To bike or not to bike … in a group?

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As the world waits for the vaccine, many people wonder what activities are safe to help pass the time. I am the same, wondering if it is safe to bike outside in a group or not. 

By the time this blog is published, over 270 days will have passed since New Mexico, the state I reside in within the United States of America, started the first lockdown due to the coronavirus. Despite many Americans’ hope that life would return to normal after a few weeks, the United States is currently experiencing an increasing surge in positive cases. This rise caused two American states, including New Mexico, to lockdown again in late November. Many recent reports blame small indoor groups. For example, New York State collected contact tracing data and concluded 70% of new cases are from household or small indoor gatherings. Conversely, other reports explain that the main source of coronavirus cases is still larger, public gatherings such as restaurants, nursing homes, food processing plants, and large congregations.

But, what about small outdoor gatherings? 

Being cooped up for so long and being an active triathlete, the question of “What is the risk to bike outdoors in a group during a pandemic?” has crossed my mind multiple times.

I initially weighted my personal list of pros and cons. Pros are that I normally only bike outside in a group for several safety reasons such as increased visibility to cars and having other riders there in case something goes wrong. In addition to the physical health benefits, cycling improves mental health during a time when mental health problems are escalating due to the pandemic. On the other hand, the cons are potentially contracting and/or spreading the virus to others who bike with me. Currently, scientists and medical professionals still do not know all the long-term side effects caused by COVID-19. Also, even if someone is young and healthy, they can still suffer from severe health complications from the virus. For instance, Ben O’Donnell, a 38 year old man who completed an Ironman and was training for another, almost died from the coronavirus.

Bowen (right) rode in a small biking group to Brazos Pass, New Mexico, USA.

Unfortunately, my pros and cons list didn’t help make the decision, so I then I asked, “What do other experts say?”

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health public policy institutions state that outdoor activities are safer than indoor ones with certain protocols in place such as standing 6 feet apart from others and wearing masks. However, these guidelines still encourage people to avoid any contact with others who do not reside in the household with them, including outdoor activities. 

In the fall, a preprint study that analyzed 25,000 cases found 6% of the cases were linked to outdoor events. This seemingly small percentage is 1,500 total cases, which is close to the current daily average in New Mexico (numbers based on early December 2020). When looking into those outdoor cases further, I learned that most of them were related to attending outdoor parties, sporting events, and concerts. People attending these types of events likely have a harder time following proper safety protocols compared to biking outdoors in a group. 

During my search, I also found several biking articles (e.g. article 1 and article 2) about how to safely ride in a group or host races safely per USA Cycling rules. The general advice includes not riding if someone has symptoms, wearing masks at all times, riding some distance apart, and no shooting snot rockets (this should be avoided anyway, pandemic or not, because it is gross).

Now, do all these factors “justify” biking outdoors in a group? Although there are few to no reported cases of someone contracting the coronavirus from outdoor bike riding (that I could find), the probability of contracting COVID-19 outdoors is still non-zero and depends on many factors. 

Are people staying home if they have any symptoms?

Are they wearing masks?

Are they staying 6 feet apart?

Each of these factors contributes to increasing or decreasing the probability of catching the coronavirus, but the probability will still remain non-zero and you don’t know if you will be unlucky.

To quote my colleague, Len Burman, “occasional bad luck compounds.” Back in March 2020, he wrote about “Why the Coronavirus Made Me Postpone My Pi Day Party.” He highlighted that, although the probability of contracting the coronavirus is much lower in small gatherings, if you have “thousands of people decide that small gatherings are safe, more people will be infected, which means that [the probability of infection] will grow, and it will grow at an exponential rate if people do not adjust their behavior.” The same idea applies to multiple outdoor gatherings, even if the probabilities of infection are smaller than for the indoor ones.

So, then, what is the takeaway from this blog post? Should someone bike or not bike in a group?

For me, I ultimately decided to continue biking in a group. I made this decision based on my personal needs for physical and mental health, along with the bike group’s agreement to certain safety measures such as splitting into smaller riding groups and staying home if anyone has symptoms.

Does this mean I encourage others to bike in a group too?

For any outdoor activity, I encourage you and those in the group to decide if the activity is safe or not; similar to how my biking group decided. I imagine for some of you reading this, my answer is unsatisfactory. However, everyone has their own sense of risk, along with certain needs to live a happy and healthy life. Those involved in the potential outdoor social event should evaluate the benefits (e.g. mental and physical health) and weigh them against the risks (e.g. contracting and spreading the disease) along with what safety measures should be in place. Essentially, answering the question “to bike or not to bike … in a group?” should be considered as carefully as Hamlet’s contemplation of the pain and unfairness of life versus death.

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All posts are written by authors in their personal capacity and in no way represent the view of the organisations, universities, governments, or agencies where they are employed or with which they are associated, or the views of the International Statistical Institute (ISI).

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