Gary Helfrich doesn’t get to ride his bike as much as he’d like these days, which is odd because he’s the executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.
The 1,200-member coalition, the county’s most noteworthy cycling advocacy group, is a presence at city council and county supervisor meetings, a constant champion of getting more people on bikes and making those riders safe on our roads and trails.
For five years, Helfrich, the knowledgeable and eminently quotable head of the coalition, has been the area’s voice for cyclists. But at the end of the month, he’ll step down as executive director, which will free him up for a lot of things — for one, riding his bike again.
“I’ve gotten really out of shape,” he said. “I’ve worked so hard with the bike coalition, I don’t get to ride my bike anymore.”
Those who have worked with Helfrich credit him for both his passion for bikes and cyclist safety, and his knowledge of government — of politics, more specifically.
“Whenever I called Gary on an issue, he’s knowledgeable, well-versed in process,” said Gary Wysocky, a Santa Rosa City Council member and past president and founding board member of the bicycle coalition.
“I can’t say enough about my interactions with him on government issues,” he said. “He knows the right people to call. He had relationships built up with those people.”
Those relationships have helped grow projects like Safe Routes to Schools, the Safe Streets campaign, the establishment of more miles of bikes lanes across the county and, anecdotally, the number of people on bikes.
It’s hard not to feel there are more people out there riding than ever before.
Before he took over the top job at the coalition, Helfrich worked as a planner for the county of Sonoma. That is where he will return on June 29.
“Bicycling safety is not just recreation but transportation in our community,” Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “He was a planner in the county, so I think he does get the big picture.”
And the big picture is that bikes belong.
“When you think of it, there aren’t cyclists and drivers — there is a person driving, there is a person riding, there is a person walking,” Helfrich said. “They are people going through their day doing X and Y and Z.”
“You don’t objectify a person by how they get around in the world,” he said.
And he’s quick to say that goes both ways — for someone who rides a bike or someone who drives an Escalade.
“People see somebody riding a bike as somebody different than them,” he said. “We are so small-minded about people being different.”
I asked whether the daily beatdown that cyclists are sometimes subjected to is driving him out of the job. He laughed.
“My skin was pretty thick from being a county planner,” he said.
Worse than anti-bike sentiment, he said, are the disappointments of the already converted.
“What takes it out of me more are the people I care about who feel we haven’t taken care of their needs,” he said.