Gail Spann is the lone Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia member who resides in Texas – but for her, it’s not weird at all. “Since I have friends scattered across the country,” she says, “it’s important to me that there’s an organization that’s overseeing what’s important for organizations across the country.” She’s also the vice chair of the League of American Bicyclists and a member of more than 40 bicycling advocacy organizations across the United States, has done Ragbrai, and rode across France, twice.
Since 1992, the Texan has been riding for important causes, been leading mountain biking clubs, and serving as a board member of various organizations around the country. For the last week of our March Member Drive, we talked to Spann about how she became so involved in bicycling advocacy around the United States, and why she’s a member of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.
How long have you been involved in bicycling organizations?
How did you get into it?
A friend challenged me, also in 1992, to ride from Houston to Austin for multiple sclerosis.
I hadn’t ridden since my younger years, when I first had children. Back then, I would take them on the back of my bike. I would go two miles, or so – that was a really long trip for me.
And when I was a kid I would bike to the beach all the time. I grew up South of Boston. It became something new in my life at the age of 37. I rode Houston to Austin didn’t know you could lower the saddle. I had three weeks of training; just a couple miles every day. I rode with some friends who would leave me in their dust every time we trained. It rained on me. They lost my tent at one point. It took nine-and-a-half hours, just the first day. And getting on the bike the second day was a nightmare for me because I was so sore.
But I got to the finish. I saw my family when I got home and my family asked how it was. I said, “It was the best time ever!” Then I bought a used bike a week later. That was the start of that.
So, that actually sounds like a pretty tough time. How come your immediate reaction was that it was the ‘best time ever’?
Even though I was sore and achy and cold, I loved the camaraderie of the bicycle people. I loved the volunteers, people saying “hang in there,” “we’re almost there,” and then the camping—I had a couple other people in my tent and we talked all night long, like I was back in high school again. We ate popcorn and laughed—and the flowers were beautiful, the blue bonnets. When I got to the finish line, I felt like I did something really amazing. Not only for me, but for people with MS.
I was never athletic—never. I never saw anything like that as something I would pursue. At my home, I noticed how every Sunday morning this big bike club would come whizzing by. I eventually got on the tail end until it became every week with this big group of people. They didn’t know my name but they admired me for trying.
A year-and-a-half later I was the first woman president of that club. I had 42 women who did a women’s-only ride. I was just hooked. Then I became the vice president of another club. Next thing I know, I was the captain of the road-racing team and the mountain biking team and I started racing and became a state champion mountain biker. I rode across Spain and Belgium, I rode across Kansas, and I won seven gold medals in the senior games in Texas.
I was racing mountain bikes one year and I broke my pelvis. I was self-employed at the time, with no insurance, and as I was laying on my living room floor on an air mattress every day, the biking community would ride over and bring me lunch, help my mother around the house, mow my lawn, play guitar and sing to me; every day bicyclists were there.
One day two different bike clubs showed up. They brought a huge card. I opened it and checks and cash came falling out. Turns out, they paid all my medical expenses. One woman, she wrote a $10 check and we became friends and we ended up racing together for years.
And I knew at that time that I would serve the biking community from then on. I have ever since. I think about that all the time – and when I’m doing board duties and think, ‘this is so much work,’ I think about all those people who did this for me.
That’s an amazing story. So, now you’re a member of 40 biking organizations, correct?
Forty-three, actually. All local and state bicycling clubs and organizations. I want to feel the pulse of what’s going on across the country and the best way to do that is to back it up with membership. When you’re a member, it gives you a voice and gives you an ear.
I married a bicyclist, too. He backs me in all I do. We give financially, great amounts to the biking world, and he just backs me and my passion. That’s why I belong to so many clubs—if I’m traveling somewhere, I will write to the local club and visit people. It’s wonderful. We know in the biking world there are occasionally kooky people, but it’s mostly amazing people.
This post is part of our March Member Drive. If you’re interested in becoming a member of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, renewing your membership, or giving a special gift, click the link below.