Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Runners vs Cyclists: A BiCoastal Phenomenon

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

19 comments:

D10 said...

I agree that California has much better roads to cycle on. However, there also seems to be many runners in Cali. I think with the state being so big and there being many places runners can run (trails, beach, roads, etc) runners are more spread out where in NY they are more confined.

Susan said...

I see TONS of bikers where I live because there's a long trail that I run on, and I agree...most are just recreational bikers who are out to enjoy the day or the company of whoever they are biking with. (This is just my perception...I've never actually talked to them.) Some bikers are out in full-on cycling gear, but they aren't nearly as frequent as the bikers in everyday clothes. To most people, a leisurely bike ride is much easier to accomplish than a leisurely run, so people are more inclined to hop on a bike than put on a pair of running shoes.

Brian Morrissey said...

My guess is it's a combination of environment and culture. The weather in California is obviously better. Cycling is infinitely less fun in crappy weather. The hills outside LA and in SF make for great riding. That's led to a critical mass of cyclists, which lead to more people to try the sport, etc. Cycling in New York is alright. Going around Central Park is simply terrible. You have to dodge all the pedicabs and clueless tourists that walk in front of you. Outside the park, the options pretty much come down to Piermont and Nyack. Those are nice for long rides, although they require going over the GW Bridge and dealing with cabs pulling in front on you on the way there. On top of that, as you point out, cycling is a gear heavy sport. Many people in CA have garages or at least decent-sized homes. My apartment is the size of a (small) garage.

I'm interested in the different personality types in the sports. Many cyclists I've encountered are very type A. Runners, particularly distance runners, are pretty much the opposite.

marathonmaiden said...

very interesting to ponder. i've got nothing really significant to add as i've never been to the west coast but i definitely would suspect that it has to do with the recreation piece you mentioned. i picture cali as a place where ppl use bikes to travel whereas it's definitely not the case on the east coast

B.o.B. said...

I love that you did this Lam! It's very insightful. While it doesn't really impact me here in the old Sunshine State where everyone is driving! LOL!

I think your ideas are right on while never having paid attention in either state.

Keep up the good work gumshoes!

runningcommentaries said...

I think you're right. Although, I do both (and I live in California, haha). But for me, running is MY thing that I do alone because I love it and cycling is more social. It's rare that I'll ride a long time on my own, but I love to ride in big groups, chat, etc.

Also, biking doesn't feel like a workout to me. More like a stroll.

Frayed Laces said...

I don't agree with your "95% of cyclists do it for recreation" comment. I think it depends on where you live. Here in Hawaii, a large proportion of cyclists do it competitively. There are cycling races at least once a month, and tons of triathlons. I also think your perspective may be skewed based on where you run. In general, you won't have many cyclists in a large city. I mean, I know central park is good for cycling and all, but usually cyclists seek out long, long stretches of the open road.

Irish Cream said...

Um, well Wilson got a bike, and we can't fit another one in our crappy apartment . . . so that's one reason I don't bike in NYC! HA. Honestly, I really do think NYC apartments are a huge hindrance in that respect. Well, that and there's nowhere good to bike around here . . .

Running and living said...

Lots of greast points here, and great question, Lam. Risking to be accused of stereotyping, I think that running is more of an instant gratification, no prep kind of sport (I know, 20 milers are consuming, but still) and fit better with the on the go NYers personality. Cycling is more time consuming (for each 1 h of running one needs to bike 2.5h to get the same cardio benefit) and less painful, which may fit better with Cs laid back personality....Just a theory

NY Wolve said...

I agree with point number 4: the scenery and externality factors of biking. Plus the sheer amount of outdoor space covered in three hours of biking vs. three hours of running tends to increase that outdoors factor exponentially for biking (at least IMO).

And can you imagine biking for three hours in NYC? Taking your life in your own hands for sure...But in the Hamptons, I bet you see more bikers than runners...

Spike said...

I'm not saying I hate bikers, I'm just saying running is way way cooler. and by extension, runners are way way cooler.

X-Country2 said...

The weather also plays a pretty big role. It's REAL cold to ride in freezing weather and you can't exactly ride through the snow. California doesn't have to deal with that half the year like New York. Cool discussion though.

Jessica said...

I think a lot of it also has to do with the fact that you are in the city--if you went to the suburbs of new york you may not find as much disparity. Also, CA has more trail and ultra runs than any other state--but it is big--and you may not see all the trail and ultra runners on the road.

sRod said...

Awesome topic! Here are my additions to the converation:

1. You are comparing a whole state to one city. If you compared SF or LA to NY, I'd think you would probably find comparable #s of runners.

2. Since California is such a big state the population/civilization is spread thin across a broad area. That is not conducive to running because runners have very limited distance (compared to cyclists) and need things like places to get fuel, water fountains, phones, etc.

3. Urban areas (in this case, NYC) are more conducive to running because, well, it's easier. Space is more compact and amenities are closer together. I mean when was the last time you couldn't find a Starbucks in Manhattan? This also wards off cyclists because they are essentially operating a vehicle and need space (and are generally turned-off by lots of car traffic).

4. And this is completely subjective, but East Coast people are competitive. We're a bunch of Type A overachievers who relish in accomplishment. Running as an organized sport is well-suited for this because of the various levels of competition and the frequency of events and the ease of participation. Those West Coast types are more laid back and are more suited to the cycling, because, as you said, it's more of a recreational sport.

There. I've made my peace.

Ms. V. said...

I wonder if you see a lot of runners in NY right now, because the weather is about to turn?

We, however...we have two seasons: hot and foggy. You can run and bike in both of these all day.

joyRuN said...

I actually see an equal amount of runners/bikers around here. But whereas I can't find a running group to save my life, there's at least three group rides scheduled nearby that I can join.

Michelle said...

I love running it is my sport of choice but I also dig biking for the social and fun and just good time it affords me. I don't know much about CA VS NY.

Jeff Tse said...

Hey Leslie, Great article. The idea that the hillier terrain makes running prohibitive is exactly right since I was just thinking that myself today as I was looking at a Marin trail map. I'll bring it along next time to show you. I loved training on the open fire roads last year but I was pretty much limited to 2 routes that are suitable to running where I can keep a consistent heart rate, whereas the trail map for mountain biking has about 95% more trails that I couldn't access via running.

I think it's also very true that running is very purposeful. Maybe that's a reason that it's popular in New York as successful people are more goal oriented. Conversely, people that are more drawn to the experience tend to focus more on enjoying life as is. So the quality of the experience, the scenery, has a big effect on whether it's 'fun' or not. Neither is right or wrong.

And this might beg the chicken or the egg question, someone new into running is going to be drawn a lot more to the sport in NY if he or she sees thousands of runners on a Saturday morning especially this time of year. And cycling equally has that popularity on the West Coast. It wouldn't be a stretch for someone who rides to introduce another friend to riding.

To parlay onto the discussion, we have friends that live in Brooklyn that are coming out to visit us tonight. They are super avid cyclists. We'll see what happens for them being in a environment where the riding conditions are nicer and the sport is more popular.

Chic Runner said...

I do think that there are a lot more bikers out in CA and those bikers out here and DOUCHES. Case in point, when I did my I hate bicyclists post, everyone told me that it was a regional thing and that there were nicer bikers outside of my region. I do think that anyone can run anywhere, so that's just my idea.

 
Clicky Web Analytics