A Q&A with Fred Zelt: Founder of the Social Distance Cycling Club

One year ago, Fred Zelt launched the Social Distance Cycling Club (SDCC) to provide a platform for cyclists to support and encourage each other. The Facebook group is now almost 8000 members strong, with members in 69 countries and counting. 

On this week’s blog, we speak to Fred about how he continues to keep group members engaged and uplifted, and what’s next for the SDCC!

You launched SDCC in March 2020, so you’re officially one year old! What first made you want to create this group?

 On the evening of Monday, March 11 as I cycled home along the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, I felt really good.  I had just spent an hour participating in a local radio show talking about volunteering in a Multiple Sclerosis clinic, plans for an 11,400 mile pedal around the perimeter of the US I had planned with four Bike the US for MS groups in April-October 2020, a Pittsburgh Bike Film Festival benefiting MS we had planned to hold in a large cinema on March 22, and an auction of original Pittsburgh-themed art planned at a local cider house in just a few days, on Friday March 13. 

The next morning it became apparent that we would need to shift the live art auction benefit to online-only and cancel the file festival.  In the next week or so it was not looking good for cycling a Big Loop around the US starting in April, either.

This was sad, disappointing and frustrating and I knew a lot of other cyclists were feeling the same way.  I decided to start the Social Distance Cycling Club  to commiserate with others and give us a place to communicate and encourage each other.  I thought the group might grow to a few hundred members and at first I hoped it would not be needed in a few weeks.

The group grew slowly for a few days, then after a week or so the growth really took off.  I have always emphasized the importance of the group being a positive space, and that we would be focusing on posts about safe, socially distanced cycling.  It’s a very active group, but values quality over quantity.

Do you find there’s a particular demographic the group attracts, or is it quite varied?

The members are fairly evenly split between men and women, with Facebook stats showing 47% identified as women.  Although we have some teenage members, most are over 45 years old.  According to Facebook <1% are identified as gender-neutral.

We currently have 7670 members in 69 countries. I think a thousand or more of the members are in Iowa and surrounding states, so RAGBRAI is a big thing with the group and we have seen lots of photos of the High Trestle Bridge, which a lot of us now want to see.  Two of our most active days were last summer when the 2020 RAGBRAI was cancelled and we invited people to post memories of past RAGBRAIs.  Also we all learned about slap koozies.  Three Iowans sent slap koozies to me, and there are slap koozies on my bike now. 

It has been great to see posts from Alaska, Brazil, Japan, Korea, Romania, Israel, Egypt, Australia, South Africa and more.

What did you envision when setting up the SDCC this time last year, and how accurate is it to what the group represents today?

The Facebook group has not worked out as I initially expected at all!  At the very beginning around March 13, I thought it might be good to have a group of cyclists to commiserate with for a few weeks when so many group activities were being cancelled.  

After a month I thought the group might be needed until June 1.  Then until August 1.  Then October.  By early August it became clear that enough group members wanted to group to continue, that we should carry on into 2021. 

Having grown to almost 8000 members in the 12 months since its launch, why do you think SDCC has gained such quick popularity?

A lot of members say they very much appreciate being part of a positive online community of like-minded cyclists with no politics or hateful comments.  2020 was such a tough year, and it was great to have a refuge.

The admin team and moderators ensure that everyone knows that this is not the place for negative comments and posts.  There have been a few people who really want to be edgy online, and there are plenty of other places for that.

With a growing profile, how do you keep SDCC’s members engaged, interested, and still feeling like part of a community?

As of March 3, there have been over 22,000 posts sharing nearly 64,000 photos in the group.  Popular posts will be viewed by 5,000 members and can receive a hundred comments or more. We also enjoy the many posts where people just check in and let us know what they are doing.  Often these more typical posts are the ones that really help inspire and encourage people to get out and cycle.  

We have experimented with more than 50 different themes, and every weekend through the summer we had at least one theme. One of the popular weekend themes last summer was Water vs. Sky, when we encouraged posts with photos of water, sky or both.  There were some amazing photos that weekend, and some members have said they have changed the way they ride because of the group.  They are now looking all around at the landscape, looking for neat views to photograph and appreciating their surroundings more than they did previously.   

We also had themes encouraging cycling photos with Art Murals, Furry Workout Friends (lots of dogs and cats, but one member cycling with a parrot named Twitter on the handlebars!), Team Jersey Weekend, Skyscraper Day and more.  Some themes we had invited members to post about their favorite local bike shops, cycling-related businesses, cycling apparel and cycling gear. I now have in mind a couple types of bikes I would like to have someday, that I knew nothing about before those themes.

cover images

Cover images taken by members of SDCC

Early on, it became apparent that we have members who are really excellent artists and photographers.  So we had artist and photographer showcases, with one artist or photographer per day being invited to create a post showing their work with a link to where their work might be found and purchased online, if their work is available. We also feature member photos as cover photos, typically with a new one each week.

For a month or so last summer, we had weekly Therapy Thursdays, which aimed to give people opportunities to express, and to hear and see, what we appreciate about cycling during the pandemic. We suggest that members just check in and let the group know how they are doing, which we welcome always.  We started thinking of the group as a community not a single-themed group that posts cycling photos or questions.

When did you first get into cycling, and what was it that attracted you to it the most?

I loved riding my oldest brother’s old Schwinn cruiser on dirt paths and riding my 10-speed with friends on roads when I was 12 to 15 years old in suburban Pittsburgh.  Bikes were freedom!  

My college jogging partner started a cross-country cycling journey after we graduated, and that really got my attention.  She started in California and sent me a postcard while drinking gin by a campfire in Yosemite.  I’m not sure how much farther she went…!

I commuted on a bike my first year of grad school.  A couple of years later I read an Outing Magazine article about Thomas Stevens’ trip across the US on a Penny-Farthing in 1884, the first transcontinental bike trip.  That really got my attention, and increased my desire to cycle across the USA someday.  

I decided to cycle cross country after retiring in 2015, researched the options and chose to ride the Northern Tier from Maine to Seattle in 2017 with a Bike the US for MS group.  It was an amazing experience, and we became like family.  I cycled in all weather and every day from New Years to Easter in Pittsburgh in 2019; and pedaled a double English century (200 miles, one day) as an MS fundraiser in 2019.  I think in 2019 (at age 59) because of cycling I was the strongest and most fit I have been in my life.  I was very surprised to suddenly notice during that early 2019 period of daily cycling that my balance had been restored to what it was in my 20’s, I think due to cycling on Pittsburgh ice and snow.

Right now in addition to helping watch over the SDCC Facebook group, I created Earth Science Excursions, LLC and through that as a volunteer I am creating and teaching a STEM and Cycling curriculum in Pittsburgh and leading geology hikes to waterfalls and my favorite other scenic spots in western Pennsylvania.  The hikes are a way to share with people the best of the cool outdoors places I found on mental health excursions during the pandemic in 2020.  

What’s next for SDCC?

There has never been a clear ‘plan’ for SDCC.  We have experimented, learned and adapted as we moved forward (sounds like 2020, right?).  A lot of us want to remain friends online past the pandemic, and to have a chance to meet in person when it is safe. Many of us have a lot of new friends thanks to the pandemic, which is odd, right?

Join the conversation over on the Social Distance Cycling Club. You can also find out more about the group in the links below:

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