A reality check tarsnake: The “not so green side’ of cycling and running

Green or not?

Both cycling and running have reputations as “green” activities. That is, they don’t chew up fossil fuels or pollute the environment.

But if you add up your cycling and running miles, and consider where the bulk of that activity occurs, a true accounting might show that most cyclists and runners are highly dependent on use of public roads for their favorite activities.

In a given week, a serious runner who puts in 60 miles of training might cover 80-90% of that on the roads.

Meanwhile, a road cyclist who cranks out 250 miles of training will do almost all of that work on public roads.

Even off-road cyclists are often dependent on public lands to find space to tear through the woods. Cyclocross races also tend to be held in public parks.

Local scene mimics global challenges

In our county there is now some major debate about establishment of a mountain bike park on a giant local landfill. Total development plans call for building an amphitheater and other attractions to make the overall property a regional attraction.

Some of my Green friends have taken to protesting the plans because they would impact the oak woodlands of a long-established forest preserve. That is already where trail and mountain bikers have ridden for years, rather quietly carving out a space in the far northeast part of the property. Their jumps and obstacles are too difficult for a casual mountain biker like me, so I ride around them if I choose to ride through their little domain. The county has tolerated their presence, but residents of an adjacent affluent community have complained at times about the trails that edge their properties.

So the county has had a tough time working with the mountain bikers, who only want to put some rugged terrain to use. It is a rare commodity in our region. The steep banks of a stream and some glacial moraine make for interesting riding. But inevitably the popularity of the spot clashes somewhat with the overall environmental ethic of the forest preserve system. Any visible impact like stripped soil, fallen trees or compacted trails makes some people itchy and nervous.


That is why, about 5 years ago, I wrote a letter to the county proposing a mountain bike park on the landfill. And while you’re at it, I suggested, throw in a road cycling course that includes several climbs up the steep side of the landfill. Use the landfill as a cycling hub for a county that already gets thousands of riders on its roads every week and there would be an economic engine on a site that is essentially nothing more than a big pile of garbage with some dirt on top of it?

It took all of 5 years for that plan to coalesce, based not only on my letter and further phone conversations with county representatives, but also input from many other cyclists, runners, cross-country skiers and many more. Selfishly though, it would make a great place to ride, and it would also not require dedication of delicate environmental areas to riding.

We’re all dependent on roads, not the greenest surface on earth

So you see, all these factors make it tough for cyclists to claim that their sport is entirely green. Dependence on asphalt and concrete roads is not exactly a green ethic. Same goes for runners of course. Wise runners frequently go “off-road” because the feel of running is much more natural and better for your body, with less shock and impact. During college our cross country team did about 50% of its training on dirt roads. That was about the perfect compromise for both training efficiency and a green ethic.

But how many runners really have access to dirt roads? And truth be told: exactly zero road cyclists prefer dirt or gravel to nice smooth asphalt when it comes to riding. You don’t even see that many mountain bikers riding the few dirt roads we have in our county.

Hard surfaces make for hard choices

The tarsnake here is a somewhat false environmental ethic for cycling and running. Both are clearly dependent on hard-surface environments that prevent rainwater absorption, require massive amounts of chemical and material construction and support, and also great amounts of maintenance in all seasons. Tarsnakes in summer. Show removal in winter. Street sweeping. Sewer and drainage upkeep. Curb reconstruction. Shoulder grading. The list goes on.

We can claim running and cycling are Green sports in many respects. Commuting by bike saves gas. Running requires only a pair of shoes (also not exactly Green in their construction or disposal in many cases) and away you go.

But let’s be honest with ourselves as well: Just like the drivers who love to hate us for taking up space on the roads, we need those roads just like they do. It would probably be fair to license cyclists at some level and generate revenue to pay for the less than Green effect of our dependence on tar, asphalt and concrete. Call it an investment in enjoyment. Or a tax on our Brown side. In any event, it’s one of those tarsnakes of ideology that isn’t all black and white. We’re mostly Green, we runners and cyclists, but let’s not pretend we’re perfect, by any means.

About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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