Tuesdays With Wilcockson: Lesson learned on the open road
The recent car-bike collisions that put both Levi Leipheimer and his Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Tony Martin in the hospital with broken bones emphasized the dangers every cyclist faces when training alone on the open road. Leipheimer was hit from behind a few kilometers from his team hotel in Spain while riding on the far right of the right shoulder of a busy highway. Martin was only five minutes from his home in Switzerland, riding on a bike path, when he was apparently sideswiped by a motorist.
However much we use the roads, there’s always a new lesson to be learned. I learned a few new ones last week. First off, while driving home last weekend from a hike with my wife, I stopped at a three-way intersection, entering it at a sharp angle. When I looked left I didn’t see anything on the road, but later realized that the curve of the road had hidden a bike rider from my view. After turning right, I saw the bike in my rear-view mirror, about 100 feet away, approaching me fast on the long downhill. So I immediately gunned the car to keep well clear of the rider, but I still heard a distant voice through the open car window angrily shouting, “Asshole!”
The lessons from that incident was: (a) as a driver, I should have stopped longer at the intersection because of the sharp angle and looked more carefully to the left, and (b) if I’d been on the bike, I should have ridden more defensively and expected that a car entering the road from a tight angle might not be able to see me. That evening I went for a ride up the same canyon. As I was waiting to turn left onto the road, I waited until traffic cleared from the left, and I then waited for a last car from the right to pass by before I headed for the far shoulder. But on seeing me, the driver of that last car stopped for me and waved me across the road. I put up my hand and said, “Thank you.” Nothing better than a courteous car driver!
Happily, I can say that only vary rarely in my many decades of riding a road bike have I felt like cursing at motorists for dangerous behavior … and much of my riding has been in cities such as London and New York. Like Leipheimer, I try to ride as far to the edge of the road as possible and always be aware of the location of any cars around me — whether they’re ahead, behind or to the side.
Knock on wood, I’ve had only two actual collisions with vehicles. The first was in my college days when I was riding my bike from London to join some classmates on a geology field trip to the southwest of England. I was on a major road (remember we ride on the left in the UK), descending a long hill that curved to the right. There was no shoulder, so when a big truck (they’re called lorries in England) came up from behind me, the driver moved out to his right to pass me before cutting back toward the left.
I was wearing a black wool sweater my mum had knitted for me, and as the lorry cut back in too quickly (the driver obviously misjudged my speed), the back edge of his vehicle caught a loop of my sweater and dragged me off the bike and some distance down the road. Somehow, I was not badly hurt, but the front wheel of my bike was pretzeled. The driver stopped to see if I was all right and kindly gave me a lift to the nearest town (it was Paignton in Devonshire). He dropped me off at a bike shop and paid for the repair. I was able to carry on riding to my destination and wasn’t even late for the start of the field trip. A happy ending to what could have been a very nasty accident.
The other incident happened in my hometown a few years later. I was riding one evening to a meeting of my cycling club, heading slightly downhill through a green light. Just as I headed reached the intersection, a car going the other way cut across the street right in front of me. My bike hit the car’s headlight and I flew through the air and landed face first on the hood. The only thing that broke (besides my bike’s front wheel) was a front tooth. So maybe there is a tooth fairy, after all.
The other good part of that story is the traffic light where I crashed was right outside the apartment where a club-mate lived. I rang on his doorbell. He took my bike up to his place and he gave me a ride to our club meeting in his car. Another happy ending.
There are two more lessons to be learned from these incidents. One, motorists tend not to be looking for cyclists when they make turns, and that was probably the reason why that car turned in front of me at the light and why the motorist in Switzerland sideswiped Tony Martin last week — he was knocked unconscious and didn’t remember exactly what happened. Two, motorists almost always underestimate the speed at which we ride our bikes. That was the case with the truck driver in Devon who moved in too soon and dragged me off my bike. As for Levi Leipheimer, the elderly driver that hit him from behind most likely didn’t see a cyclist — although he might also have thought the shoulder was a driving lane.
Anyway, whether you’re riding or driving on the open road, take extra care today—and every day.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti