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.
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Some of the aftermath.
This is how I got hit.
It was raining. She came by me on the left, slowly. She signaled. I thought, “Oh, Christ! You’re going to let me get by first, aren’t you?” And then she was turning right across me, and because it was raining, I was sliding. And screaming. She hit the brakes. I hit her front quarter panel and went down hard on my right side.
I sprung up, decided I was ok, and turned to berate my assailant. She peered up at me from behind the wheel of her Volvo, put her hands up and mouthed, “I didn’t see you.” To which I replied, “Well, of course you didn’t f*&$ing see me. You never f*&$ing looked.” She asked if I was ok, this is all through the windshield. She couldn’t be bothered to get out, or she was afraid I might punch her, which, given the adrenaline spiking through my system, was probably a legitimate fear. I said, “Yes, I’m f*&$ing ok,” and I rode off at top speed, leaving her and a small congregation of cyclists gawking. I may never have ridden so fast in my life.
It was only when I got home that my wrist started to ache, and I could see where I was bleeding. And suddenly I was really tired. I realized that I had been riding on adrenaline then. At the time I’d no idea. So, coming down off that hormonal high, my body sort of crumpled on the floor of the shower, and I had a brief, emotional moment there, with the hot water pouring over me.
I rode with a brace on my wrist for about a month after that. It hurt.
I imagine this scenario plays itself out pretty regularly on city (and non-city) streets, a car turning across a bike lane and a cyclist getting the worse of the deal. The injuries probably range from minor, like mine, to death. It is, at any rate, a common experience, and yet, even after riding the city for 20 years, I’d never been hit. And I learned from it, things I might never have learned otherwise.
I did what you’re supposed to do after getting thrown. I got right back on that horse and rode. At first I felt sad, like the shine had come off, like this thing I’d been doing for decades was somehow more dark and sinister than I’d imagined. After that, I entered an angry phase. I began seeking conflict with drivers, yelling, punching hoods. It was no fun.
After a month or two of two-wheeled rage, I had an epiphany. I was afraid. Everywhere I went I anticipated being crushed and killed, and rather than weeping and cowering, I was going on the offensive. If I wasn’t overtly courting conflict, I was having protracted arguments, in my head, with errant motorists. I was, I think, trying to make sense of a new landscape, one in which I could be doing everything correctly, and still be killed.
This was no way to go about riding a bicycle. I ride a bike, because I like it, not to drive myself into irrational rages. I had to change, not only my attitude, but also the way I ride. I had to be more forgiving, more patient. This took time.
First of all, I had to admit that the mistake the Volvo lady made is exactly the kind of mistake anyone could make. She was distracted. She ought to have seen me, but she didn’t. The other day I made a pot of coffee, but forgot to stick the pot under the spout, and so coffee ran all over the counter and floor. I’m no better than Volvo lady. Up to this point, I’ve maybe just been luckier.
Angry is no way to ride, or do anything else for that matter. Whether my anger is justified or not doesn’t even begin to be the point. When I’m angry, I’m the one who suffers. My ride goes to shit. I get off the bike worse than I went on. I don’t always like to forgive. I don’t always just move on mentally, but when I do, I feel better and happier. This is the hardest single thing I do on a bicycle.
Next, I had to recognize that no one is in MY way. I don’t actually own the way. It’s a public way. And, as it turns out, everyone wants to use it. Weird, I know, but true.
Third, I had to slow down. This one was hard, because I like to go fast. This one was hard, because previously, I had only one speed, which was as-fast-as-I-could. This one was hard, because it meant I missed a lot of lights that I might, in earlier days, have sprinted through.
Finally, I had to admit that I am flesh and blood and vulnerable. For a guy who used to fancy himself impervious to the predations of weather and road condition, this was a lot to ask. Here’s the thing. I’m a robot, but I have a lady robot at home who loves me. I have two little robots that scream “Daddy!” when I come through the door. I have a robot dog whose raison d’etre is walking by my side to the coffee shop.
I didn’t expect any of this. I always assumed that the consequences of a car accident would be entirely physical, but right away the mental and emotional aspects of the experience made themselves felt. I tried to pay attention. Though a minor accident relative to most car/bicycle interactions, it was a major event in my life, one that, after months of dissection and examination, I’m glad happened.
I got hit by a car and learned how large my ego had become, learned that, more than anything, I was in my own way, and that the best way to get where I wanted to go, i.e. everywhere, was to let myself be small and let the world be big. I can, if I squint, see the accident again. I’m riding along. A Volvo passes me on the left. Its brake lights blaze purposefully. I back off on the pedals. A turn signal. I brake. Nothing to prove. And then the car turns in front of me. Its shocks make a hiccuping sound as it bounces into the driveway of the grocery store. I glance over my left shoulder and then guide my bike out into the open lane to glide past the Volvo’s bumper.
And then I ride home. Whole and well.