The Victory of Third Places

I have a weird thing for opposites. Or maybe it’s the opposite of a weird thing.

This happy little flickering chill that comes whenever something swings into its opposite—maybe that’s the most human thrill there is.

I’m a kid on a swing-set any time “back” sweeps into “forth.” (Photo, goplaygrounds.com)

We could just be hardwired to like opposites—to enjoy the jolt of a genius oxymoron.

For years, the sun on Nebraska’s license plate was shaded like a billiard ball. And I loved the idea of the sun’s dark side. (Image, Awmchphee)

Cycling itself is full of these empty opposites, and I love them all. You can’t turn the pedals once without down equaling up. And think how well the words “paved starting point” serve as a definition of their exact opposite: a gravel finish line.

Virtually every gravel race begins at its end. (Photo, Matt Pearson)

Wade deeper into the gravel, and the opposites get less trivial. (I’ve written about our strength in endurance gravel being mostly our weaknesses repackaged.) Lately, I’ve been chewing on what might just be gravel’s greatest contradiction: Namely, the community we make by riding away from our communities.

We roll out looking for a break from urban humanity with all its noise and its jerkwads. We might think we want to be alone. But it doesn’t take us long to see that our desire for solitude is the opposite of isolating. We discover lots of free-spirited folks out here pedaling after the same things.

We might call gravel cycling an individual sport for rugged individualists. But we tend to find our fun out here about as fast as we find our company.

Gravel grinding with friends is rarely a grind. (Photo, Brian Barnhart)

The Nebraska-nice name for this community we’ve made outside our city limits is #gravelfamily. Maybe “family” sounds a little overblown. But when I think of the people I ride with, it’s no exaggeration.

PCL’s Jason Strobehn and Sophia Gibson wait up when you’re out late. You really shouldn’t make them worry like that. (Photo, Pirate Cycling League)

Gravel cyclists are the friends I wake up at four for. Whatever I’m thinking about, they hear it without polish. They know when my children are sick. They hear my gripes about work, and they kindly soft-pedal through all my yarns about the ugly news.

I try to answer their generosity with my own, but I rarely give as good as I get.

If I’m fit at 46 (and by most measures, I’m doing pretty good), it’s easy to assume it’s the biking. And that’s partly true: My riding is in relation to my health.

But I can roll that sentence in an opposite order, and it stays just as true: My health rides on my relationships. My connection to community. My gravel family.

You can trust your gravel family to celebrate your wins with uncorked positivity. (Photo, Matt Pearson)

On the Gravel Family Podcast, Sophia has one question she likes to ask every guest: “What does ‘gravel family’ mean to you?” I love hearing everyone’s answers. And I get to think about my own.

For me, gravel family has helped strengthen my family-family.

#gravelfamily
#familyfamily

Sure, my riding has its costs. My wife and kids can tell you: I’m gone a lot; I spend a lot; I’m tired a lot; sore a lot; distracted a lot. But there are healthy gains for us wrapped up with these costs.

My wife will always be my biggest source of support. But she’s not my only source. Thanks to my gravel family, I can count on several people when I need help keeping it together. And my marriage stays stronger because some of that burden of holding me up gets spread across multiple healthy relationships.

When my FTP drops 20 watts, Beth doesn’t have to hear about it. I got other people for that.

I like to think my kids know how to be better friends for having watched Beth and me manage several close, meaningful friendships ourselves. And I hope that watching me find joy in races we know I’ll never win has shaped the way they’ll measure success in their own lives.

If I’m doing this right, my kids will discover they have lots of routes toward wisdom, happiness and health. And they’ll know better than to overlook the unpaved ones.

A road less traveled (Photo, Joe Billesbach)

There’s actually good sociological science to back up my sense that a strong connection to community is deeply healthy.

Book I’m reading now is Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. Written in 2000 (or a couple breaths before social media), it takes a studied look at the general decline in American community engagement over my lifetime. And it tracks the impact of that decline on our well-being.

Once-common outlets for community, like bowling leagues and book clubs, have become rarer in the U.S. since the late 1960s or so.

Putnam crunched a hell of a lot of numbers on social capital and public health, and learned that our “social engagement actually has an independent influence on how long we live.”

He wrote, “If you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.”

Cycling by itself (or by ourselves) may be healthy. But riding together—with your pals, your teammates, your friendly neighborhood cycling league—appears to be much healthier. Probably because it adds a beneficial belonging to our mix.

Social animals ride together.

That’s always been true. But gravel cycling’s current explosion in popularity begs some key questions: Why now? And why the oxymoron? If we’re so hungry for a community like this, why did it take riding away from community to find it?

Nathan Allebach, an exquisitely mustachioed scholar of urbanism, might be onto a compelling answer. American cities, he said, are losing a winning component of community he called “third places.”

“A third place is somewhere people hang out that isn’t home and isn’t work,” Allebach said in a TikTok video, “like cafes, clubs, bars, libraries, churches, parks, plazas, barbershops—you get the idea.”

Cities tend to have fewer of them now, he said. And the ones that remain are often poorly suited (or even hostile) to walkers and cyclists.

“The third places most suburbs have today are car-dependent convenience chains,” Allebach said, “which are all consumer-centric businesses modeled after how on-the-go we’ve become.”

I could hang out in this queue of SUVs around this empty cafe all day, feeling just like James Baldwin in Paris. (Photo, Gene Puskar)

“Good third places are hard to come by today,” Allebach said. “Ones that encourage regulars to just hang out for hours, talking to strangers, or reading books, with little to no pressure to buy things, or ones that don’t encourage rushing out the door with mobile orders.”

So, the cycling crowd has had to look elsewhere for community. Throw in more traffic, more danger, more polarization and more outright hostility from drivers, and cyclists’ willingness to look farther and farther afield has grown.

If the thing hindering a city’s cycling culture is its driving culture, then the thing to do is to follow Wee Willie Keeler’s famous batting advice: “Hit ’em where they ain’t.”

Maybe the greatest contact hitter in MLB history, Keeler struck out just twice in 570 at-bats in 1899. (Photo, cmgww.com/baseball/keeler)

Enter gravel culture. It may not be a cafe or a club. But we’ve found ourselves a hard-won third place of our own out here. And regardless of how we finish, this third place always wins.

After surviving a hit-and-run with a drunk driver, Joe Billesbach is happiest riding where cars can’t follow. (Photo, Rebecca Wright)


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