Dear Ms. Smartphone: I just got a high-end, aluminum frame bicycle and plan to do more local cycling by myself, and also with a club. I am conflicted about whether bicyclists should bring smartphones on the trip. I can easily store the phone in a saddle-bag under the seat, but should I take a phone with me at all? Isn’t the whole point of cycling to get outdoors and be free? Corbin, San Rafael
Dear Corbin: As people spend more time working from home and on computers, they are discovering, like you, the flip side: the need to turn off and get outside. A bicycle trek seems like the perfect antidote for these digital times.
I see three reasons why you might want to pack that phone in the saddle-bag, but read on to the end.
First, you mentioned that you will be cycling with a club. Often club members like to check in on each other’s adventures, and announce their milestones through an app like Strava. If that is you, then you need your phone to record the trip distance, elevation, speed and time. Although that brings an element of competition to the sport, it can also be motivational. Alternatively, you could do a handlebar mount with a wireless receiver that is compatible with apps and smart trainers, so a phone is not the only option. If this is what makes you cycle better and longer, go for it!
A second reason to carry the phone is so that you don’t miss that special moment when you yearn for a picture. Occasionally you will discover a picture-perfect “Kodak Moment.” That image could be as tiny as a lizard sunning on the road, or as panoramic as the sun rising on San Pablo Bay. The point is that you have the camera on your smartphone poised, ready to preserve that memory.
The final reason the phone might be useful, God forbid, is if you encounter someone in an accident or if you are in one yourself. From my transportation background: in 2018 854 bicyclists were killed in collisions with motor vehicles, and there has been a 38 percent increase since the low point in 2010 and the highest number of fatalities in 30 years. By the way, pedestrian fatalities have increased 46 percent over the same period and people outside of motor vehicles now account for a fifth of all traffic deaths. So, while carrying the phone might make you feel better prepared, you must keep the device out of sight and out of your hands.
If you have a connected wrist watch, like the Apple watch with cellular service, then you would not need to bring the phone. However, that forfeits the picture- taking ability. Moreover, it tips towards distraction. That small screen is constantly updating the time, and depending on the settings, updates for calls, texts, and chat.
Until recently, say 2008, we did not have wireless smartphones that accompanied us on outdoor trips. I am not counting the Blackberry, which emerged circa 2000, because it was essentially a tool for business email, not recreational purposes. Until the last decade, bikers and hikers taking short day treks managed to ramble without being tethered to a phone. We tend to overestimate our personal chances of encountering an emergency, and underestimate that others are nearby to help. And, we have forgotten that a sketch book and diary are alternatives to the photo image, even if we cannot post it on social media.
But one final note: In my hometown bikers seem to pack their phones out-of-sight but pull them out as soon as they finish their ride. They culminate their hilly up and down trip by congregating at a foody hangout for a deserved snack and iced drink. And, how do they pay? With Google Pay or Apple Wallet, naturally.