Ooh, Ooh, That Smell: Safety Planning for the Long Haul

What’s “safe”, or relatively safe, makes a pretty big difference to me and my partner, Russ, as we look at how best to be healthy while planning and completing the remaining 2ish years of this cycling and video project in Georgia and Alabama through the pandemic. Smells never used to pose the same questions they do now. I mean, when I ride by someone who’s freshly coiffed and perfumed, I do still wonder what was the point of getting dolled up for exercise, unless it was a date. Some smells are messing with my chi right now though, especially on Big Creek Greenway.

The original basic plan was to make the project goal on 8 paved miles of the Big Creek Greenway in Roswell and Alpharetta, Georgia. We would ride both directions 2 or 3 times per week for 32-48 miles with the near certainty that we’d get 30-60 minutes of good video for every week with rideable conditions and hopefully capture the occasional spectacular wildlife sighting. Big Creek is the shorter drive from home and the gently curving trail along the streambed is pretty with good habitat for wildlife viewing. It was perfect for the smaller basic plan, “was” being the operative word.

With the Shelter in Place order came change. The bike shops were deemed essential and they sold out. The people who bought all the bikes (and those who didn’t) showed up on trails everywhere straining park staff and facilities and crowding green spaces. The Greenway was filled with people not following social distancing nor mask guidelines, sometimes they even look at us a bit funny when we do. It seemed like we would have to postpone or cancel the project. After a couple of months of staying home, we realized that the project was more important than ever.

By definition, there’s no long standing science specific to any novel pandemic. There are guesses based on similar diseases, and a developing knowledge base that changes as we learn. Mistakes are made in haste and under pressure. Good information takes effort to find and it is hard for people without a science background to interpret or distinguish the good from the bad. People get burn-out, especially with the politicization of the subject. Some are too overloaded to even try to sniff out any answers.

What I’ve been able to find suggests 16-20 yards of separation is probably safe cycling. But, there are all kinds of variables. As Russ and I discuss what we will or won’t do, we’ve had some pretty detailed discussions, and even though we both have science backgrounds, we haven’t come up with the same safety parameters all the time.

One day, I was riding a remote section of the Silver Comet with, maybe, one trail user per mile. A guy passes me easily and when he’s around 30 or 40 yards beyond me I catch a whiff of “he’s been riding for a while”. Body odor or perfume is not something you pay much attention to until there are people dying and you’re trying to figure out how not to be one of them. Smelling smokers and other odors through my mask, especially when riding to, and through, Brushy Mountain Tunnel has caused me to wonder all kinds of things.

The tunnel is really damp. There is usually water trickling down the exterior sides at the entrance, and unless we’re in drought conditions, there are puddles on the tunnel floor. Air passing through the tunnel has been moving eastward since I started paying attention. So, as I come up to the tunnel from the east, I feel cool, damp air with a slight headwind well before I get there. Recently, I smelled a smoker on the far side of the tunnel while I was still at least 50 yards away. The tunnel is 800 ft long (about 267 yards). So I was able to sense particles, some of which came from inside someone else’s lungs, in the air over 300 yards away. I was really questioning that 20 yard figure.

It makes me all the more wary of sharing crowded trails with unmasked hikers and bikers who think business as usual is fine. Russ says “But smell particles are so much bigger than virions…” Well, you know I had to look that up. Turns out he was correct related to smoke particles, but incorrect about most smell particles. But, here’s the thing. Does size really matter? I really don’t know that much about the fluid dynamics and aerodynamics of nano or micro-particulates.

I do know virions like humidity, the kind the south is known for, the kind the tunnel is filled with. Should I be paying attention to smell and humidity? I often take several deep hyperventilating breaths as I approach a trail user, hold it as long as possible while passing and exhale slowly afterward. I have varying levels of success depending on my level of exertion and how soon I saw them. And when the trail is too crowded to have time for that my comfort level riding goes down.

Am I being ridiculous? I don’t know. There are enough variables to drive a girl crazy, even one who’s comfortable with science.

We don’t know that we can be safe, but we do know that strong and healthy is better than weak and stressed. So, as I’m looking at the project and making choices, I’m looking at three things. 1.) If I do get sick, my chances of a complete recovery will be better if I’m healthy and cycling regularly. My health and mental health were going downhill fast during “Shelter in Place”, so, I’m going to do everything I can to get out there and build my health back up, even take it to new levels. 2.) There are fewer people, and fewer unique people on the trail out in the rural areas of the Silver Comet and and Chief Ladiga Trails, so the basic plan needs move out there, even with the extra time and cost. 3.) Much of the stretch plan is already possible. There’s a good chance of a vaccine or better treatments as time goes on, so there is also a good likelihood that the whole plan will be possible.

Edit: The vaccinations make a world of difference to our riding safety confidence, but we’re still trying to be careful. Being better about our health habits will, I hope, be a lifelong new habit… well, it will, but I hope that’s a long mostly disease free life.

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