It was a crisp Halloween eve in Houston when a swarm of about one thousand bikers wove their flashy and flashing wheels from the East End’s D&W Lounge through the gates and around the paths of three cemeteries north of downtown. Clad in skeleton masks, medical-grade masks, a combination of the two, or no masks at all, the crew was celebrating not only Día de Los Muertos but the return of the East End Bike Ride’s monthly gatherings after an eight-month pandemic-induced hiatus.
“We’re Mexican American and that’s kind of like our anniversary ride,” said Judith Villarreal, who founded the spirited group with her husband in 2013. “We felt like, ‘Well, you know what, if we’re ever going to ride again, this is the ride. Let’s do it.’”
The Villarreals have been hosting the Cemetery Gates ride for six years, in addition to other monthly rides in which, prior to the pandemic, cyclists would flood the streets and stop at bars, tacos joints, and other sites along their routes. Like most of the established bike brigades, they halted operations in March. When EEBR came back in October, it hadn’t lost ground. “The first time we did [Cemetery Gates] it was like a mini Critical Mass,” she said, referring to Houston’s largest biking event, which became Critical Mass Houston after partnering with the city in 2013. That race was drawing anywhere from 2,500 to 4,000 participants each month and has not resumed its rides. As for EEBR, Villarreal estimates that this year’s Cemetery Gate ride drew near-record attendance—eight months into a pandemic.
EEBR isn’t alone. After canceling events earlier in the year, many social biking clubs are back on the streets, and newly formed rides have been rolling since early in the pandemic. To be clear, these are not hard-core cycling athletes. The events are not races. Rather, they’re more like miles-long parades that meander through the city—slow, loud, and banging—and just so happen to be centered around a form of exercise. They roll at a friendly pace and feature music blasting from speakers, spokes tricked out in neon lights, and even booze. Some focus on a cause, others are more like a pub crawl. Many, as one enthusiast puts it, are outlets for letting people show off their “little candy rides.” And during the pandemic, a time when we’ve been encouraged to spend time outdoors, if distanced, the rides have become more popular than ever.
To those on the outside (and many on the inside), these armies of bikers appear to be in jarring opposition to guidelines Houston officials have been promoting on social distancing and small gatherings, in a city where over 116,000 residents have been infected with the coronavirus and in a state that topped one million cases last month.
Mutulu Kafele is one of the organizers of Critical Mass Houston, which promoted road sharing and biker awareness through its massive events before the pandemic. It’s where many bike groups found their footing. “Critical Mass is recess. So if every group has their own class, Critical Mass is the time where every group comes together and rides as a whole,” Kafele said.
The Critical Mass rides haven’t happened since February. It’s in part because the City of Houston is not providing police escorts for large events during the pandemic. But Kafele said that more than anything, riding right now would go against the event’s core mission.
“It doesn’t make any sense for us to promote cycling safety and cycling health and then endanger people in the time of a pandemic,” he said. “This is all out of accountability.”
Other established rides have halted operations too. Liquor & Wood Bike Crew has not resumed its popular Thursday-night rides. Crucial Matter, which is likely the city’s second-largest ride, relaunched briefly in the fall, but canceled all events a few weeks later after Houston’s case counts spiked. “My conscience would not leave me alone if somebody did get sick,” said founder Ivan Fuentes.
The best way for people not to get sick is to not attend, according to Dr. Michael Chang, assistant professor of pediatrics and a specialist in infectious diseases at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston. But, he said, the likelihood of someone contracting the virus at a ride is unknown. “The research is not clear exactly on what the risk of these types of activities are,” Chang said. Dr. Wesley Long, a clinical pathologist at Houston Methodist hospital, voiced a similar opinion. “We haven’t really studied enough to know what are the risks of riding behind somebody who’s exhaling particles,” he said.
Still, both doctors stop short of ruling out the rides altogether. Under ideal circumstances, the riding portion of the events—avoiding any socializing before, during, or after—might be relatively low on the list of risky behaviors, they said. Bikers are outdoors, where droplets may spread less effectively. They have the option to remain six feet away from one another, they can move freely among the riders to decrease exposure to any one individual for long periods of time, and they can easily wear masks. But can riders count on those perfect circumstances, and are they actually taking the recommended precautions for how to prevent the spread of this deadly virus?
Kafele said no. “The social distancing isn’t there. There’s no hand sanitizer stations, there’s no education or type of materials being passed out or discussed in relation to the rides. There’s no protocol. It kind of just seems like business as usual,” he said. And videos from recent rides, viewed by Texas Monthly, confirm it. At times riders are spaced apart, and at others they’re packed in at a stoplight, with few masks in sight.
Other leaders feel like their rides, after some modifications, are safe. EEBR no longer includes social meet-ups at the starting points and instead is focusing on what Villarreal described as “ride-throughs,” with fewer stops. For the December ride, the group planned to roll through River Oaks to view Christmas lights, with minimal breaks. (The event was later cancelled, but the change in plans was due to rain, she says, not coronavirus.) Villareal says they’ll likely have to modify the Valentine’s Day ride that traditionally stops at a handful of love-inspired murals.
The booming popularity of biking amid the pandemic—as everyone looks for an outdoor outlet—is one of the biggest factors in the uncertainty surrounding the rides’ safety. According to the doctors, the bigger the ride, the higher the chance of infection. “It really scales with the size of the ride,” said Long. As rides continue to grow and the case counts spike, they’re only getting riskier.
But just as with weddings, holiday gatherings, or any large event being held against advisories, risk isn’t exactly stopping people. “It’s a stress reliever for some of my friends. All they do is ride,” said Neff Starr, a veteran biker who launched Illegal Amigos for BMX aficionados in 2018. “Before, there were only maybe four or five major groups that would ride here and there,” he said. “But now ever since [the pandemic], it’s been a big bike boom…every day at seven to seven-thirty, you can catch someone riding in a group, whether it’s Slow Soul Cruiserz, Rachet Riders.”
Donell Kennedy has seen his group explode in size and popularity in the pandemic. He started riding with three friends in January as a way to save on parking downtown. When forlorn bike groupers began to tag along, he made the meet-up official, naming it Rachet Riders and rolling out from Discovery Green on Mondays. Today the crew has about fifteen members and a slew of regular attendees. “With people not working and people not able to get out, a lot of people started getting into their bikes,” he said. He bought his cruiser for $40 on Facebook Marketplace two years ago, but says some members are showing up with $2,000 lowriders eager to hit the streets.
Kennedy contends that his rides are safe. Participants wear masks when they go indoors at the midpoint and keep their distance from one another, he says. Plus, he thinks it’s a good means for outdoor entertainment. “It’s Houston, we’re trying to be fly. It is even funner, though, when everybody’s doing it.”
Starr relaunched Illegal Amigos over the summer, when he says he and his riders were ready to get back for the social connection and after feeling “peer pressure” from seeing groups like Kennedy’s. “I’m out here with my friends, it makes me feel good again,” he says. “I’m 45 years old, and I don’t feel old. I want to be on a big BMX bike, and I’m just riding listening to music, laughing, just enjoying my life.”
Still, Starr is weighing his decision to restart. He says he’s keeping an eye on local coronavirus case counts and will make adjustments or cancel events if and when he needs to. “I’m still trying to be careful,” he said in November. As of mid-December, Illegal Amigos was still rolling about every other week.
Kafele, on the other hand, is sticking to his route: “We are pretty much waiting for a healthy world,” he said. “Because once we start up again, we know it’ll take as much energy to turn off the spigot.”