Christopher Smith

Big Wheels

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?"

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."

Out of such fiery conflict strong bonds are formed, and in the club's two-year history, Puckett has attempted to gather the group outside of commuting hours. One day last year he organized a litter pick-up day. "It didn't really work out, because no one wanted to get off his bike," he remembers.

Last spring he tried again. "I see that the Annual Employee Golf tournament is on August 14th," he noted in an April 2004 e-mail. "Anyone interested in a Siberian Cycling Team entry?"

"Siberians don't golf, they bike!" McConville fired back. "Count me out."

"Alright, so forget the golf ball," Puckett responded. "It would be hard to putt from the bike anyway. Maybe we could use a dead goat and throw it at the flag pin. I think they play a game similar to that in Afghanistan."

"Paul's goat toss sounds interesting," Siberian James Caravan, a city public-works administrator, wrote.

"How about a live goat sacrifice?" Satter proposed. "Or a chicken."

"I don't see what's so bad about the goat idea," Puckett replied. "Why would the goat complain? How often does a goat get a chance to play golf?"

Subsequent plans have been scrapped.

Most of the Siberians' correspondence, however, revolves around the morning's inclement commute, with appropriate responses and pre-emptive defenses.

"Alas, my heart was with the lucky Siberians this morning who were getting the last wet, icy shards that Old Man Winter is sloshing our direction," Puckett wrote one morning last year. "But, my delicate physical condition did not permit me to join our brave hearts in battling this last assault on the prerogatives of Spring. Cheerio and Bravo! I can only hope that your weekend is equally miserable."

"When did Wallace Stegner join the group, for cryin out loud?" Andrew Saliman, another city attorney, replied indignantly via e-mail.

"Yes, my New Siberian Biker friends," Satter wrote last November after rolling into downtown through an early-winter snowfall from his south Denver home. "It was a winter wonderland this morning, bicycling across the snow and slush. I am confident that all of you bicycled into work this morning, as did I. The inspector, Hon. Jay Breese, will be hard at work verifying this."

"Confirmation of Judge Satter's trip has been recorded," Breese, a non-cycling, but associated, county judge, wrote back minutes later. "Tire temperature when measured at 7:41 am is consistent with his arrival at approximately 6:30 a.m."

A few minutes later, Breese sent out another memo: "All vehicles are of course subject to immediate and complete inspection. The inspector and his staff have other responsibilities (still looking for WMD in Iraq, for Jimmy Hoffa, etc.) and only conduct random examinations. The Inspector does note with concern that Mr. Elley is missing and absent -- he presumably did not ride in today. It is utterly no excuse that he retired."

Elley -- Gary Elley, a former administrator in the city's budget-management office -- retired at the end of last June. On his final day of work, the club gathered in front of the Wellington Webb building and followed Elley home on their bikes, where his wife had a party waiting.

"It was a perfect day," Puckett remembers nostalgically. "Wet and rainy."


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