I’m behind schedule for my meeting with Zach Cone. Superheroes are usually on time and I don't want to be late. I scan the Minuteman Bikeway but can’t find him. My panic rises: maybe I got the date or the place wrong. And then he appears. It’s hard to miss a man in a red cape.
“Biker Boy,” I say, “it's good to see you.” Zach smiles. I think it's at me, but I'm wrong. “Nice helmet,” he says to a girl riding past. “I like it.”
I first met Biker Boy at the Boston Bicycle Summit. “I dress up in this superhero costume and talk to kids and encourage them to wear a helmet,” Zach said. That sounded interesting and made me wonder what he looked like in action. Zach was more than willing to let me watch and we arranged to meet at the Minuteman Bikeway on a Sunday afternoon.
Zach first got into biking as a student at Brookline High School. “I realized I could sleep an extra 20-minutes in the morning if I rode to school,” he said. In college, Zach, a certified early education teacher, commuted to his job at a pre-school. “I began telling stories to the kids about superheroes. That’s when I made up this character, Biker Boy, whose bike has magical powers that tells him if someone's in trouble. The kids loved it. They thought it was real and that I was Biker Boy, even though I told them I wasn't.”
Those kids were right, though Zach didn't know it at the time. “Six months ago I drove cross-country with some friends. We brought our bikes so we could ride as much as possible. That's when I realized Boston has a lot of work to do to be a bike friendly city and I decided to be part of the solution.”
Biker Boy explained: “Drivers, bikers, pedestrians: we've all got to get along. That means everyone following the rules. I figure it's part education and part enforcement. Drivers don't know cyclists' rights and cyclists don't follow the rules, especially the younger ones. They just think they're invincible and run stop signs. And pedestrians: well, jaywalking is standard. I've almost hit people who dart out between cars and run across the street.” Even Biker Boy can't see through steel.
“How are you part of the solution to Boston’s bicycle problem?” I asked. Zach did not hesitate: “I talk to people politely. There's too much anger in the first place. And I encourage them to wear helmets.”
This is where the superhero costume comes in: it’s hard to get mad at a guy with a cape, and children tend to notice him. We've been talking for a while and Biker Boy looks restless: there are children to encourage.
We walk over to the bike path, where we see a bunch of racers in spandex speed by, all but one wearing a helmet. Then a couple of teenagers pedal past, both wearing helmets. “Nice helmet, I like it,” Biker Boy shouts. They turn, smile and ride on. A middle-aged guy without a helmet rolls by and laughs at Zach. “Hey, it's Batman.” Zach keeps on smiling. “I hear that a lot.”
Right then Sammy Schrager of Newton rides by with his parents. He stops and looks happy to meet Biker Boy. “I always wear a helmet 'cause I don't want to get hurt.” His parents smile, too. They are also wearing helmets.
I ask Biker Boy what he says to teenagers. Bicycle Boy has thought about this a lot. “Well, teenagers are tougher but it's important to use humor and encourage them, too. I'm making a video about this and Bikes Not Bombs has a bunch of videos on line. We’ve got to make helmets seem cool, because they are.” Biker Boy adds that this will not be easy.
There aren't many kids on the bikeway today but Zach's not worried. “Each kid I encourage is another kid wearing a helmet.” Just as we're about to head home, Levi, who's almost four, and his brother, Weston, who's six, pull over. That superhero costume is doing its job. Weston says he always wears a helmet, “Because if you don't you might fall and crack your head open.” These kids don't need a superhero rescue. Still, they like the stickers Biker Boy hands them.
After saying goodbye to Weston and Levi, Biker Boy and I decide to call it a day. But just then a girl on a tricycle rides by. She's got purple streamers on her handlebars that match the color of her t-shirt. Her mom is pedaling next to her and they both look happy. Except they’re not wearing helmets. “Where's your helmet?” Biker Boy asks. The girl just smiles, but her mom grimaces with an “I know I should” kind of look. “You’d look even nicer in a helmet,” Biker Boy says as they ride by.
Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist.