The After Life

CongressStreet

Red light. My brakes howl, openly challenging my timidity. Right foot down as the bike stops. Penned up cars and trucks inches from my front wheel tremble and roar, waiting to pounce. The light remains red. I could sit and bask in it, feeling the cool dampness of the light rain along the river. I wait. And wait.

Right foot clicks back into the pedal before I realize it and I’m inching into the intersection. Red light then turns green without preview. My brain picks up the snort and growl from a lurching pickup on my left and I am through the intersection with a primal burst of speed that carries me to safety before I am cognizant of the danger.

It was a moment when one foot could be measured by an eternity. An instant after which all riding could reasonably stop.

These reminders of how fragile our bikes and bodies are can come during the most mundane trips to the grocery store or an evening trek across towns to hear new stories from an old friend. They force reflection of the most serious kind about what we mean to our families and friends, and what we ought to expect from our own short lives.

There is nothing so spirit-crushing as the fear of a big snarling beast being within a few inches of causing you great harm. It carves out a void in your gut that takes hours to fill. Recent articles and op-eds in The New York Times, among other publications, have driven this home to our loved ones. They have plenty of ammunition should they decide to ambush us with cycling’s dangers as we don a colorfully clownish array of kit in the early morning hours.

What defense is there? As cyclists we have come to understand awful things. We know bad things happen to good people, even the best and most responsible of us.

Yet we believe something else, and it is beautiful. Each of those hulking machines, so at odds with the freedom of pedaling our confines away, is a reminder that we control far less in our lives than we think we do. Their ability to rob us of our very breath is also what gives life to something as potentially mundane as riding a bike.

Every one of us has the potential for their world to change for the worse in an instant. Diagnosis. Betrayal. Loss. It’s just that most people we see on the road in our daily lives do not realize it. They are alongside us, in a sense, yet they cannot see what we see, or feel what we feel. What we have is an understanding that to live a life fully means accepting a lack of control.

What enriches us and our loved ones should define us, not what we fear. In that light, each day, and each ride, becomes a gift. Such freedom also means accepting great responsibility and weight, perhaps more than some of us are capable of.

Consider the opposite, a life of emotional and physical paralysis that comes from the imprisonment of the false certainty of the overconfident and the fearful. Such an existence is made up of defeat and surrender.

There is no room for riding in that world. There is no room for bikes at all.

 

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16 comments

  1. Mark Friis

    Thanks!
    As a bike advocate there is nothing worse than getting the call or email, “..there was an accident involving a cyclist…”. You know the next thing is the cyclist was killed. You want to just to bury it and forget it. I hate being the bearer of bad news and most of all I hate the doubt that arises for it. Am I nuts trying to get more people to ride. How am I going to deal if a kid i taught to ride to school gets killed. You start to feel the paralysis form. Then, just as you stated, you look at the alternative. A world stripped of freedom for the sake of being safe. Lifeless. That would be worse in my mind. I can’t prevent death but I can promote living.

  2. Mike the Bike PT

    On my ride to work, I am ever aware of the danger that lies around me and because of that, I actually feel safer. When driving, I’m just as brainlessly unfocused as everyone else, warm and “safe” in my vehicle. When I’m on my bike, I’m “aware” in a way I simply am not while in a car. Better decisions are made on the bike than in the car.

  3. MattC

    A girl in our club was hit back in July. She didn’t die, but will remain confined to a wheelchair (and being taken care of almost entirely, as she’s now a quadraplegic) for the rest of her life…heck of a thing for a young mother of two. You want to talk about being ‘imprisoned’? I’d say that fits for her AND her husband (who is now her caregiver). Is it still worth it? I guess the answer is that it’s worth it right up until it’s not…you don’t get to choose when bad things happen, nor who they happen to. She didn’t do anything wrong, yet she and her entire family will pay for that moment as long as she lives. I still road ride, but I think about the downside a lot more than I used to. Makes me want to ride my MTB a whole-lot more…where it’s just me and the mountain. Crashes there are usually my fault.

  4. Jeff Spencer

    I was embroiled in a debate on Facebook over whether a bikes belonged on the road. I took the opportunity to educate, raise awareness, and correct some misconceptions. Regardless of logic, the numbskull claptrap went on and on, repeating the same fallacious arguments. I hit on an idea that is sure to raise awareness. I cribbed a page from their own political lexicon; I proposed that we craft legislation based on “Stand Your Ground” legislation, such that when a motorist comes within 3 feet of a cyclist, this will constitute a mortal threat and danger; the “Conceal and Carry” permitted cyclist will be allowed to respond to the lethal threat with lethal force.

  5. Michael Robertson

    One of the seldom-discussed benefits of cycling is it makes you a better driver. You know, when those of us who don’t pay “road tax”, get in the cars we invariably and sometimes reluctantly own (after all they take up valuable garage space that could be available to more bikes). I can’t say how many times my defensive senses honed on the bike have anticipated that inattentive driver emerging from a hidden driveway, or the unexpected turn by motorists who don’t remember they are supposed to indicate before they apply the brakes.

    When driving I retain my cycling awareness and that makes me safer. It’s often said that drivers would be more aware of cyclists if they spent some time on a bike themselves, but it would also make them better drivers.

  6. Scott

    I broke my neck in a race once. I was very lucky though to still be standing to tell that tale, however it did also expose me to another commutinty of the wheelchair bound. One story was from a lady in her mid thirties who tripped backward over the garden hose whilst watering the Roses on a beautiful summer day. After that there was no way I could stop riding. In respect to our lives and theirs, we all must live our dreams as best we can. Rock climbers know that a little fear adds a healthy focus to their discipline. Accidents can happen any where any time, however the more we concentrate the luckier we’ll get. Prevention is better than a cure.

  7. Patrick O'Brien

    Mr. Robertson makes a point I often forget about. Cycling does make you a better driver. I carry the situational awareness and defensesive riding skills into the car. I don’t think you can help it. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Hautacam

    Yes, riding in traffic is a crapshoot every day, and yes, it makes you a better driver — and, I think, a more patient person — and yes, it would suck to live in a world where we let the fear define us entirely, and yes, it is worth it right up until the moment when it is not, at which point it is most definitely, certainly not.

    I’ll not judge anyone who chooses to quit riding in traffic because they feel it is too dangerous for them.

    Everyone has to decide for themselves what is an acceptable level of risk. But that is the point; to decide for yourself, and to do so in a thoughtful manner.

    On a less serious note — “right foot down as the bike stops”? Robot, surely you jest. Right foot down is not PRO. It will give you a big ol’ rookie mark on your calf.

    Left foot down for style points!

  9. August Cole

    Thanks for the heartfelt feedback. I wrestled with this one because it’s a feeling, or a line of thinking, that is always on my mind. Always. Even when I haven’t ridden in days.

    Hautacam: I never thought about that chainring grease before; it may be because I’m goofy foot the right foot leads. Being called Robot is indeed a compliment.

  10. Bikelink

    We FEEL more at risk but apparently the data says we are safer than when we are in our cars. If someone had a bad car accident would they regret driving? I also feel more exposed on my bike than in my car, but that exposure (along with typically lower speeds, much lower mass, more attentiveness, stereoscopic hearing, etc) may make us safer. I can say all these things but in my heart feel the same as everyone else and the writer, of course…

  11. Robot

    This post was so timely for me. My (aging) father just sat me down the other night to say how worried he gets about me, out on my bike in the dark in traffic. So I talked about risk-mitigation, being brightly lit, taking side roads when possible, and the nature of risk vs. reward. I pointed out that if I was going to lessen the risk in my life, I’d eliminate highway driving first, something we all do. And also that cycling is part of what I really enjoy about living, and without it…well…

  12. Ross

    Very timely – so much coverage here in London right now of people sadly loosing their lives on the capital’s streets. As someone who also enjoys driving, what has struck me over the years when driving is that the level of insulation from the world around us is promoted by the ever growing size and luxury of cars. Until recently I was fortunate enough (if that is your kind of thing) to use a Lotus Elise as my daily use car. No anti lock brakes, no traction control, no side impact bars, no automatic anything, not even airbags. Why do I mention this? Because that car makes the driver acutely aware of everything that effects the driving environment – wet roads, wind (it’s very light at < 800KG), ice, the size of other traffic etc. You feel more vulnerable. BUT it makes you so much more alert, just as we are when we ride.
    I have often felt everyone should be made to spend time in a 'basic' car that really teaches people how to drive and be truly aware. Not to mention all the attendant benefits that small light less-equipped cars bring in so many other ways. But that isn't a message the industry wants to hear or that legislators would enforce…
    Digressed a little form the original post but the sentiments of finding a way for cars and bikes to share the roads and allow the freedom we all hope to enjoy from both activities shuld be possible if only some lateral thinking could be deployed.
    In the meantime I guess we all make choices about life and risk, and do whatever we can to be safe.

  13. tinytim

    Due to economic reasons (spouse in Vet school @ $100 G’s per year), my household has become a one car unit. As the cyclist, and the only one with a quiver of bikes suitable for commuting, I bit the bullet and ride my steel mtb with racks, panniers, and fenders everywhere. There’s nothing like a riding a 50lb bike 30 miles a day, 4 days a week for race fitness; on the Saturday throw down, I’m in the “upper echelon of mediocrity”.
    In terms of safety, I’m sketched out every day. First I live in what has the be the worst places to commute, the Inland Empire. Sure the weathers great, but every single driver responds to stimuli in same fashion, by accelerating. In addition, even though the IE is a recently developed area, it lacks any kind of significant bike planning, bike lanes or safe suitable routes. Even as I ride within the letter of the law, motorist give me the stink eye and threaten me daily. I think many drivers just view me as being off of the program, even though I am removing a car from the road, enabling other drivers a (marginally) quicker commute time, and am reducing the giant stink-fart-brown-cloud of smog found in these parts. It’s funny though if one thinks about the significance of car vs bike as a societal conflict manifested into a microcosm, we find ourselves in a full on progress trap. In which we have “progressed” our way into an unsustainable method of transport that kills people, perpetuates large scale consumerism, and ultimately will destroy our environment. Rubber side down everyone.

  14. Ted Barber

    Every constitution of the free world starts with the statement that, “all people are equal under the law”; every person has the rights granted by the laws of the land equally.

    No one is more important, has the right to take another’s life, has the right to take another’s livelihood, or restrict their mobility.

    In essence, it does not mater if you drive a bus, a truck, a car, a motor cycle, a bike, or walk.

    I expect to not be killed by my fellow citizen. I expect to not be harmed by other citizens. I expect to not have my property damaged. I expect to provide financial security for my family. I expect the right to move freely in my country.

    For many reasons, I choose to ride a bike.

    I choose to ride a bike.

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