Big Wheels

These Siberians roll before gearing up to govern.

A strong weekend storm has just dumped a foot of wet spring snow on Denver -- perfect weather for the New Siberians. By 8 a.m., e-mails are whipping back and forth between the City and County Building and the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building, across the street.

"It turns out I am the wimp-ass bed wetter today," reports Denver County Court Judge Ray Satter. "With the combination of my wife's fury and the storm, I have done a horrible thing: I drove."

Per the New Siberians' club protocol, he receives little support. "Ray is generally a true Siberian who scoffs at cold and windy conditions," responds Marty Shea, a software developer for the city. "In light of his expression of remorse, I think we should overlook his flaccid excuse and offer him the opportunity to redeem himself. I suggest that Ray personally wash the bikes of all who rode in this morning. Any other suggestions?"

Christopher Smith

Matt McConville, Denver's county court administrator, has one. "Ray should sell his gas-guzzling SUV and buy us all new bicycles."

"I'm taking a lot of shit," Satter grumbles mid-morning. "These guys are having a field day."

Shea, a former rider for the University of Denver who slogged all the way downtown from his home in the far stretches of southeast Denver, sixteen miles away -- including a one-mile stretch through Cherry Creek State Park, in which he actually carried his bike through the snowdrifts -- has a legitimate right to distribute crap. As the morning wears on, however, the truth leaks out: Many New Siberians have succumbed to varying degrees of wimpiness in the face of the storm.

Geoffrey Wasson, a city attorney, parked his car about two miles away and rode the rest. Paul Puckett, another city attorney, had his wife dump him and his bike off a few blocks from the office. Robert Merritt, who works in the auditor's office, carpooled with his wife to a drop-off site a couple blocks away, then pedaled triumphantly the remainder of the trip -- more a blatant attempt to avoid humiliation than a genuine bicycle commute.

But avoiding harassment is a crucial part of being a New Siberian. "I knew that if I didn't ride today, Ray would just blast me," confesses McConville. So as the spring blizzard receded on April 11, he shoveled out his driveway and started pedaling. After portaging his bike through several drifts near his Park Hill home, he made it in the rest of the way without hazard.

Calling the New Siberians a legitimate club is a little unfair to real organizations, such as the Sierra Club, or even a group of fifth-graders with a treehouse. It's more a loose affiliation of highly educated municipal cranks who try to leaven every dash of athleticism with a gallon of one-upmanship while embracing the concept of alternative commuting. On a recent ride, bike styles varied, from low-cost beater to Shea and Puckett's studded-snow-tire models. REI foul-weather gear is standard, although several Siberians also showed up for the ride in jeans.

The group was formed about two years ago, when Puckett noticed Satter and McConville riding their bikes to work on the worst days imaginable. They began e-mailing, comparing commutes and haranguing one another when someone drove, and the New Siberians were born. Others more or less become members when they ride and write; officers are self-appointed. Satter is the "spiritual leader," Puckett the "spiritual gadfly." "My job is to keep the pot stirred up," he explains.

It's not a job that is his alone. "Ray called me a while back," McConville recalls, "and said, 'In 2003, you did pretty well; you rode 87.2 percent of the days. But I rode 88.3 percent."

As of this month, there were fourteen Siberians, all well-placed city workers. Some are committed to full-time bicycle commuting; others drag out their metal steeds only when the weather turns sour. "Anybody can ride when the weather's nice," Puckett points out.

"You feel really smug," adds Satter. "It's nice to hear my clerks yell at me: 'You're a moron!'"

A couple of weeks ago, Merritt was riding along the Cherry Creek bike path when a guy leaned out of his clunker auto and screamed at him to get a job and buy a vehicle. "I have a job," Merritt informed him as he pedaled next to the guy. "And I make more money than you. And my bike is probably worth more than your car."

A club made up of lawyers and top-level bureaucrats is bound to get in a few scrapes. A few months ago, a mid-level functionary at the Webb Building issued an edict banning bicyclists from riding down the structure's garage ramp. Appalled and a little bored, the Siberians mobilized. Brad Klafehn, an active Siberian and a manager in the city's budget-management office, led the lobbying effort. "You don't want to mess with budget people," Puckett advises. "They're the ultimate fixers -- the enforcers."

After the Siberians threatened to use a radar gun to check the speeds of both cars and bicycles entering the garage, the issue was settled "in a gentleman-like way," Puckett says. "We can ride our bikes down the ramp, as long as we stay under five miles per hour."

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