Backmarker: Ride to Work Day

May 15, 2014
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
Contributing Editor|Articles|Articles RSS

In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Andy Goldfine, who runs, believes that over and
above improving traffic and parking congestion, riding
motorcycles makes us better people. “Riding is a social good,”
he says. No argument there.

Ride to Work (and save the world)

The 23rd annual Ride To Work Day is a little over a month away. That makes today a perfect day to click over to, where you can download free artwork and order merchandise that will help promote the idea that, on the third Monday in June – and every other day for that matter – motorcyclists should ride to work.

Ride To Work Day is a registered 501 c (4) non-profit organization, and the brainchild of Andy Goldfine, who is also responsible for the Aerostitch Roadcrafter riding suits that are worn by almost every motorcycle journalist when they’re really riding, although they typically change into less-nerdy outfits for photo shoots.

Like the rest of us, Andy knows that if more of us commuted on bikes, we’d reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion, and make it easier for everyone – even car drivers – to find parking spaces in crowded cities. Everyone benefits, right?

That may be a no-brainer to most Backmarker readers, but Andy’s Ride To Work mission goes way deeper. That’s something I’ll get to, but first I want to add a personal perspective…

While I lived in France, I saw an enormous protest organized by the French equivalent of the AMA, which is the FFMC. The initials stand for Federation Francaise de Motards en Colere, which literally means, ‘French Federation of Angry Bikers’.

The French love nothing more than a good protest, and the one I saw had, as its goal, forcing the government to change the paint used to make lines on the roads, to a type that was not slippery when wet. Thousands of motorcyclists gathered on a main Paris roadway at the height of rush hour, filling all the lanes, and riding at a walking speed for several miles. They snarled traffic and no doubtl angered quite a few car drivers, but they also made the nightly news and forced politicians to pay attention.

Two things struck me about the event: It gathered every type of motorcyclist; there was everything from choppers to trials bikes in that rolling roadblock. By sticking together, all motorcyclists had more political clout. And, because motorcycles are frequently used as practical vehicles in Europe, they’re more likely to be taken seriously, unlike here in the U.S. where they’re perceived as toys – expensive and dangerous, maybe, but toys nonetheless.

Ride To Work Day is a step towards solving both of those problems for American motorcyclists. The organization wants you to ride, no matter what you ride (as long as it’s street legal!) They’d like nothing more than to see the parking lot at your office filled with scooters, dual-sports, naked bikes, sportbikes, baggers… you name it.

And, seeing people arrive on motorcycles, in riding gear, would remind non-riders (who will always outnumber us and have far more political clout) that motorcycles are vehicles, with the same road rights that cars, SUVs and trucks have; the only differences are that we’re having more fun, and can fit four to a parking space.

Andy’s love affair with two-wheeled vehicles began with a 20” Huffy bicycle, back in the 1950s. “I was the kid who was always late for dinner,” he told me. “My mother would say, ‘Where have you been?’ I’d been all over the city.”

Later, he bought a $100 minibike from a neighbor, and at 16 he got his first real motorcycle, a Honda 90. “For about a month,” he recalled, “I had a BSA Victor 440. I was seduced by how it looked, but I couldn’t start it, it wouldn’t run. That was a life lesson.”

The Victor was a dirt bike, of course, but it didn’t put him off dirt bikes altogether. He bought a Can-Am from Jeff Smith, and did a couple of seasons-worth of AMA enduro racing.

Andy graduated from university and was working in commercial real estate. When he ran into old friends from high school, they’d ask, “Are you still riding those motorcycles?” as if it was something he should grow out of. Instead, he just looked for a bike more suited to the kind of riding he was doing.

Meanwhile, as a result of the liquidation of a factory that made snowmobile suits, he found that he owned 16 industrial sewing machines. “I spent a year or two writing business plans,” he recalled. “I looked at all the things that I did; I fly fished, I rock climbed, I rode motorcycles. Well, I could’ve made fishing vests, but Orvis already made good ones. I decided to make a snowmobile style coverall, with impact-resistant armor, that you could wear over business clothes.”

That was how the Aerostich Roadcrafter suit was born. The only real problem with the original design is, they never wear out.

“A few years after that, I was at Brainerd [a legendary Minnesota track that used to be on the AMA schedule – MG] and I saw a Honda Four in the parking lot,” he told me. “Hand-painted on the tank, there was the slogan ‘Work to ride, ride to work’.”

Ride To Work Day logo.
Ride To Work Day logo.

He left a note on the bike, and got in touch with the rider, to ask whether he could print up some T-shirts bearing that slogan. The Honda owner told him it wasn’t ‘his slogan’ per se, but that he’d seen it somewhere.

Around that time, Fred Rau (the editor of Motorcycle Consumer News) wrote an editorial in which he proposed a ride-to-work day. His readers responded enthusiastically. Rau contacted Andy to order a bunch of those T-shirts, and wrote a second editorial proposing a date.

After a few years – during which time the Internet was invented – Andy registered and filed the paperwork to create an official non-profit organization.

Andy still divides his riding between motorcycles and bicycles, commuting about 100 days a year on each. Ironically, after he created Ride to Work Day for motorcyclists, bicyclists followed suit, and now there are bicycle ride-to-work days around the world. Andy’s watched many cities institute bicycle lanes, and seen that just stenciling a bicycle on the side of urban roads has a profound impact on the way car drivers relate to the bicycles they encounter.

“When you go to a place like Chicago, the minute the government marks that bicycle lane; suddenly, drivers are less likely to lean on the horn. Some paths are being well used and others not so well used, but everyone’s mellowed out,” he told me. “I believe that motorcycling will ride on these coattails, because we’ve built our cities around the automobile, and the distances are simply too great for many people who would commute by bicycle. If you live in any of the suburbs where people want to raise their children, you’re 20 miles out.”

Andy sees motorcycles as filling that role as low-impact commuting vehicles for journeys too long for pedestrians or bicyclists. “Right now, it’s not part of the culture, but Ride To Work Day is about increasing the tolerance for people who want to ride motorcycles for transportation, and making it possible to walk into a meeting or a nice restaurant dressed, essentially, like a Power Ranger.”

Now, there are affiliated Ride To Work Day organizations in over a dozen countries. At different times over the years, volunteers have gone out on ‘regular’ days and counted the ratio of motorcycles in the commuting traffic flow, and then counted on Ride To Work Day.

“We’ve had a lot of anecdotal feedback,” Andy told me, “from people who say things like, ‘Normally there are two bikes in our parking lot, but on Ride To Work Day we had six’. We’ve estimated that, worldwide, as many as a million riders participate. So although I can’t prove it, I feel it’s the world’s largest motorcycle event.”

Andy’s still an avid bicyclist, and he’s well aware that issues like global warming and oil spills give bicyclists a degree of moral authority that motorcyclists don’t have – in spite of the fact that, as noted, the more people who ride, the better the traffic flows for cars. But over and above the quantifiable benefits to society, he’s sure that the act of riding – simply riding, in and of itself – makes us better people.

He’s an advocate of riding because it literally and figuratively keeps us centered, and better-balanced. Most Backmarker readers probably agree with him. I know that I’m a better person – happier, more productive, and more likely to see things in a positive light – on days when I ride. That’s why as Andy’s constantly pointing out, “Riding is a social good.”

So, go to and check it out. The site has all kinds of advice and promotional materials you can display at your workplace. Maybe your boss will bring her bike out, and you’ll have bonding experience; or that hot intern will realize you ride and suddenly start paying attention to you. Even if that doesn’t happen, you’ll contribute to a smoother traffic flow, free up three-quarters of a parking spot, and find your zen on the way into work.

A note on motorcycles in traffic…

For  25 will send you a stencil.
For $25, will send you a stencil you can use to go out late at night and create motorcycle-only lanes around your city create motorcycle-only parking spots at your workplace (with permission, of course.)

A couple of weeks back, I caught another news story about a motorcyclist killed in traffic, in Kansas City, Kansas. The guy was stopped behind a pickup truck at a red light when he was rear-ended by a following car, hard enough to slam him into the truck and be killed. He was on some huge cruiser, in Kansas (a state with no helmet requirement). He appeared to have been wearing a helmet; not a good one, but a helmet nonetheless.

Like most of you reading this, I’ve made a life decision about motorcycles, and it’s unlikely any news story will ever dissuade me. But the general public sees the summer-long litany of motorcycle crash reports and is further convinced that, at best, motorcyclists have some kind of death wish. It weakens the case that Andy’s trying to make that riding is actually a social good.

Anyway, something about that particular crash stuck in my mind. It occurred to me that in other places where there are a lot more bikes on the road, they filter forward between cars at traffic lights. In fact, filtering is an essential part of riding proficiency, and part of your motorcycle license test in France.

In most of the U.S., filtering will at the very least get you stink-eye, if not a traffic ticket (or, if some guy sees you coming up, a door opened in your path followed by a confrontation). American car drivers generally feel that it’s not only illegal, but that if you filter, you’re getting their spot in line.

American car drivers’ hatred of filtering is irrational. Although filtering bikes and scooters do get to the front of the line of cars, they typically accelerate much faster than cars, so they’re out of the way when cars start to move. By occupying interstitial spaces in traffic, and staying out of the traffic column as it accordions, filtering bikes get where they’re going ahead of cars, but they also smooth and accelerate traffic flow for everyone. The car drivers who resent it when you filter (or split lanes) actually benefit from it.

Needless to say, filtering also moves riders out of the danger zone when it comes to being rear ended, which is a type of accident that is otherwise difficult to pre-empt.

There are an increasing number of states that have made specific traffic code provisions that encourage the use of bicycles. Notably in Idaho, cyclists are allowed to treat stop signs as if they were yield signs, and can proceed through red lights (after stopping, when safe). Those rules allow them to conserve momentum, and begin accelerating before stopped cars, so that cars will pass them at reduced closing speeds.

I guess if initiatives like Ride To Work Day were ultimately successful, we could hope to have some input into motorcycle-specific traffic laws (as opposed to what we have now; police who feel empowered to institute motorcycle-only traffic stops!)

I’m just expressing my personal opinion here, and not trying to drag Motorcycle USA into flame war, but I’ve spent years seething over the way 90% of the total political activism or lobbying effort of motorcyclists is devoted to repealing helmet laws.

If I ran the AMA, I’d reverse course and go to legislators with this proposal: We’ll all wear helmets, in exchange for you’ll let us lane-split in the 49 states that aren’t California.

Of course, that proposal is totally irrelevant to guys who want to trailer their 900-pound custom to Sturgis, and then ride it bareheaded from their campsite to the Buffalo Chip. It’s all about improving the functionality of motorcycles as transportation, used by the sort of people who are inclined to wear helmets and Roadcrafter suits, and who ride to work on every other day, too.