In Isolation

In Isolation

It’s easy to think, when someone almost hits you with their automobile, that you’d be better off in the car than on the bike, and in absolute terms, that’s probably true. Force = Mass x Acceleration, and there is really no acceleration I can achieve with my 17-lb. bicycle and 155-lb. body that will overcome the mass of a modern sport utility vehicle. That’s why, as the nice lady in the late model Chevy drifted across the white line into the shoulder, I pounded her rear quarter pannel like a seven-year-old at a Whack-a-Mole convention.

She swerved back out of my “lane,” which was really just 18 inches of pocked pavement on the other side of the paint, not even a proper shoulder. Down went her passenger-side window. Out came a volley of I-don’t-know-what.

At this point in the interaction, I ought to have soft-pedaled away, glad to be alive, content in the knowledge that I was going to get where I was going about 15 minutes before she was going to get wherever she was going, because she was going to sit through the approaching light 3-4 more times.

But I circled back. I know better, but sometimes in the perpetual battle between flight and fight, I choose fight. Maybe choose is the wrong word.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” said my friend and fellow traveler. I said, “I was watching where I was going. I was going on THIS side of the white line. You belong on the other side.”

It bears saying that I have actually modified my behavior in these situations. I never swear. I never threaten. That doesn’t make turning back into the conflict the right move, but I find it keeps a bad situation from becoming a tragedy.

Anyway, my interlocutor wasn’t entirely satisfied with my contribution to our discussion, so she said, “Why don’t you go away?” Then she made a face, from which I inferred a piquant disdane, and added “With your stupid bicycle.”

I hope that I have reported these facts correctly, but even if I haven’t it doesn’t really matter. You have likely lived this scenario yourself and, like me, ridden away cursing under your breath, seething with anger, trying to calm your nerves. I have done it enough times already. I didn’t need this one, which is probably what bummed me out the most about the whole thing.

I have changed so much.

I don’t even ride the major thoroughfares anymore as a rule, because that’s where these things happen. I avoid them. I take the backways, the side roads, the short and long cuts. I don’t care. The bike is a happy place for me. Anything that detracts from that happiness I try to remove.

I am fortunate though, that I spent a lot of time car-commuting this past year, albeit due to injuries. What I learned is that no road is well-designed. No light is long enough. No one knows how to drive. I experienced all the alienating effects of being inside a box of glass and steel, all the self-centered delusion that arises from wanting to be somewhere else and not being able to get there. So I know what it is the woman who nearly hit me was going through. She was angry, and not at me, or at least, not exclusively at me.

In so many ways, riding a bike is no different. I’m still in my own space. I have that same sense of separateness and singularity. Why are all these cars in my way? Why isn’t the shoulder wide enough? What about me? Why isn’t it all set up to work for me?

I’m no better than that woman, and I say that, not as some rhetorical exercise, but in all sincerity. I’m not. We’re all trying to get where we’re going, and it’s not always easy. It’s not often easy. That’s why I take the backroads.

It’s easy to think, in a car-bike conflict that you’d be safer in the car, but I’ll take this side of the glass. It doesn’t make me morally superior or physically safer, but I prefer this flavor of isolation. I’m better off out here, even confined to 18 inches of cracked asphalt, to 155mm of saddle leather. I know that. Maybe next time will be the time I just ride away, but probably not.

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18 comments

  1. Tom in Albany

    I appreciate your self-control. I never go back because I’m not sure I can control my tongue, especially in a fit of anger.

  2. Mike the Bike PT

    I have learned that the back roads and side streets are better and safer and ‘funner’. The routes I take to and from work don’t always get me where I want to be the fastest but they generally have low traffic and wide shoulders. If I was in a rush, I wouldn’t be on my bike.

  3. Michael Schlitzer

    One time I remember riding on some rural Northern Virginia road – it was just me out there – and this enormous diesel pickup truck came barreling down the 45 mph road. He got in my lane and headed straight for me. I pulled over (heart pounding) and he went by me and stopped. He got out of his truck and began to yell at me as if I had killed his mother. I just said “You weigh 4,000 lbs. I weigh 160. You win.” He got back in his truck and took off.

    I wish people would relax and realize that they’re really not that important. Waiting for 5 seconds is really not that big of an inconvenience.

    I also secretly hope and wish that they have a sudden, painful aneurysm.

  4. MattC

    Some of the roads don’t even afford you that cracked 18″…in particular here is a section of Hwy 1 (Pacific Coast Highway, which is the primary route of cyclists riding the Western coast) that has zero inches. And there are Ag trucks (loaded w/ strawberries/lettuce/etc) all the time, and very few of the cars/trucks are able to wait that 5 seconds for the horrific inconvience of SLOWING DOWN briefly…they will just squeeze by (at 55+mph) leaving a very tiny gap no matter how close to the 4″ blacktop ledge into gravel and the ditch just the other side of the white line. It’s only a few miles like this (here in my city anyway)…but I HATE that section. And every cyclist who’s ridden Hwy1 has gone thru this section, and likely more that are similar. Not sure what it will take before the State/County will do something about it…how many cyclists have to be hurt/killed? Whatever the answer is, I think it’s a very similar formula to the one telling us the number of bikes to own.

    1. John Kopp

      One I know of on Hwy 1, but a half dozen killed on rural roads near by in the last few years. That’s way too many, and I have no idea how many injured, but I was one about 4 years ago. Mostly drivers drunk, or not paying attention.

  5. Scott G.

    I wonder if the driving public was aware of just how many cyclists/bikeriders have GoPro’s (or any video cam) mounted on their bikes? Would they drive differently knowing their bad driving could end up on the evening news or Youtube ? I activate mine in the areas where I know there are likely to be issues.

  6. Timbo

    It’s only happened a handful of times to me, but I love the situations in which I have the opportunity to calmly correct a driver without having to deal with the mis-perception that I was in the way somehow. On a night-time jog recently I saw a car approaching the stop sign protecting the crosswalk I was about to enter. I knew he was traveling way too fast to be able to stop before the crosswalk, and the light from the streetlights coupled with his open window showed him talking on his cell phone. I adjusted my speed down to intercept, knowing that either (a) he’d eventually see me in my high-viz running shirt and realize he was driving while distracted, or (b) I’d be able to address him through the open window. Outcome (b) happened. Just as his speed bottomed out for something resembling a rolling stop in the middle of the crosswalk I found myself less than 18″ from his unused ear, and I calmly asked “Were you planning to stop for that stop sign?” A shocked look came over him, he dropped the phone, screeched to a halt, and apologized profusely. I reminded him that we were in the middle of a neighborhood with lots of kids and elderly people and only a block from a children’s hospital with lots of people coming and going at all hours. He nodded. I jogged around the front of his car and carried on, feeling extremely self-righteous.

    That was definitely an exception though. Usually in the more serious near-death situations, I’m more of the slap-the-door-panels, yell-loudly, don’t-hesitate-to-bust-out-the-one-fingered-wave, dramatically-drop-the-bike-to-the-(grassy)-ground variety. I’m working on mindfulness though in order to more consistently find the opportunities for more productive engagement.

  7. August Cole

    For most people it’s easier to get mad at the cyclist just off the bumper, rather than face up to the whole host of things drawing a person down to become their worse self. A lot of people are as inattentive in their daily lives as they are behind the wheel. Mix the two and … We all feel that tug, but at least we have a bike ride to get us back on our feet. Stuck in a car, all you can do is rattle your cage. I ride many of the same roads as Robot, and there are no-go areas and times of day. Too many opportunities for people, and cyclists, to behave badly. The backroads of Boston’s western suburbs are beautiful at dawn but at about 6:55 on a weekday the commuter rush is on and no fluo, flashing light or lane-taking will check their advance. Technically, (I think) it would be easy to populate a Google Map with video, images or one-line descriptions of close calls that would allow us to model the riskier times to ride. Maybe it already exists. If not, anybody up for this?

  8. Stephen Barner

    40 years ago, I was riding back and forth across the city as fast as I could go on my track bike, taking the auto lane on the limited access bridge, and cursing at every driver who didn’t treat me and my bike as equals. I won’t say I’ve mellowed with time, though that’s part of it. Rather, I’ve realized how unproductive that kind of behavior is. As Robot wrote, the fundamental reason I ride is because I enjoy it so much, no matter the weather. If I focus on someone else’s bad driving, it just detracts from my pleasure and certainly results in no positive change in the behavior of the driver. It is far more likely to make things worse. Now, I make it a goal to waste as few mental cycles as possible on people who thoughtlessly or thoughtfully put my safety at risk. I think it’s much more powerful to give an emotionless stare at someone for whom you’ve just slammed the brakes on to keep from hitting as she pulled out
    than to scream at her. Sure, I’m going to use my voice as a horn, but not to berate the driver after the fact. They know they’ve done wrong, and if they care, my yelling isn’t going to make them feel any worse.

  9. Randall

    If they’re young and impressionable looking, I try to leave one. 😉 Also, I always use the words kill and murder, because to me, that’s really what it’s about. Now, when they try to hit my Harley and I’m wearing heavier clothes, all bets on language are off (I think this is a valuable point too, on a bike they hate you but when it’s a motorcycle they’re just sorry).

    I speed, I love to go fast, but I have no problem driving under the limit in a parking lot. Why? Because I don’t want to murder anyone, plain and simple English. “Oh, I’m going to be late for dinner, I should probably risk murdering one of the 15 people leaving the grocery store, then attempt to avoid that yellow light by trying to murder Robot…” If the drivers would just say it out loud, maybe they would hear it.

  10. Kurti_sc

    My first time in SF this week. It’s admirable to see all the cyclist / commuters around here. It looks a bit intimidating to me with the traffic density and the sharrows.
    I stopped a local cyclist at the Willow street market and he spoke passionately about how great the area is.
    Well maybe. But anyway the dungeness crab in Half Moon Bay seems like reward enough.

  11. Pat O'Brien

    About twelve years ago a lady, in a vehicle with tinted windows, turned right into the roadway directly in front of me. I had on a screaming yellow jacket and bright red helmet, and I was in the bike lane. My wife was right behind me and also in a screaming yellow kit. I looked right at her before she turned and thought I had made eye contact; in hindsight I really wasn’t sure because of the dark tinted window. I moved to the left across two lanes into the median. If there would have been traffic behind me I would have been hit. The speed limit on this 4 lane local highway is 50 mph. She saw me as she pulled out and stopped in the right traffic lane and stayed there. I signaled to her to pull over into the bike lane and shoulder. When I went to talk to her, she was crying and almost in shock. She apologized over and over and admitted being distracted by the kids in the back seats. I felt so bad for her I just asked her to please watch for cyclists in the future, and we continued our ride. Now we use the reverse Reagan rule when riding. Verify then trust. I am always ready to stop or turn when any traffic can turn in front of me even from behind.

  12. Gal

    Most days I’m riding early in the morning befor work, used to get out at about 5:30am for hour and a half or two hours, these days I’m leaving for my morning rides at 4:15am, it’s quite simple, at these hours there are far less cars on the roads I ride, just like you said riding is my happy place and cars make it far less happy.
    Longer days off rides are done later in the day and some days it’s a war out there which I’m just happy to get home alive, I’m not going back, riding for me is moving forward, I brush it off, thinking to myself what some characters in my head would have done to this driver…

  13. David

    I think I will continue my rule that I developed back when I was running 35 miles a week. If a car is close enough to punch, take a swing. It seem to work on downtown crosswalks.

  14. Don Jagoe

    Headlights are so good these days, I find myself doing more night rides. Virtually no cars, I am very visible with blinking and BRIGHT lights. Kind of fun to be out doing something that feels different.

  15. Dan Murphy

    “The bike is a happy place for me. Anything that detracts from that happiness I try to remove.”

    That pretty much sums it up for me, and my routes these days are a good example of that. There are routes/roads I rode 20 years ago that I simply don’t ride anymore. This isn’t in the city (Boston) either, but way out in the burbs outside rte 128 and beyond. I’m much pickier about where I ride because I want to enjoy it and if I have a better alternative, I take that one – period. I have a ~80 mile route that I have tweaked where I am barely on numbered routes – definitely less than 2 miles. Roads with no lines, that’s my rule.

    As for the anger management part, I used to blow up pretty good, using every expletive possible. Riding in the boonies, I have few encounters, but when I do have one, I’m aggressive and firm – and calm. Usually. When I see YouTube videos with a nerdy cyclist tapping on a car window saying “Excuse me, sir? Sir? Excuse me, but you just cut me off”, I just want to scream.

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