Silicon Valley’s Spandexed Biker Bros Are Going Extinct
This article is part of Into the Valley, a feature series from OneZero about Silicon Valley, the people who live there, and the technology they create.
For as long as anyone in Palo Alto can remember, every weekday at noon, dozens of tech workers, venture capitalists, local Olympians, and professional athletes make their way to the dead end of Old Page Mill Road. Here, they gather with a simple purpose: to ride bikes.
Since at least the ’70s, members of the so called Noon Ride have spent their lunch hours hammering through the foothills of Silicon Valley, trying to tear each other’s legs off, and on occasion, investing in each other’s startups. That is, if they can get their pitch in before the first climb up Arastradero Road.
The Noon Ride and other group rides like it have become a sacred tradition for tech workers in Silicon Valley. With its incredible roads, humbling vistas, and mild weather, the Bay Area is one of the best places to ride a bike in the United States, perhaps even the planet. And you never know who you might ride with: venture capitalist Randy Komisar is a Noon Rider, as is Olympian Linda Jackson. In 2005, Komisar called cycling a meritocratic sport for a new meritocratic industry, and the new golf of Silicon Valley. Networking was no longer a case of schmoozing with the right person, but suffering with them. Over the years, the golf comparison became a cliché, echoed in The Economist, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
But the Silicon Valley of 2020 is not the Silicon Valley of 2005. It has, in the local vernacular, scaled. No longer a land of plucky entrepreneurs with bold ideas, Silicon Valley has become the nesting ground of corporate giants. What was once an industry promising to disrupt society toward something better has led to a decade of worker exploitation, election interference, misinformation, and far-right radicalization.
Cycling is going through changes too. Road riding, the specific vein that became wildly popular in Silicon Valley, is falling out of favor. Late last year the Tour of California — arguably America’s most high-profile bike race and the only one to attract the world’s best teams — was canceled over unspecified money problems. Amateur road racing is declining, road bike sales are down, and the industry is shifting toward more adventure-style riding categories like gravel, mountain, and bike-packing — disciplines that encourage exploration with friends over cutthroat competition.
It’s a set of changing circumstances that puts a big question mark on a hallmark of Silicon Valley culture. Biking is shifting away from Old Page Mill Road. As the tech industry has grown, it seems like fewer people are riding to be a part of the Silicon Valley pack, and more people are riding to escape it altogether.
In 1988, Greg Gretsch was a 22-year-old who had just graduated college, moved to California, and started work at Apple as a product marketer. “I remember I was trying to find my ‘California sport,’” says Gretsch, now a partner at VC firm Jackson Square Ventures. “I bought a bike, someone told me about this Apple bike club, and I started riding with this group every day at noon.”
Cycling always had a home in the Bay Area. In the late ’70s, Tom Ritchey and Gary Fisher tested the world’s first mountain bikes on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco. At the time, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were toiling away on the Apple II. Inevitably, the two industries collided.
Fewer people are riding to be a part of the Silicon Valley pack, and more people are riding to escape it altogether.
By the ’90s and early 2000s, cycling had become synonymous with Silicon Valley. Unlike other “California sports” like surfing, hiking, or climbing, cycling features a unique combination of competitiveness, camaraderie, and metric-based performance markers, as well as a whole new avenue of conspicuous consumption: $5,000 custom-built titanium frames, $3,000 carbon fiber wheels, electronic shifting that starts at $1,500. In the Valley, it’s not uncommon to see a rider rolling on $20,000 worth of gear.
It was a sport that fit the exact profile of the Valley’s type-A, mostly male, mostly white crowd of visionaries, disruptors, and soon-to-be Masters of the Universe. Get your startup funded on Monday, buy a brand new bike on Tuesday, drop everyone on the group ride on Wednesday. Repeat.
Randy Komisar and VCs like him became mainstays at the area’s numerous group rides — like the Noon Ride’s companion, the Morning Ride, and the hugely popular Spectrum Ride, which draws close to 100 riders every Saturday. What began as a unique way to blow off steam transformed into a unique way to strike deals.
“If you’re a VC and you’re going to invest in a company, take the CEO of that company up Old La Honda,” says Jeff Selzer, general manager of Palo Alto Bicycles, one of the Bay Area’s longest-running bike shops and one that historically catered to the tech industry’s cyclists. “Does he just stop and get off the bike and call an Uber? Does he complain the whole way up? Does he doggedly push and go? It’s amazing character definition, at least under adversity.”
In 2016, Gretsch launched “the Startup Ride,” which he says serves an excuse to go for an early-morning ride, but also a pretext for networking.
“I think a lot of people show up for the connections,” he says. A big draw, he explains, is seeing who RSVPs to the ride on Strava, a social media platform for athletes. “That’s your motivation: ‘Oh I can’t not go because Johnny is going to be there.’”
Gretsch says his Startup Ride attracts about two dozen riders every Friday morning and is still growing. From where he sits, cycling is just as vital to Silicon Valley culture as it was 20 years ago. “Cycling is a legitimate social activity for business networking, or for bonding with people you work with professionally. It’s here to stay,” he says.
But anecdotal evidence suggests that the area’s established group rides are graying — attracting more middle-aged men in lycra than anyone else.
Gretsch says that’s just how the sport works. “Cycling skews older because people don’t get addicted to cycling until they get older.” Unlike mountain climbing, running, or surfing, cycling is a low-impact sport, so it makes sense that most who got their start in the ’80s and ’90s are still riding today — even if they are pushing 50, 60, and 70.
But the sport needs new blood too — and at this point, long-standing rides like the Noon Ride seem to be attracting boomers rather than millennials. “I’d say the median age is around 45 now,” says Bruce Matheson, a Noon Ride regular since 1983. “When I started it was a lot of guys in their 20s and it’s just gotten older since.”
The first thing Matheson does when he rolls up to the Noon Ride on a Tuesday in November is pull out a printout of Google Maps. It’s a sunny day, with the temperature in the low 60s. “Here’s the route for today,” the 65-year-old construction company owner says as he hands me the carefully folded piece of paper.
There are no official organizers of the Noon Ride. But as one of the ride’s most tenured individuals, Matheson is an elder statesman of sorts. Riders come up to say hello in the minutes before the ride starts, and at precisely 12 p.m. it’s Matheson who signals the start of the ride, leading the bunch up Old Page Mill.
“This is a ride for losers,” says Sassan Golafshan, who owns two gyms in the Bay Area and founded an antimicrobial activewear company called Kleen Fabrics, as we roll toward Arastradero Road. “It’s all retired guys or the underemployed who can show up for a ride at noon.”
“I’d say the median age is around 45 now.”
Given the bikes around me — Pinarello Dogma F12 (MSRP: $12,000), Trek Émonda SLR 9 (MSRP: $11,299), Specialized S-Works Tarmac (MSRP: $10,000) — these are losers with cash to burn. And anyone who can carve out an hour and a half during the middle of a workday must be winning at some level.
At 31 years old, I was one of the youngest people on this ride. Wherever the industry’s next wave of younger founders are, it didn’t look like they were here. Still, rides like these remain valuable networking opportunities.
On one Noon Ride, I chatted up a regular about being a freelance writer, and he quickly asked a pointed question: “Do you know anything about semiconductors?” I responded that, well, I know what they are. “Well, I used to be the CMO at semiconductor company. If you’re looking for some marketing copy work, I can put you in touch.”
Despite the ride’s growing median age, neither Bruce, nor this retired CMO, nor any of the dozen or so Noon Ride regulars I spoke to seem concerned. The younger riders might be elsewhere, but why should they care?
In 2014, Bay Area video game artist Stevo Chang founded Fatcake cycling club almost as a joke, he says. Unlike the more “serious” group rides of the area, Fatcake, Chang says, is about enjoying life. Enjoying the ride, enjoying others, and most importantly, enjoying baked goods afterward.
“It’s all based around cake and pastries,” he says. “It kind of changes the dynamic a little bit; it’s less serious and less about networking and more about the food.”
Fatcake is interested in upending the traditional role cycling has played in the Bay Area: Monday is a women’s ride, Tuesday offers a dirt loop in the Marin Headlands for those looking to explore, and Thursday the group decides what route they want to take based on what they feel like eating post-ride. Fatcake’s welcoming nature tends to attract a younger, more gender-diverse crowd. “We have people who are still in school, people who are in tech jobs, and we do have a couple older people that might join once in awhile,” says Chang. “I feel like our group is such a weird, niche group.”
Weird? Maybe. Niche? Perhaps not. Based on Strava numbers, Fatcake has nearly three times the membership of Gretsch’s Startup Ride. (And while anyone can join the Startup Ride on Strava, you need to be approved before you can join Fatcake.)
“It’s meant to be for everyone and there’s no judgment — unless you’re not wearing a helmet,” Chang says. “We’re just trying to bring the whole community together through cycling and food. It’s pretty simple.”
Chang is part of the Bay Area’s newer, younger cycling culture. He says he sees a shift in how younger people are getting into the sport. The most popular rides among this newer generation are ones that promise adventure, dirt, and snacks.
Simply put, road riding just isn’t as cool as it was 10 years ago.
These rides include the Huckleberry Ramble — a monthly 25-mile romp through the dirt roads and single track of the Marin Headlands. Just about every Friday there’s the #CoffeeOutsideSF ride where folks slow-roll out to “the spot” — the roof of an abandoned pillbox in the Headlands that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge — make coffee, and hang out. There’s even an annual Super Bowl campout, a bike-packing ride organized by local randonneuring group Boyzonthehoods, that sees scores of cyclists strapping as much (or as little) gear and food as possible on their bikes, as they head over the bridge and to a campsite in Mill Valley to escape the big game.
These organized rides are less about beating the pack than finding a community among them. Organized group rides only tell part of the story. Based on a number of conversations I had with folks my age who ride bikes in Silicon Valley — friends, competitors, colleagues, or just people I follow on Instagram — exploration, above anything else, is why they ride.
A decade ago, there were maybe a few dozen people who’d even heard of the Planet of the Apes Ride — a route that takes you through an abandoned section of Highway 1, and drops you down into Half Moon Bay. Now it’s right there on Strava’s website.
Selzer, too, can see these changes happening with sales numbers in his own shop.
“In 2015 or so, we started seeing a precipitous drop in road bikes, and an increase in mountain bikes,” he says. “There are younger people riding, they’re just not riding in packs on the road.”
Simply put, road riding just isn’t as cool as it was 10 years ago, explains Ely Ruth Rodriguez, veteran Bay Area cyclist and bag maker. The most appealing thing about bike-packing or gravel riding is that they haven’t already been taken over by the older generations.
For these riders, cycling is more about social capital, not venture capital, and biking isn’t a way to ride themselves into power, but rather, a way to briefly escape it. To go on a ride with friends and eat some tasty croissants at Arsicault before clocking in and realizing someone else’s vision for the world.