Mike McGettigan knows the dangers of boozing and biking. Back when he was, by his own admission, a “young and dumb” 20-year-old, the Trophy Bikes owner learned firsthand.
One night in the mid-1970s, McGettigan drank “too much cheap fraternity beer” at a series of parties at the University of Pennsylvania. When he was ready to call it quits, he hopped on his bike and hit the road. At least, that was the intention.
“Luckily, I never reached the road,” McGettigan recalls. “I was still on Penn’s campus and crashed into a bench.” Now McGettigan brandishes an L-shaped scar on the left side of his nose, a permanent reminder of the incident. “I consider myself very lucky,” he says. “If I had smashed my face in a few inches in any direction, I might have hit an eye or my teeth.”
Alcohol-related or not, incidents like McGettigan’s are not uncommon. As bicycling grows more popular around the country, safety has become a very real concern. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 726 bicycle fatalities in 2012, up from 682 in 2011 and 623 in 2010. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reported 12 fatalities in Philly alone between 2009 and 2012, with none reported in 2013. This past spring, Philadelphia magazine reported 551 local bike crashes in 2014, based on data from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
For his part, McGettigan is thankful that, 20 years ago, he was steering a bike instead of a car. “If you drink, you can get hurt on a bike,” he says. “But if I had been in a car, I might have killed another person, or myself, or both of us.”
Aye, there’s the rub. Operating a relatively lightweight bike is safer, at least for everyone around you, than driving a fast-moving metal cage through the streets. Yet when it comes to drinking and driving any vehicle, including bikes, the law is clear.
“A bike is a vehicle and it is bound by all of the vehicle laws,” says Denise Goren, director of policy and planning at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. “Driving under the influence, whether you’re on a bike or whether you’re in a vehicle, it’s the same. It’s illegal and it’s dangerous.”
Bringing up alcohol might not thrill the bicycling community at a time like this, when raising awareness and advocating for bike-friendly legislation is priority number one. Politically, group rides have been critical to raising cyclists’ profile. But what about group rides that revolve around alcohol? It doesn’t take a private investigator to find a bike-based pub crawl on Facebook. These rides have both recreational and economic benefits: cyclists can have a good time while injecting coin into the local economy. The question is whether they can do so safely.
Bikes & Beers, a national organization that hosts group rides wherein cyclists stop by pubs and breweries along the way, will hold its second annual Philadelphia event this October. The majority of proceeds will go toward the Bicycle Coalition, which sponsors the ride. Participants will start at the Yards Brewery on Delaware Avenue, travel west to Rembrandt’s in Fairmount, continue on to Dock Street Brewery in West Philly, and hit up McGillin’s Ale House in Center City, all before ending the tour back at Yards for a pint of craft brew.
That leaves open many chances to throw back a beer, or five. Advocates, though, remain confident that Bikes & Beers participants don’t view the event as an excuse to get hammered.
Bikes & Beers is an awesome event about building community between bicyclists and local businesses, like cafés, bars and breweries,” says Randy LoBasso, communications manager for the Bicycle Coalition. “I’d call that a great way to spend an afternoon, and they definitely only help representation in the bicycle community.” Bikes & Beers, LoBasso says, places an emphasis on responsibility — nobody can really get drunk during the beer tastings at every pit stop.
“The tastings are limited in size and spaced out across enough time that it’d be nearly impossible for even a lightweight to get drunk,” LoBasso says. “We think the bicycling community should be, and usually is, smart enough to know their individual limits and cut themselves off before getting drunk when participating in a Bikes & Beers, or similar, event.”
McGettigan, who says he fully expects Trophy Bikes to be a Bikes & Beers sponsor this year, agrees with LoBasso. “People show up, they stack all the bikes outside — you don’t stay there for hours because there’s never enough places to lock up more than 10 bikes outside a Philly bar — you go in, have a beer,” he says. “The vast majority of people have had three beers, maybe four, over the course of the night.”
Yet within Philadelphia’s large and diverse cycling community, one finds plenty of differing views on the topic. As Linda McGrane, president of the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia, points out, her organization prefers to refrain from booze-infused rides.
“I don’t think a pub crawl is a good idea for a bike ride,” McGrane says. “Obviously, if you’ve had a few beers or some drinks throughout the day or a few hours ago, that’s one thing. But to just keep going from bar to bar, I personally think that should be avoided.”
McGrane says her organization makes room for at least one pit stop, usually at a café or a Wawa, on rides stretching more than 25 miles. And while the Club will sometimes hold a tailgate party or social after a big ride, McGrane says most riders in the group prefer to drink in moderation.
The real issue with intoxicated group rides may lie with individuals who, whether by design or by impulse, binge and bike. Do these folks just need some education?
“If people are hypothetically biking drunk, I would hope police are on the lookout for that,” LoBasso says. “A drunk bicyclist is a danger to themselves and, potentially, a pedestrian. But, to be honest, I don’t think it’s a huge problem the way, say, drunk driving is.”
Adds McGrane: “If a police officer observes that a cyclist is riding unsafely on the road, weaving back and forth, not operating the bicycle safely, it’s the obligation of the police officer to pull the cyclist over.”
According to Goren, part of the city’s safety outreach program includes educating citizens on the realities of drinking or texting while biking or driving. “All of those behaviors are part of the city’s efforts in terms of making sure we are as safe as we possibly can be,” Goren says. “And one of the ways we’re going to help people do that is with the bike share.”
Indeed, Indego provides a safe and unique alternative to bringing your bike to a bar. If you don’t mind a one-way ride, you can take bike share out for a night on the town and coordinate another way home for afterward.
For the select few who still feel the need to ride while intoxicated, there’s always the Big Red Pedal Tour. Its big, multi-passenger pedicycles cruise the streets of Old City, stopping at various pubs along the way. Riders — tourists, generally — aren’t steering the pedicycle as much as they are half-powering the vehicle.
“We’re simply a tour guide, taking people on a tour that happens to stop at pubs,” says Eric Keiles, who founded Big Red Pedal Tours back in July 2013 in collaboration with the City. “The combination of the festive cocktails and bicycling we’re all about, but we don’t serve alcohol.”
Keiles has difficulty listing more than two instances, in the tour’s two years of steady operations, where a situation got “out of control.” One example includes a “98-pound” woman celebrating a ladies’ night out. Having had too much to drink, she ended up vomiting all over the pedicycle.
Puking aside, the number-one concern is safety. For many in the cycling community and in the city at large, however, the main issue isn’t a drunk in the bike saddle. Rather, it’s a drunk behind the wheel.
“I think the stakes are still so much higher and the amount of energy being placed into catching drunk drivers is still way too minimal,” McGettigan says.
Illustrations by Mary Peltz