ultimate came away with from our several hour long discussion, let me give you a brief description of my friend so you understand where he’s coming from.
My friend, NOT named here to protect his identity, is a die-hard northern Californian living in the outskirts of Marin County who travels to New York for business for about a week every month. When he’s not working, he’s an avid cyclist who is as passionate about his sport as I am about running. Unlike myself who knows almost nothing about bikes and cycling, my friend has actually tried running and has completed two NYC marathons before calling it quits this year due to exhaustion/injury. Since he’s been involved in running and/or cycling much longer than I, I consider him somewhat of an expert in both arenas and we often have very interesting discussions on the merits of running/cycling whenever we’re hanging out together.
Okay, now that you’ve been acquainted with my Cali friend, let’s get back to the question at hand. In case your attention span is shorter than one of my six-year-old patients with ADHD, the question is…Why is there such a huge disparity between California and New York in terms of runners and bikers? To phrase it in a more meaningful and practical sense…Why is Central Park so overcrowded with runners (especially during this part of the year) that I fear for the life of the occasional biker who dare challenge the running groups that swallow up the rec lanes during the late afternoons but yet when I went running in Half Moon Bay on my most recent trip out West, there was not a runner to be seen, only bikers challenging cars for the three inch space on the side of the highways?
Here are a set of hypotheses we came up with, based on our anecdotal experience to explain this bi-coastal phenomenon:
- Running, especially long distance running, isn’t a recreational sport; cycling is. What I mean by that is the number of people who go running consistently without a goal in mind (vs running to train for an event) is significant smaller than the number of people who cycle for fun. If there is any doubt about this, consider the popularity of road races in all its many forms - 5ks, 10ks, half and full marathons and compare them to the popularity of bike races for those who cycle on a consistent basis. I surmise that if you took away road races, 75% of runners would run significantly less; a significant majority would probably eventually give up the sport altogether. Whereas, 95% of cyclists ride for the pure enjoyment, and almost universally not because they are training for a specific endurance event.
- Cycling is more conducive to recreation than running because you cannot get injured riding too long as readily as you can by running too hard or too long.
- Cycling requires more technical and expensive gear to be a professional/competitive rider as compared to running. My friend told me that last weekend, on a trip to a local bike shop, he saw a sweet looking, top of the line, bike suspended from the ceiling with a sale price of a whopping $14,000+. Running shoes on the other hand, no matter how elite and performance-based, are rarely in excess of $300-$400. As a result, it is more economical and somewhat less technical to be a competitive runner than it is to be a competitive cyclist. As a result, more people are drawn to running than to cycling.
- The enjoyment from cycling is heavily influenced by the external environment in which you are riding whereas the joy of running, I think, comes from internal cues projected as an action affecting the external environment. It is a subtle difference I agree but as was explained to me, you can’t have a good ride if the scenery/environment is confined, repressed and unassuming whereas for most recreational runners, they can get similar psychological benefits from a treadmill workout as one done outdoors.
- Finally, because California has longer roads and hillier terrain that can make long runs rather grueling, it is much easier to travel the surrounding area via cycling than it is by running. Beside the major metropolis of San Francisco where as far as I can tell, running is still king, the rest of the open roads in that states are usually inhabited by bicyclists. In contrast, we often hear local complaints about the lack of places to run in New York. Moving across the open road over long distances isn’t as important for those of us who run and train in Central Park.
For these reasons, it makes more sense for recreational cyclists to turn up in California where there is lush scenery, steep hilly roads and perfect weather than it is for runners to run recreationally over there. Conversely, running will always dominant the scene in NYC even if the number of local riders are generally increasing.
Agree or disagree? Let me hear your perspectives in the comments.