It’s getting bad out there.
A few days ago I set my alarm for 4:45AM and set out to tackle a 4+ hour adventure before heading to the beach with my family for the rest of the weekend. After getting in 81 miles through the lovely roads of Hunterdon and Bucks Counties, I rolled into the driveway with just enough time for a quick shower and inhalation of some rice, before I was out the door to pick-up a friend from the train station. While on my way to the station, I was hit from behind by an obviously distracted driver. I know she was distracted by the look on her face via my rearview mirror as she added some dents to my rear hatch. The impact knocked my glasses from my forehead, separated my shoulder, and spilled my drink (I KNOW!). There were no skid marks, no choking odor of brake dust, just two strangers who would now know each other as plaintiff and defendant.
After checking for any damage to my body, I got out of my car to assess the situation and to meet my new friend. My Merc wagon sustained some bumper damage and a rear hatch that will require a few thousand dollars in repairs while the front end of her Honda Odyssey will likely need a Homeric-worthy list of body work. Hats off to German engineering, minus 1 for Japan. Before she was able to get out even the faintest apology, I asked her, “Were you texting,” to which she replied, “NO, my phone is in the back of the car in my purse.”
She asked if we should call the police, to which I replied, “You call the police, I’m calling my insurance company.” She started to cry and attempted to explain that her children were distracting her and swore she didn’t see me moving slowly, even though traffic on this particular stretch of local road is notorious for congestion. I asked her when she was going to get her phone to call the police and she stepped away to make the call. Cops came within minutes (it’s a small town), took our statements and left, and we drove off to our destinations – mine was the hospital for an x-ray of my now-nagging left shoulder, hers was to her angry husband (I deduced based on the phone conversation she was having). Six hours of ER time determined that my shoulder had a slight separation and I would have to walk around with a sling for a few days. It wasn’t terrible news, especially when I realized it wasn’t so bad that I could likely ride in a day or two – which I did just 36 hours later.
I went for that first ride with an old friend visiting from San Sebastian, my favorite Basque city nestled in the foothills of the northwest corner of the Pyrenees. Illart fits the stereotype of slight, yet powerful Spanish climber, a guy who requires very little training to hang on climbs that go on forever, yet has to work hard to get over short and steep lumps in the road. He and I have known each other for nearly twenty years – he was an exchange student living in my home when were were teenagers and became one of my lifelong friends. Illart (or EE-Art, as my parents call him) is the kind of unusual friend who one may not see for a decade yet slips back into your life like you last met just days ago. We hadn’t seen each other since I last visited Spain with my wife for a friend’s wedding just a few years ago. Back then he had been living in the mountains and wasn’t riding much. He had gained a little weight and was very focused on his work and other more important aspects of life other than our obsessive sport. Illart didn’t look like the skinny climber of our youth then, but on this visit seemed as though he was ready to tackle some of my local country roads and maybe a few climbs.
We spent the first part of our weekend together at my parents’ place at the Jersey shore, sitting on the beach, catching up and talking music, politics, pro cycling, art, etc. He was also curious about current relations between motorists and cyclists, wondering if it had improved at all since the last time he rode in the States in the early 1990s. I mentioned that just a week ago I was out training with one of my friends and we received a standard “Fuck you” from a good old boy in a giant pick-up truck (read: small dick compensator). This fellow drove by slowly as his passenger leaned out of his window yelling, “Move the fuck over you fucking queers.” My friend and I responded as we normally do to such harassment – we waived at high velocity like coked up toddlers and yelled an enthusiastic, “Hi!!!!”. The driver sped off, also as usual in this situation. Illart was surprised that we were met with such hostility – in Northern Spain riders are often cheered on by motorists who yell the Basque equivalent of “GO INDURAIN!” – which is also funny considering Big Mig has been out of the spotlight for quite a long time (Clearly, the Basque need a new hero).
It’s basically summer and already the national death toll for cyclists is up. How do I know this? I’m seeing articles posted on social media sites on a weekly basis mourning the loss of someone’s friend, colleague, or former team mate. The increase isn’t shocking – it’s getting warmer and more cyclists are on the road, paired with more lousy/new drivers now that schools are finishing up for the semester. This is obviously a lethal combination as more motorists – many of whom are distracted by mobile phones, cranky kids, or too much cockpit gadgetry – are taking to the roads during the hours cyclists like to train. What is shocking, what is disturbing, and what does push me to ride in the wee hours of daylight, are the angry folks (read: fucks) who seem to think it’s necessary to buzz my road-side shoulder while yelling “fuck you, faggot” as they pass by, often on a dangerous stretch of road and, more often than not, to turn into their driveway just 200 meters from the incident. In the past week I have experienced this almost daily, often on sleepy country roads (I live in a cycling paradise, btw) with usually little to no car traffic – I often see more John Deere tractors than Ford F-150s. It’s astonishing that these drivers only see me as a small fragment of my total person. I’m not just a cyclist – I’m also a father, husband, son, friend, mentor, and human.
I know. I KNOW. It’s no surprise nor is it anything new, but it bugs me more during these early days of summer. In fact, it’s always been like this.
Once, while on a morning training ride with my parents back in the day-glo 1980s, we came within inches of losing our lives to a couple of drag racing rednecks who were tearing up Landis Avenue on their way to work. As I remember the story, my father and mother sprinted their tandem up the road and were able to catch a glimpse of the drivers just as they pulled into their worksite, wherein my father pulled the foreman away from his danish, insisting to confront the two goofballs and receive an honest apology. The foreman reluctantly gathered the accused and we eventually got a police officer to come down to take statements. We were granted a court date and I went with my family to the hearing, watching my father testify, telling the judge about these reckless jitbags and their early morning exploits that nearly wiped out our family. Thankfully, the law was on our side and the jokers received a stiff penalty, and we all took a collective sigh of relief, feeling much safer to resume our morning ritual. Later that summer, a man was killed as he leaned out of a moving car to pinch a female cyclist’s rear end. According to the stories I heard, his head exploded like a watermelon as he was run over by his friend driving the vehicle. True or not, justice was served.
However, that was a long time ago and, while we have always been harassed by pea-brained drivers, back then they didn’t have a hundred satellite radio stations, in-dash DVD players, iPads, multi-screen ventilation controls, or the mother of all distractions – text messaging – in their cars. The worst distractions a driver of the mid-1980s had was either receipt of road head or a call from Cooter on their CB radio. Yes, times were quite simpler, but I leave the garage each and every day assuming it will be my last ride (New York Life, please don’t cancel my policy). At the request of my wife, I bought a Road ID (aka morgue-ready ID bracelet) in case some drunk/distracted/asshole driver makes the mistake of ramming me into a tree. Morbid stuff? It’s the reality I’m faced with every time I roll out of my driveway and it’s not getting any better no matter how many bikes lanes we install or drivers we intend to “educate”. Modern America is a selfish place and most drivers just see us as something in the way, though I have seen the same motorists who nearly kill me slam on their brakes for a bouncing ball.
If you’re reading this then you’re part of the choir, so it’s pointless to assume that this post will do much to educate the masses that we, as cyclists, just want to coexist and enjoy the same roads you are using to get to work, school, or wherever life happens to take you tomorrow. We just want our fair piece of the road- no more and certainly NO less. Yes – YES, there are some assholes among us. We know them and, at one time or another have been a part of their rides. You know those lads and ladies who ride three-across the local narrow roadway like they are charging the descent from Galibier to Briançon. Well, I am apologizing on behalf of the entire cycling community for my brethren and their folly. Just like you can’t stop every person from being an asshole I can’t stop every rider from the same errors in judgment.
But I can correct their behavior when I see it and I can make a difference by being a more thoughtful rider.
asking begging for motorists to do the same.