Through the Jungle Very Softly Flits a Shadow*

Fear is a hairy beast with razor claws and dripping fangs. It is there in the dark, and it is there in the light, and it is there in the rain, sun, sleet and snow. Fear spills off station wagons swerving wildly with cell phone gesticulations, and it drops heavily off of box trucks, threatening to swallow the lane. It lurks quietly in potholes, and swings freely on the hinges of driver’s side doors. Fear will eat you if you let it. It never stops being hungry.

Two weeks ago I got bumped by a Ford Explorer pulling up to a stop sign. Its driver thought that he and his vehicle could get around me before reaching the end of the street. He yanked his wheel to the left, veered into the other lane and gunned his engine, swerving back into my lane at the last possible moment. At best he’d have cut me off. At worst, he’d have run me over. I was lucky simply to have been bumped.

I stayed upright. And angry.

Having been in this situation before, which is to say, uncomfortably close to another human being playing fast and loose with my safety, I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to get over it. The driver, in fact drivers generally, are not bothered when they do things like this. They simply drive away, maybe shaking their heads in disbelief at the folly of those of us who would dare to ride bikes on public roads. Occasionally I come in contact with a driver who is willing to take responsibility when he or she makes a mistake, but for the most part, those who drive badly do so because they are unwilling to be responsible for their actions.

If bad drivers don’t care about their close calls, why should I? Should they be able to driveway carelessly, while I am left behind to simmer and stew, to spew profanity and froth in impotent self-righteousness? No. The thing to do is accept what’s happened, swallow it whole for what it was, and then move on. A wise person told me that nursing resentments of this sort is like allowing morons to live, rent-free, in your head.

So when I am well-adjusted and fully in control of my faculties (very seldom) I can balance the need to beware of large moving objects with the need to continue riding, for transportation, physical health and sanity. The trick, and oh, what a trick it is, is to remain consciously blind to the danger that surrounds you, and simultaneously hyper-aware of every hard bit of pavement or sharp bit of metal that enters your air space. This is the Zen koan of riding your bicycle on the road.

As is typical, I have had difficulty letting go of these near death encounters. It is a thing much easier said than done. Since the encounter with my not-friend in the Explorer, I have been on edge whenever I have been on my bike. I have been quick to anger, even when I’ve been consciously resisting the impulse. This, it would seem, is the order of events. I simply have to wait until the feeling subsides, until I feel relatively safe again.

Last night, it was pouring rain. The light has recently fled our evening commute, so we’ve added darkness to the joy of being soaking wet. Stubborn git that I am, I pulled on my rain gear and disembarked from the office. Within a few moments I was enduring the gritty spray off Volvos and Subarus. With the verge entirely swamped, I tried to take a little of the lane to prevent myself from having to ride through 4 inches of standing water. My road companions in their cars mostly failed to yield any space. I was buzzed by a Chevy Suburban and then by a minivan.  I began to seethe, and then to feel sad. To feel such little disregard for your bodily safety can be massively discouraging.

When I arrived home, my wife knew exactly what I was thinking and feeling. What a relief to be able to come home to someone who understands. Is this what inspired Dylan to write Shelter From the Storm?

I have to let these things go. I have to take responsibility for my own part. I choose to put myself in harm’s way. Traffic is traffic. You can complain about it. You can wish for people to change, for things to get better, but mostly those things are achieved at a glacial pace, and I intend to keep riding. Come hell AND high water, I intend to keep riding.

So I hug my wife, and I sit down to dinner with my kids, who talk too much and play with their food rather than eating it, and all is right and well with the world. And I return to the Zen koan of riding with both a keen attention to life-threatening danger and a blissful disregard for the monsters that lurk round every corner.

 

* Taken from Kipling’s Fear.

Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.

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22 comments

  1. David Hendry

    The very act of cycling, and continuing to cycle, is what will finally turn the tide and allow motorists to realize we are there and take a bit of care about our safety. You are right though that any change is going to be glacial.

  2. tako

    “…to remain consciously blind to the danger that surrounds you, and simultaneously hyper-aware of every hard bit of pavement or sharp bit of metal that enters your air space.”

    Most people look at me like I’m crazy when I start talking about road surfaces. It’s nice to know that I’m just a cyclist in traffic.

  3. reverend dick

    I disagree.

    The thing to do is to catch up to that Explorer and have at it. That type of aggressive bullshit shall not be tolerated.

    While I understand not everyone is so inclined, I’m not rolling over. I have and will give and take punches over this.

  4. jorgensen

    I was cut off by an SUV just yesterday on the way to work. I was able to anticipate it and slowed down abruptly prior to their turn, oblivious to the action they took I figured, and I followed as I could, they essentially ran two more stop signs while making a left and another right. After the final turn before they vanished from sight I concluded they were doing this to avoid a major intersection. I was also attempting to avoid major streets. Part of the road scape unfortunately.
    As a ancillary comment, my wife purchased for me a new taillight ensemble, one is an annoying sequence flashing LED unit with a steady-on option. I have learned by trial that the flashing does get a decent effect, vehicles stay clear up a narrow canyon road. I will keep it flashing now, and live in bad taste.

  5. Rod Diaz

    I am fully with you. So many close calls, and in 6 years commuting by bike only 4 crashes with cars, none resulting in broken bones or major injuries.

    Last week, a woman was doored in the corner of the block I work in. She was pushed into traffic and died.

    Now a ghost bike remains in that intersection. It sometimes is infuriating how little regard people have when they are armoured in their shiny metal box. Yet I will not stop commuting by bike as long as physically able. The close calls very often will leave me in a similar state to that you describe, with anger, impotence, and fear. But we can’t let those emotions govern us. We can’t (mostly) choose how we die, but we can have a say on how we live.

  6. Gary Watts

    Unfortunately, there’s no answer which is really the thing that builds the frustration inside me. I’m 52 yrs old so I’m about as mild tempered as I’m ever going to be. Anytime (and they’re more frequent than I’d like)I have a close encounter, I still have to force myself to calm the hell down and let it go. For some reason, it’s difficult. My biggest fear is that one event will be the final straw and I’ll totally come unglued with the vengence pent up over a lifetime of riding and racing.

    I also don’t imagine a nirvana where cars and cyclists get along well. Cyclists make their share of irritated drivers by running stop signs/lights, riding 3 across on group rides, not giving the right of way when necessary etc.

  7. Bikelink

    Watching these vehicles after they near-miss me, I often see that they are equally bad about driving around other cars. They don’t hate me in particular, but are just idiots in general. I’m not sure this is better, but it does make me what to chase and yell at them less.

  8. kest56

    Thanks for putting into words what goes on in every cyclists head sometimes.
    When I get mad they win. You can chase them or yell at them. They didn’t care enough to use caution around you they won’t care that you are mad. And if they did it on purpose, making you angry is what they wanted. I TRY to wave at the ones that go out of their way to show me some courtesy and forget the rest. Some mornings after a close call the night before it would be very easy to just get in the pickup and drive to work.

  9. Scott G.

    Pray for high gas prices.
    You know in Switzerland they have trains
    with 1st and 2nd class bike parking.
    Amazing what a civilized country can achieve.

  10. Mike D.

    Brilliant! I agree wholeheartedly, and sometimes when I manage to channel Dylan and Kipling I let the Ford Explorer go with just a withering look.

    But sometimes you just gotta let them know. I’ve gone toe-to-toe with taxi drivers, had a large man leave his white van and chase me down the road after some choice insults, and had a driver stall his car as he tried to scare me/run me over – I didn’t wait to find out if he managed to re-start it! And now and then it’s refreshing to have drivers hold their hands up and just apologise for dangerous driving.

    But it’s all part of it, part of the buzz and it keeps me alive to the other dangers on the road. I don’t think I could ride any other way!

  11. Jim D.

    This reminds me about something that happened to me a few years ago. While riding on a busy road I heard the sound of squealing tires coming from behind. As I looked back I saw a SUV swerving into the other lane to avoid hitting me. I just kept on riding. For some reason it didn’t bother me at the time. When I got home and my wife asked how was my ride, only then did it hit me.

    What REALLY gets me is when I get cutoff, buzzed, beeped at, or other things, is from cars that are carrying bikes. I’m not talking department store bikes, I’m talking about bikes that anyone coming to RKP would race on.

    “The trick, and oh, what a trick it is, is to remain consciously blind to the danger that surrounds you, and simultaneously hyper-aware of every hard bit of pavement or sharp bit of metal that enters your air space” Indeed.

  12. Schuyler

    A very nice article — as a driver (I’d bike if I wasn’t scared for my life), I agree in a lot of ways. The driver is the safe one, and I always pay close attention to cyclists, waiting for a safe time to pass, and letting them pass instead of turning in front of them, etc. I know too many cyclists who complain about the safety, and I’m much too scared of being the car that hits someone (I’d feel awful!) — but a lot of cyclists are out there egging drivers on.

    Cyclists not following the rules of the road, not stopping at stop signs or red lights. Choosing to act as pedestrians when it suits them (cycling along the road, then swirving over to cycle across a crosswalk at a red light without stopping), and not giving the right of way all infuriate drivers. Often I see cyclists who seem to intentionally be taking action to annoy drivers. The more cyclists annoy drivers, the more drivers will dislike cyclists — even the good ones.

    Many times, I’ve taken great care to pass a cyclist safely, only to get to a red light, have the cyclist drive right through it, then drive down the middle of the lane, causing a traffic jam for the next three blocks while I wait for oncoming traffic to settle down to safely pass. Cyclists could try to pay attention to the traffic jams they cause — when I am driving slowly, I intentionally pull over and let people pass. Cyclists could do the same.

    Basically, it’s a two-way street. Sure, cyclists are the ones who can more easily get hurt when there’s a problem (that’s not to say that drivers haven’t been the ones hurt by cyclists (like your commenter “reverend dick,” who basically said “driver’s being aggressive is bad, I will beat people up for that” … seriously? Way to promote any driver ever trusting a cyclist not to be crazy.), but that’s not to say cyclists have a right to do anything they want any time they want, which most of them seem to think. (Just ’cause you’re not in a big metal box doesn’t mean you’re better, more important, deserve more… that’s selfish and stupid.) Preaching to drivers is one thing — but out of 100 times you are passed on a road (how many times are you passed in a trip?), how many times are you bumped, pushed, or cut off? I’d say four out of five cyclists I see break at least one law or unnecessarily annoy drivers and slow down traffic. If the majority of cyclists were friendly, observant, and followed the law, I think drivers would respect them more. (That’s not to say that you won’t get cut off. I get cut off in my car on a weekly basis, and I don’t think the guy doing it cares if I’m in a car or on a bike… :) )

    Last thought — according to the statistics I’ve seen, somewhere around 0.5-1% of people in major cities cycle to work, and 2% of traffic accidents and 2% of traffic deaths are cycle-related. And ~50% of those cycling accidents are cyclist-caused (failed to follow laws)… Leaving the numbers somewhat closely related… It’s not like 1% of people cycle and 10% of traffic deaths are cyclists: A small number of drivers are idiots, and they drive into anything and anyone (street lamps, other cars, cyclists…). Cyclists don’t even appear to die all that much more due to bad drivers than other drivers do. And believe me, I get just as mad as you do when someone almost kills me by driving poorly and I’m in my car. And then they usually flip me off like it’s my fault they ran a red light, or cut me off!

    New solution: Regular comprehensive driving tests, and a more serious approach to catching awful drivers and revoking their licenses!

    -sky

  13. Nelson

    As cyclists we see more cars (good or bad) on one ride than most drivers will see cyclists all year. We should have a tougher exterior when it comes to “stupid people” Not easy to do but you think we’d get over it eventually.

    P.S. I am not over it.

    “Allowing morons to live, rent free, in your head” Love it.

  14. Souleur

    Innattenion….ie soccor moms texting, feeding themselves, applying make up whilest driving will put cyclists at risk

    Driving like your going to a fire, when your not, and not yielding to cyclists is/will put cyclists at risk

    Angry drivers for whatever reason, mad at the chump serving happy meals or whatever, puts cyclists at risk

    and…life is a risk

    so I chose to ride because I AM a CYCLIST

    and when the driver cuts me off, or even worse, bumps me (which I have been sooooooo lucky as not to have happen) I just ride

    It rattles the cage, but one must maintain control, don’t acknowledge a thing and ride on by leaving key marks down the side as you inevidibly pass at the next opportune intersection

  15. Paul

    I have ridden up to asshole dangerous drivers at the next stop light and asked them what the fuck they think they are doing. Usually they sit there, staring straight ahead, a frozen look of something like fear on their faces that something has managed to intrude into their private little air-conditioned world.

  16. Rod

    We do some stuff to ourselves, too. I was riding today at night to get dinner, and another cyclist sprints on the sidewalk, passes me, skids on a red light (I’m sure he would have ran it, but there was traffic), veers left on the crosswalk, U turns, and resumes going once traffic is clear.

    I caught up to him, told him “there’s no need to be an asshat, cars already don’t like us man”. He replied ” do you know who I am?” – why… yes. The asshat who just makes it more dangerous for people trying to ride on the streets.

  17. lqdedison

    I disagree.

    If someone endangers my life or I believe through their actions endangers my life they need to know. We can of course all be civil road users but if we are going to share the road then both sides need to follow and adhere to the rules.

    I left America over three years ago now and I’m lucky to live somewhere that embraces cycling. Yet I still from time to time will confront people whose actions are not safe. Even in cycling nirvana sometimes things go wrong. When they do whoever is in the wrong should know.

  18. Thatcher

    I think a polite interaction is more effective at changing behavior. A random angry reaction from a cyclist promotes an “us vs. them” attitude in the driver, and cognitive dissonance / denial. A non-threatening reaction like “hey bro, I’m right here, good thing you didn’t squish me, eh?” has a chance of promoting some empathy.

  19. Hautacam

    Yes.

    These days I pull up at the next light or sign, get their attention, and say something like “that was a little close, brother!” (or sister). Unless someone does something truly malicious they are almost always oblivious to the risk . . . because they are not bike riders, and they were not SEEING or THINKING even if they were LOOKING. Their mind was somewhere else.

    But we are all human beings on this planet. We all make mistakes or exercise poor judgment. We’ve all made stupid maneuvers in a hurry to gain an infinitesimal margin, which seemed justifiable at the time.

    We almost all deserve forgiveness when we screw up.

    Use the Fear to give yourself that extra margin of safety — and then be sure to let them know that they cut it a little close to the margin.

    Heaven help them if they did it on purpose.

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