In praise of bike room buddies and other secret societies

“I just found out who you are!” announced my buddy-whose-name-I-don’t-know. “There’s a photo of you on the alumni wall of my lab! You have different hair and a different name, but it’s definitely you!”

This conversation took place in the locker room next to the bike storage room, when my former lab’s new member and I were both getting changed after cycling to work. Coming back to work in the same building where I did my postdoc means that this kind of conversation happens quite often (although it usually takes place in the pub or at other social events that involve old friends from my postdoc days); cycling to work means that all kinds of interesting conversations take place all the time.

I started cycling to work in Glasgow in 1999, and I’ve ridden most days since then. I love the exercise, the fresh air, the head-clearing thinking time, the eco-smugness (any cyclist who claims not to relish the latter is lying to you), and the fact that I usually beat the bus by at least five or ten minutes. But I especially love the bike room communities that exist in every building in which I’ve ever worked.

The regular users of the bike and locker room all know each other by sight, but don’t always know each other’s names. Some are old friends, others are relative strangers, but everyone’s friendly and everyone chats. We don’t usually know the details of what each person works on (I’d talked to the new member of my old lab many times before we discovered the connection), but we do know that we’re a mix of students, postdocs, techs, the occasional prof, and various others. We chat about the weather, close calls with cars and other road users, cycling gear, and commuting times – but also about career issues, current events, what everyone did at the weekend, and (rarely, but most interestingly) juicy gossip about what’s going on in everyone’s departments. I’ve learned lots about what shenanigans occur on the other floors of our 15-storey building, and had tons of fun conversations in what would otherwise be the wasted time between arriving at work and actually reaching my desk.

I’ve also picked up some very interesting and useful pieces of information from the bike room buddy community – especially at my last job, where I was handed a secret email address that saved my immigration application, and got some inside information on the status of my application for my current job.

I love to think about all the other hidden communities that must exist in my building: the users of some pieces of equipment, no doubt; people from different departments who use the lunch room at the same time; frequent visitors to the mailroom, perhaps; and probably dozens of others that I haven’t even considered.

Perhaps my readers will enlighten me in the comments – you must all be members of secret societies in your own buildings!

In the mean time, I will treasure the information I learned on my way out of the bike room at the end of last week: two of my papers are going to be cited in a review article currently being drafted in my old lab! (I <3 citations). Yay, bike room buddy!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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35 Responses to In praise of bike room buddies and other secret societies

  1. cromercrox says:

    the eco-smugness (any cyclist who claims not to relish the latter is lying to you)

    That’s why I am not very fond of cyclists.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Ah, Henry – such a gift for picking the one negative thing in an overwhelmingly positive blog post, and commenting on that! (I’m not complaining – I like having a balanced comments section!)

  3. rpg says:

    I love cycling, but find lycra-clad helmet-toting people who call themselves ‘cyclists’ on the whole unbearably smug.

    Anyway, back on topic. If I were a member of a secret society, I wouldn’t tell you, because then it wouldn’t be a secret. Or I might tell you that I’m a member of one I’m not…

    But this does remind me very much of meeting people in real life and then them realizing you’re you. Even before social media days.

    • Interesting distinction – if you drive then you’re a driver, and if you cycle then you’re a cyclist, surely? Or are there really people who say “I cycle to work, but I’m not one of those cyclists?”

      I wear non-lycra shorts in the summer, but lycra leggings in winter, because anything else always gets grease all over it and/or gets stuck in the chain. My leggings also have reflective strips built into them (as do my jacket, helmet, and panniers). I’m surprised that you’d pick on people wearing helmets, but since you mentioned it: they’re mandatory here, and I know people who’ve been pulled over and given fines for not wearing one. But I’d wear one even if they weren’t mandatory, given all the hits and near misses I’ve experienced with drivers running red lights (all the bloody time), other cyclists almost running into the back of me on a steep downhill section because they don’t know how to use a roundabout, massive new winter potholes concealed by deep puddles and/or piles of leaves, slippery wet rotting leaves (with or without frost on them), car doors opening (close call last week), conkers falling out of trees (I got hit by one last year), kids throwing water bottles at my head (got hit by one in Glasgow, but luckily this doesn’t seem to happen in Vancouver), crows (I had one fly right at my face last week and had to duck; its wings grazed my helmet), patches of ice and hail stones in shady parts of paths even when the rest of the road is clear (came off my bike that way on a riverside path in Glasgow; didn’t hit my head, but hurt my leg quite badly and limped for a week; a friend of mine hit a similar hidden, shady patch of ice in Vancouver once, came off, and hit his head on the kerb), cats/squirrels/coyotes/rabbits/foxes raccoons suddenly dashing out in front of me, people shooting at me (happened on my ride to Seattle last year); etc etc etc.

      Also, my helmet has a Union Flag design, and fellow British cyclists people who cycle wave, grin, yell “nice helmet”, or give me the thumbs up at least once a week. Which is nice ๐Ÿ™‚

      So no-one’s going to tell me about their secret societies, after I revealed mine?!

      Quid pro quo, doctors!

      • rpg says:

        Well, I drive and I cycle and I take the Tube and I go on the bus occasionally, but not ‘driver’ nor ‘cyclist’ nor ‘commuter’ are adequate descriptives.

        Be quiet, Henry.

        I find it fascinating that scientists, especially, get all het up about cycle helmets, when there are no good data they are good for you.

        • I’m certainly glad I was wearing one when the crow came at me, and when the conker fell on my head! (Part of my route takes me under a block-long arch of gorgeous mature conker trees, so spiky conkers rolling under your tires and falling from the sky are a significant hazard at this time of year). My friend who slid on the ice and hit his head on the kerb was also grateful for his helmet.

          There was also the time the security barrier came down on my head in Glasgow… I didn’t mention it in the list above because it’s embarrassing to people who don’t know the set-up, whereas literally everyone who cycled to that campus on a regular basis had it happen to them at least once (but they’d only ever admit to it in the company of their secret society!). It was the only way in or out of the campus, but the sensor that detected cars and automatically lifted the barrier wouldn’t detect bikes. You could either tilt your bike onto its back wheel and try to maneuver it through the pedestrian “kissing gate”, or wait for a car and then try to sneak in behind it. The latter was much faster and less fiddly – but the barrier came swinging back down very quickly, so you had to look sharp or get hit. Sure enough, one day my gears slipped as I started to move forward on the cattle grid just before the barrier (it was a vet school campus, hence the cattle grid and the kissing gate), and the barrier whacked me right on the top of my head, then slid down the front of my helmet and pinned my hands onto my handlebars. I was stunned and completely stuck, and the guys from the security booth had to come and rescue me – after they stopped laughing! That hurt even with the helmet on!

          Also, like I said, if I don’t wear one I could get a fine.

          Hostility based on eco-smugness is expected and understandable; hostility based on wearing practical clothing and a legally mandated piece of safety equipment, not so much – even when the value of the latter is debatable! ;-p

          • rpg says:

            “My friend who slid on the ice and hit his head on the kerb was also grateful for his helmet.”

            This is what really bugs me. Where’s the control? Would the crow have hit you if you weren’t wearing a helmet? Would your friend have hit their head if they weren’t? Adding an extra inch or two to the diameter of one’s bonce always seems a bit suss to me.

            I maintain it should be a personal decision, and governments that legislate helmet wearing are silly and inconsistent.

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            hostility was clearly the wrong word; sorry, I was in a rush before heading to work. I don’t know quite what the right word should have been though!

          • rpg says:

            heh, no worries.

            What really really annoys me is the message that one gets from the behaviour of certain cyclists–and indeed, governments and ‘safety’ bodies–that cycling is dangerous and requires expensive equipment.

            And people get hit by shrapnel when I blow up. Sorry ๐Ÿ˜‰

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            It’s not like we’re talking about a drug that only benefits 2% of the people who take it while costing the health system millions and causing serious side effects left right and centre. Helmets don’t cost the state anything, don’t do any harm (that I’ve heard of, although I’m sure people trip over them and stuff), and in some cases WILL prevent injuries ranging from the life-threatening to the merely temporarily painful. Granted, this will only be the case for a minority of the people who wear them – but isn’t it worth it for those people?!

            I agree that it should be a personal choice (and that means that people shouldn’t be criticised for choosing to wear one), and that legislation isn’t necessarily the way to go, but I don’t feel strongly enough about it that I’m going to write to my MP or anything.

            BTW, how do you feel about seat belt legislation?

            To conclude, there’s only one way to settle this. We’ll stand next to each other with me wearing a helmet and you without, get people to huck conkers at our heads from a window above us, and see who wants to quit first ๐Ÿ™‚

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            comments crossed!

            Cycling IS dangerous – see my list of hazards above – and in fact I’m astonished to have done it for this long without getting seriously hurt, as several of my cycling friends and colleagues have (a woman at my last job was in traction for weeks after getting hit by a car on a designated bike route that I use every day – the driver ran a red light and shattered her leg). However, I don’t see it as being any more dangerous than driving a car or, say, skiing. You just have to know, anticipate, and be prepared for the risks.

          • rpg says:


            Well, there is a case that helmets *can* cause harm. Rotational injuries for one, and risk compensation (on the part of the cyclist and other road users) for another. They also, undeniably, make your head bigger and heavier. Try falling off your bike without a helmet and try to observe what happens to your head. I’ve done it enough times, btw.

            It is also well documented that legislating for helmet use *increases* KSI: make them compulsory, and cycling rates decrease faster than injury rates. Counter-intuitive, but easily explainable once you factor in the ‘herd’ effect of cycling.

            Third, unlike motorcycle helmets, cycle helmets do not save against life-threatening injuries. Scratches and whatnot, maybe.

            Seatbelts is quite different–clearly there’s a benefit (Newton’s first law of motion, when applied to an object in a confined space–like inside a car–is pertinent, here).

            And cycling is–statistically–safer than many things. Like being a pedestrian in a city for example. I don’t see legislation for pedestrian helmets any time soon. Skiing isn’t really a valid comparison.

          • rpg says:

            And yes, I do anticipate and prepare against the risks of cycling. That doesn’t include wearing a piece of polystyrene on my bonce ๐Ÿ™‚

          • ricardipus says:

            Sadly, I can confirm that cyclling helmets are also pretty useless against crushing injuries of the type that a motorcycle helmet might, just might, save you from. See here.

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            rpg: not even if it was this one?

            I mean, c’mon: that’s a pretty cool helmet even if I do say so myself!

          • ricardipus says:

            This is a very cool lid… but it looks like it’s black, gold and red – which is an awesome colour scheme (q.v. Team Canada), but not quite the red, white and blue I’d expect!

          • Yeah, the colours definitely don’t look the same as they do in real life. The colours in this photo that I took myself when I first got the helmet are better, but still not quite right – the blue in particular.

        • ricardipus says:

          How is it, exactly, that I’ve never tripped across your Flickr account before? ‘Stonishing.

          • rpg says:

            ooh? Cath’s on Flickr? Now there’s a secret society… sending contact request now!

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            Heh! I’m on, but I barely use it. I set it up so I could post photos on Nature Network, but now it’s one of those accounts where I have to keep asking for a password reminder.

            I love Instagram, though. I’m on as enniscath.

  4. katebow says:

    Cath, I too am a paid up member of the bike sheds anonymous crew. I’m only a recent addition at my work but have found that a lot of winking and nudging goes on during lock up. I think I’m slightly ostracised from this as people here tend to cycle in wearing skirts and jeans. I rock my lycra semi-seriously in the hope that 1 billion rpm down the line I will look magnificent in it.

    • I used to ride in street clothes when I first started riding to work, but gave up quickly because I just felt so gross not changing. I’ve only ever cycled in hilly, rainy cities, so when I’m not soaked to the skin by rain, I’m all sweaty from the climbs! It might be different in a flatter and dryer place, but I wouldn’t know!

  5. ricardipus says:

    I have no issue with cyclists, but Cyclists (note the capital “C”) irritate the heck out of me. You know the ones – velodrome-loving, road-racing, multi-hundreds of dollars of lycra-wearing fanatics who travel in huge cycling club packs, taking up entire lanes of the road and ignoring inconvenient things like stop signs, red lights, and road markings.

    Actually, now that I think of it, conventional little-c cyclists annoy me too, since in this town at least they seem manifestly unable to grasp concepts like stopping for right turns on red lights, the proper use of sidewalks (hint – they are not bike lanes), how one-way streets work, and what the octagonal red sign really means. I suspect these behaviours are taught in secret society meetings, but of course I wouldn’t know – and if I did, I couldn’t tell you anyway.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      The ones who flout the rules of the road drive me crazy, too – they make drivers much more aggressive toward all cyclists.

      Mind you, last week I got literally screamed at (including the F word) by a red-faced, neckless guy in an SUV behind me for stopping at a stop sign (there was a car in the intersection and another waiting that had priority over us). He took off before I could point out that he lost more time by stopping to yell abuse at me than he did by stopping at the stop sign…

      I will admit to rolling through stop signs IF there’s no-one around (I always slow down and have a good look, and really don’t see the point of coming to a complete stop if there are no other cars on any of the three other streets leading into the instersection. At this speed my stopping distance is less than a metre anyway). I ride on the pavement for one block some days; I live right on a very busy main street, three blocks from a major intersection, and on the wrong side of the road for the direction I want to go in. It can take forever to cross the road, and since I can use the back alley for the first two blocks, when the alley runs out I just hop onto the pavement IF there’s no-one else on it (I dismount if there’s anyone there) for the last block before reaching the traffic-light controlled intersection. The start of the bike route is just on the other side of that junction.

      I always stop at red lights though, and I’m one of the approximately 11% of all Vancouver road users who knows how to use a roundabout properly ๐Ÿ™‚

      • chall says:

        “neckless” – I SO needed that word ๐Ÿ™‚ Awesome!

      • ricardipus says:

        “I will admit to rolling through stop signs IF thereโ€™s no-one around (I always slow down and have a good look, and really donโ€™t see the point of coming to a complete stop if there are no other cars on any of the three other streets leading into the instersection. “

        Which begs the question – would you do this when driving a car? Would you be annoyed if you saw a driver doing this?

        Rules is rules, Cath. That’s why we have them.

        • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

          I don’t drive in Canada, so I wouldn’t ๐Ÿ™‚

          And no it wouldn’t bother me if a driver rolled through slowly if there was literally no-one on any of the other three blocks leading into the intersection. This may well be because those of us not raised with four-way stops find them to them to be an incredibly inefficient method of controlling intersections; is it really necessary to make two cars that are facing each other come to a full and complete stop, if neither of them is turning? Is it really necessary to come to a full and complete stop at a stop sign on a deserted side-street, at night, when there are literally no other moving vehicles anywhere in sight?

          Roundabouts keep the traffic flowing much more smoothly, IF everyone knows how to use them. Many four-way stops in Vancouver are currently being replaced by roundabouts, and although more driver education is needed (there are some ads on TV telling people how to use them), it’s already improving traffic flow.

          BTW, have you heard of the Idaho rolling stop law? It essentially allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, i.e. slow down and roll through if it’s safe to do so. There are campaigns in place all over North America to implement it in other jurisdictions.

  6. chall says:

    I miss riding to work everyday (well, not in snowstorm and rain as much maybe… although it made me feel “smuggy*” and geeky saying “ah, but I cycled through the snow to get to work”.) I didn’t wear too many different clothes, but a new shirt was generally a good idea. And then the shoes/boots was always changed once I was at work, to indoor shoes. That may or may not be a fact due to the coldness of Sweden and that you’re not looked upon favourable dragging in muck/water/snow that creates puddles etc on the floors….

    That said, I do ride every once in awhile here in new city. It’s just a bit annoying since if I do, I won’t be able to do anything else that ride to work and back since I don’t really feel comfortable riding anywhere else in the city on my bike. And especially not after dark…

    I would feel like that secret society feeling sometimes being in the animal house late at night/on the weekends. Partly since it was plenty of researchers from other departments, partly because we were all so obviously geeks (losers?) for spending times when other people socialise or sleep, we did research…. Other secret societies must remain secret, I’m afraid… ๐Ÿ˜‰ (although, certain book sections come to mind)


    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Yeah, I’ve heard that about animal facilities! Lots of camaraderie!

      I don’t ride in snow, sleet, hail, or extremely strong winds. I guess deep, fresh snow might be OK, but here there would always be slippery slushy patches along any given route through the city.

  7. cromercrox says:

    I do have a bike, actually. It’s really nice. I bought off a friend who was emigrating. I have ridden it precisely once (I counts very carefully) and enjoyed myself hugely. It’s really a question of getting into the habit. I wouldn’t use it to commute (for that I have crocs, trains and tube) and while in Cromer I am driving (because I have to collect/deposit children/keyboards/shopping) or walking, and when walking it’s usually with dogs, and if I went to town on my bike I’d have to worry about parking it somewhere. Perhaps, if I make the effort, next Spring I’ll cycle along some of our wonderful coastal paths.

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