A Minor Character

A Minor Character

Sometimes I have trouble locating the bike in the story, although it is there in plain view, bright blue with knobby tires, or party balloon red on razor thin rubber strips. The bike is there, clearly enough, but how does it connect? Is it a character, or just a detail, a bit of the mood-setting scenery?

I didn’t cry when I learned that Scott had died, although he and I had spent enough time together, an intense couple years when he tried in his slow, relentlessly cheerful way to mentor me. Almost twenty years my senior, he gave me a shot at a job I didn’t deserve and then stood by and supported me while I bulled my way around the china shop, a supercilious asshole, who didn’t know what he didn’t know.

I wanted action and progress. I wanted control. I wanted to be the boss, and Scott never discouraged me, but sat smiling as I poured out my frustration in his office. He told stories, a lot of stories. Good god, he talked a lot, and I came to see his smile and those stories as part of the reason he was so ineffectual, except that years later I can see that he knew better than I did what was important. He talked, but he also listened.

Scott was a runner when we worked together, an obsessive, fool-hardy runner. He ran every day with no rest, no days off. He said if he stopped, he wouldn’t be able to start again, and at 40-something his knees were breaking down. He had pain, a developing limp.

I was a cyclist, one of the strange few who rode a bike to an office where ties never looked out of place, and Scott’s knees and unwavering cheerfulness pushed him toward the bike. We rode together a few times with me ostensibly showing him how to ride a mountain bike, as if that’s a thing you can actually teach a person. Again, stupid me, the bike wasn’t that important. It was only a way for us to connect.

I left that job after the CEO told Scott he thought I was an asshole, an attitude I adjudged might hamper my further progress up the food chain, and Scott and I drifted apart as I continued the quixotic tilt at my career. Linked In and then Facebook kept me vaguely aware of his life. In the 15 years that followed our work together, Scott became a cyclist the way he had been a runner, riding every day, covering longer and longer distances, 200km, 400km, 600km, 1200. I learned this after he died.

He was riding his bike along a busy road in Florida when somehow, the details are vague, a blue Corvette traveling at a speed well beyond the road’s suggestion left its lane and hit him. I imagine he died instantly, 60 years-old. I don’t remember the last time he and I spoke. It had been more than a decade, I think. Now it seems such a shame, given all we must have had to talk about. The bike, there it is again.

When Eddie died the tears came more readily, great sobbing gusts of tears. I don’t remember when I’ve cried like that. The day we got Eddie from the shelter, a pair of shining eyes and a swishing tail in white fur and black nose, was dim memory by then. I’d never had a dog before and was reticent about the whole project. I didn’t know why we would take on the responsibility really, and I said so to my friend Charlie, who shook his head and smiled. “You’ll cry when that dog dies,” he said.

Eddie was a mutt, with shades of greyhound and lab in him. As a young dog, he could run all day, and often did in the Fells where I rode mountain bikes. I could loop the perimeter of those woods over and over, 6 miles per lap, and Eddie would blaze along by my side, occasionally darting off to tree a squirrel before returning again to formation.

A smart dog, he would pace and yap excitedly any time I pulled the bike out. I’m not sure how many seasons we passed together in the woods. In my mind it was more than a careful consultation of memory would suggest. In the last five years of his life, he was nearly fifteen when we had to have him put down, I don’t recall him going out with me at all, but those times are still integral to my memory of him. He was a good friend, and always very willing.

Last week, a friend and I were talking about all the people we know who’ve been hit by cars in the last year. The number has grown to a size that’s hard to ignore, and we are both feeling our mortality a bit. That could be age, or it could be a burgeoning rational case for the risk of riding a bike. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

But where is the bike in this story? Sometimes correlation only hints at causation, they say.

Scott died on his bike, and Eddie lived with the bike, and they’re both gone, but is the bike really any more than a prop in either scene? You can, and naturally do, argue that Scott died because of a careless driver, and that the high risk of riding a bike played no small part, and that seems obviously true. Maybe I just feel I need to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to keep riding in light of yet another cycling tragedy, except that tragedies happen, right? Friends and family get cancer, or worse. Old dogs die. Life goes on, and the joy of riding with a friend is no more rare and strange than another report of a friend laid up in hospital with broken ribs, collarbone and spirit.

Anything in the path of that Corvette was going to die, that Scott was there, on a bike, was the cruel coincidence. The bike brought him to that place, but he could just as easily have been walking or waiting for a bus.

The bike illuminates a young dog and makes his old friend wistful and sad after he’s passed on. Is it just the order of events, or the drama, that draws your attention to the bike? Or maybe, again, the bike has nothing to do with it, is only incidental, like a cell phone glance in the wrong moment, or the decision to take a too-busy road. All of the details pile on top of one another, form a composite. Maybe drawing the bike out, focusing on it, is wrong. Corellation is not causation. Friends die. It is awful and sad, but if you are lucky, and you let the composite remain intact, you can see that you were lucky to have ridden with them at all.


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  1. mark

    My wife got a Queensland Healer a pup about a year before we had our first child. My bike played with that dog often on trails of Fort Order. They played hide seek.a few times and on more than a couple occasions came in contact as he would all of a sudden stop in the middle of a trail. Fremont would start whimpering with excitement as car carrying them both got closer to the traiilhead. That dog loved to run and was quite a Frisbee player too!

    Thank you for jogging the memory.

  2. Tom in Albany

    While those around us die, we must keep on living. When we finally check out, we will want those around us to keep on living. Thus, we must set an example – a good, positive, maybe even shining example.

    Nice essay, Robot.

  3. Mike the Bike PT

    Safety, and really mortality, has been on my mind quite a bit recently. Essays like this combined with several local fatalities in the recent past have got me to thinking the “Is it worth it?” question. Three young kids, a wife and a full time job. Good health, good friends, and a loving family. There are decades left in my life where I may have the opportunity to see amazing, beautiful, wonderful things. If I’m killed tomorrow in an accident on my bike, is it worth it? An even better question would be, “Is it fair to those I love?”

    The answer to those questions are out of my grasp. What I do know is that riding makes me a better person, a better dad and a better husband. If I were to rid my life of cycling, I think the hole it left would fill up with depression and anger and resentment.

    Is that fair to those I love?

    1. EatiusBirdius

      Mike and Robot…really odd but I’ve had the *exact& same feelings recently. So much so that I’ve pulled out the MTB that’s been sitting in the rafters for the past 2 years in place of my road bike and started riding it instead. I absolutely despise the fact that I am literally risking my life just to enjoy the beauty of the road. But I sincerely hate the pull I feel every time I kit up to jump on the road that threatens me with the fact that I may never come home again. You’d think I was referring to going off to war; not go ride a bike. Really? Is that what it’s come too?

      Funny segue and irony though that backs up your coincidence theory as well. So I’ve been riding the mtb to be “safe” right? At the end of the ride this last Sunday I firmly planted my forehead into a 3x3ft boulder. So much for being safe(er) eh?

      Thanks for the post Robot. Thoroughly thought provoking.

  4. Robot

    @Mike – I get where you’re coming from, and that’s exactly where my head’s been at. What I think, and what I was trying to hint at above, is that, because I’m a cyclist, I tend to translate accidents through a finer filter than maybe they deserve. In other words, maybe the bike doesn’t put me at any more risk than many of the other things that ultimately add value to my life, that make the person I am and/or want to be. The bike is there, and it’s easy to impute risk in riding a bike, but really the bike is only a minor character. Life is risky. The bike enriches more than it endangers.

  5. Mike in FLA

    When people (my wife mostly) start to tell me how dangerous it is to ride my bike I like to spew wiki factoids like these from 2012:
    In the USA
    33,561 people died in car accidents
    4,743 pedestrians were killed by cars
    726 cyclist were killed by cars

    If I die riding my bike….at least I was riding my bike.

    1. kurti_sc

      Hey Mike in FLA. I don’t know how much comfort you can find in those numbers. If you play the numbers game, then you have to play the game. I would suspect that your state has a larger number of those cyclist fatalities than say, Wyoming. Then scaling the numbers for cyclist v. motorists, etc, it gets alarming more quickly.
      I’d rather say numbers be damned, cycling has enriched my life.
      I have several friends that I ride with and some that I don’t. No matter how minor the acquaintance, a cycling pal has a main line into me with something we share. I suppose it would be similar if I had another past time like sailing or hunting or whatever.
      Man, Robot, it’s such a well written and interesting essay, that it makes it difficult to comment. This deserves some late night convo around a fire ring with some adult beverage.

  6. DavidA

    Sadly, we live in a car culture here in America. Anyone who rides a bike to work, the store, for fun or sport is considered odd at best. If you are on a bike anywhere there are cars being driven,,,,you don’t belong. In Europe and elsewhere the bike is used for commuting and is faster and more effective than walking. Gas is not 6.85 to 11 dollars a gallon here….yet. Bike highways and cities used to biking/riding culture take time and money and an expanded way of thinking to evolve, in the meantime, we have to realize that every time we put the leg over the bike and head out….it maybe the last time….but then again that is a metaphor for just about everything we do in this life.

  7. MattC

    Great post, and this type of discussion always brings to the forefront of my mind “is it worth it?”. I think the answer to that is “yes, right up until it’s not”. Is it worth it for Scott and his family? A girl in my local roadie club was ‘run over’ a year and a half ago July. She was pinned underneath the guys truck (who had made a left-turn to run over her, not seeing her coming his way) when the medical people got there. She was still alive, though her cervical vertebrae were broken and the spinal cord severed. She was (is) a thirty-something wife and mother. She is now a quadriplegic and her husband is now a caretaker for the rest of her life, and their kids don’t understand why the hospital “couldn’t fix mommy”.

    So….was it worth it to her, and her husband and kids? Only they can answer that…but I’d personally have to think “no”. It’s’ quite easy to say all the things about how your life is better because of riding, how you accept the risk, etc, etc…and as long as YOU aren’t the one suddenly in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, then sure…the answer is yes. It’s yes because you are still walking and riding and living your ‘normal’ life. She is not, and those of us in our local club are pretty broken up about it, and asking ourselves this question. And we’ve had riders quit showing up for our Sat morning ride. And yes, I still road ride, though I’ve taken a new perspective on riding solo. Not that being in a group will save you, but maybe it gives you a little better chance…(probably not, but safety in numbers).

    Now Mt biking…if I crash there, I know the reason. Either I messed up, or something broke. And if something broke, it’s probably because I messed up. I can live with that. There’s no mulit-ton steel monster prowling the trails with a preoccupied driver killing or maiming me, having done nothing wrong other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  8. Robot

    I think fatal and catastrophic bike/car interactions are a bit like shark attacks. They are highly unlikely. The overwhelming odds are that you will not be run over by a car while riding or attacked by a shark, but it does happen and when it does it incites a visceral fear that magnifies the possibility in our heads far beyond what it actually is.

    Having said that, I have been hit by cars twice, escaping both times with very minor injuries. I’ve seen the shark. I swim in those waters, and I worry, but I do not believe I will get eaten, even if I know people who have been.

    Does that make any sense? Maybe not.

    1. Tom in Albany

      We humans are great rationalizers. Is that a word? I’ve been hit. Minor injury and totalled bike was the result. I’ve been harrassed. I’ve been nearly run off the road due to people being A: in a hurry; B: distracted; C: Clueless; D: Other. Yet, I still ride my bike to work. It’s great for my health both physical and mental. It keeps miles off the car and pollution out of the air. What I haven’t done, as far as I can tell, is let the bike take me away from my family. I don’t ride evenings, on weekends, or with friends. I solo-commute to and from work. That family at home is what keeps my head on a swivel and what has reduced, though not eliminated, the number of fool-hardy choices I make on the bike.

      I hope I never become that statistic because, no, it won’t be fair to anyone. However, until that time, my entire family is better off with me riding my bike.

  9. eliman

    To all the people questioning whether cycling is too risky, here’s some data:

    US DOT estimates 1.27 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in cars

    The Snell Foundation estimates roughly 1 death per 2 million trips on a bicycle. If you estimate an average of 20 miles per ride on a bike, which seems pretty reasonable to me (if not low), that works out to 1 death per 40 million miles traveled.

    So that suggests that cycling is only 2x more dangerous than driving a car. Given the health benefits (both mentally and physically) of regular riding, I’d call that at least a wash. I’ll keep on riding, thanks.

  10. wayno

    The best thing about numbers is that they can be broken down to assess risk. The 726 number is the last year data was released (2012) but a closer look tells another story about the risk of say the typical RKP reader.

    28% of all cycling fatalities involved alcohol (>.01) IN THE CYCLIST with 23% above .08.
    Approx 30% of fatalities happen between 8PM and 4AM (I presume there is some overlap there).
    Another 30% happen between 4PM and 8PM.
    The saddest stat is 10% are 16 and younger.
    The scariest stat for the presumably typical RKP reader is largest fatality age cohort is the 45-54 male at 130 lives lost.
    The split between urban and rural deaths is 70/30

    These numbers tell us that the risk is lowered from the 726 since presumably those riding for fitness do not drink while riding nor ride late at night or are less than 16 (juniors withstanding). You can further mitigate your risk by choosing the time of day you ride and where you ride (rural vs urban).

    Of course, numbers mean jack shit when it happens to you or someone you know, which is the shittiest part of the numbers game.

    Stay safe out there.

    1. EatiusBirdius

      @Wayno Always wondered about those kind of stats, specifically the “when” and “where” the majority of accidents happen. Even though I know that if it’s my time, it’s going to happen no matter what, these numbers do alleviate some of my constant worry before riding.

  11. Pat O'Brien

    Eliman, that is an interesting conclusion that was also reached by a health survey I took at work a few years back. It consisted of basic blood work, blood pressure check, and an extensive survey conducted in a one on one session with a nurse. Then they crunched the numbers and decided if your lifestyle and current health would lengthen or shorten your expected life span. All the exercise parts of the survey added years to your life except cycling. They said it was a wash. I am not convinced. As I get older, 65 right now, I cut risk by being very selective on the routes I ride, including rides to the trailhead for mountain biking. That plus living in a fairly bike friendly small town reduces my risk enough to not question continuing to ride. The positive health benefits that cycling, and the life style changes that go with it, have given me over the last 20 years are undeniable.

    The death of my dog was an experience that I have yet to understand. To make those decisions and follow through with them was the hardest thing I have ever done. But, two years after Beau left the house was too empty. So, another dog lives here now. And the joy they bring, especially to kids, makes that also a wash. But, Duffy may be our last. But then, he may live longer than me!

    Robot, that was an excellent piece of work. Thank you.

    1. Author

      Got curious…looked up stats for Boston, where I live. There were 9 cyclist deaths here between 2010 and 2012.
      During the same period, there were 193 murders.
      And I don’t even think about getting murdered.
      Maybe I should.

  12. Tom in Albany

    You don’t think about being murdered because you know, generally, which neighborhoods have a higher frequency and you likely avoid them. I’m also guessing that you plan your routes to avoid the worst roads at appropriate times of day. The difference is, you choose to get on a bike. There’s probably little to draw you to neighborhoods with higher murder rates.

    What I’d be curious to know is the root cause of those 9 bicycle deaths? Could any be construed as some form of homicide?

    1. Author

      @ Tom – There have been murders in my neighborhood. Three this year. The thing about both murders and bike accidents is that there are all these extenuating circumstances. There is a fascinating report from the City of Boston which breaks down all the data on bike accidents and gives you a composite of who is at greatest risk and why. I don’t fall into most of their categories, in the same way I don’t fall into most of the “highly murderable” categories.

      Anyone interested in that Boston Cycling Safety report can find it here. I think it’s instructive, even if you don’t live in this little burg.

  13. Pingback: Friday Group Ride #237 | RKP

  14. Bin

    Like the pilots that my dad, a flight surgeon, used to check out, I sometimes wonder if my number will come up sooner or later.

    RIP Gigi G., Julianne M, and Peter B. Hales (2014).

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