In Defense of Responsible Cyclists.
Posted on 17:52, November 17th, 2010 by Pablo
I have ridden a bicycle of one sort or another since I was 7 years old. I got my first race bike at 14 and I spent most of my adulthood in the US riding bikes as a commuter, triathlete, and occasional mountain biker (even on a tandem MTB!). I did some long road races for training, and continued all of the above when I moved to NZ in 1997. When I stopped competing in 2002 I continued commuting and riding for fun, even after my precious triathlon bike– a 2000 Cervelo P2 fitted to me–was stolen in a burglary (if anyone sees a red 26 inch wheel P2 with Ironman Hawaii stickers on it–it is mine and I want it back). All told, I have ridden well over 100,000 miles in a variety of places, on and off road, urban and rural, solo and tandem. I love bicycles, from old beaters to beach cruisers, classic Italian road bikes, dual shock MTBs and, as my foremost love, the bicycle equivalent of my partner’s mind: time trial bikes–sharp edged, aero, lively and fast, deep dished and big geared, yet immediately responsive and intuitively attuned to where I want to go and what I need to do to get there sooner rather than later (I may get in trouble for this since a bike has no soul, but for me it is an attempt at making a material comparison to a precious intangible. Competitive cyclists and tri-geeks will know what I mean).
As for the relationship between competitive rider and bike, I shall defer to the wisdom of an old Mexican mechanic who serviced my ride while I was racing in El Paso, Texas: “it is not the machine but the monkey that rides it that matters.” Competitive or not, it is the monkey who ultimately pays the price for riding on public roads. As an insentient object, a bicycle may be broken or destroyed but not injured or killed when it crashes. For the human rider, that substantive difference does not obtain.
Anyway, I moved to an island state in SE Asia in late 2007 and took my nice commuter bike with me. In the first 14 months in country I was hit by cars twice, once by the side rear view mirror of a van passing at 50 kph and the other by the back end of a city bus that cut in front of me in order to pull into a bus stop (when it could have waited 2 seconds to allow me to pass the bus stop entry). Although the first driver stopped to see if I was Ok after he heard the thump, the bus driver and passengers on the bus berated me for being in the road (this, while I was laying on the curb checking to see if I was injured).
But SG is not too bad. During the 10 years I lived, trained and raced in NZ I was hit five times–two sideswipes, two at roundabouts by motorists who would not cede although I had the right of way, and one T-bone when a car turned left across my bow on a steep hill during a rainstorm. In two instances I was assaulted by the drivers involved (one whom was on his way home from church), and in one case the driver attempted to flee. In four of the cases the driver was a middle aged pakeha male (the other was a chinese male), with two of the five driving panel vans. In the US I was hit once, in Florida, by a a slow moving geriatric in a Cadillac who wanted to “move me along” down the road because I was moving too slowly (at 40 kph on a Sunday morning at 7AM). I also had a gun pulled on me in Tucson (at 6:30AM!) by a redneck in a pickup truck who swerved into a bike lane to show me and my riding buddy who was boss–but then ran into a red light half a block down the road. When I rode up to confront him he kindly produced his penis-substitute.
I tell this story because once again cyclists have been killed and injured in NZ by careless motorists. Every year, it seems, the triathlon and road racing community loses someone to a car crash. Simple bike commuters die as well, every year. What ensues is discouraging: motorists angrily denouncing cyclists as road hogs, irresponsible, effete, possible gay lycra-clad wankers with too much time on on their hands and too much money invested in bikes. They rail about cyclists needing licenses and taxes in order to ride public streets, and generally stress the inconvenience of having to slow down for the oxygen and blood powered vehicles in the way between them and whatever important destination it is that cannot be impeded by the two wheeled laggards blocking the road.
Inconvenience? Let me explain some very simple physical facts. Even if rude and inconsiderate, cyclists are human beings with spouses, children, parents and others who love them, riding on a self-propelled unarmoured vehicle wearing nothing but a helmet and normal clothes (or lycra). The rider’s points of contact with the pavement are two 5 centimeter patches of 21-25 mm rubber rolling at anywhere from 70-130 rpm, at speeds that can be as low as 5 kph or high as 60kph under normal variable terrain conditions in NZ. A rider and bicycle might, if the rider and bike are big, weigh 150 kilos. The bicycle is a vehicle in the road, as is any other, but with the twist that it shares with horses (which are also vehicles in their own right), the virtue of being self-powered. Yet no one in their right mind would sideswipe or fail to yield to a horse and rider. So why do it on a bike? The very attitude of some towards cyclists–that they are lesser beings, inconvenient, in the way, tax-dodgers etc., betrays an authoritarian mindset that speaks to the darkness within the NZ psyche. After all, bicyclists are people too, and in a democracy those people have just as much right to the road as anyone driving a fossil fuel powered vehicle. They may be slower, but they are equal when it comes to sharing the road.
The root problem of the conflict between cyclists and motorists is a matter of simple physics. An automobile weighs a ton, has 4 surface contact points of over a quarter meter each, travels from 0 to 150 kph as a matter of course, and has a metal and composite-encased passenger compartment with air bags as basic safety measures between the flesh inside and the kinetic effects of hitting the road or another object at speed on the outside. A bicycle rider has none of those, and is at the mercy of elements, road surfaces, the disposition of motorists and his or her own spatial and situational awareness in order to ensure safe passage during the journey. At the end of the day, cyclist is not in complete control of his and her fate when riding on public roads. The largest part of a cyclist’s fate that is not under his or her control is the attitude and behaviour of motorists.
Of course there are irresponsible cyclists. These should be ticketed, fined, and if causing injury, prosecuting for vehicular assault depending on the gravity of their transgressions. But motorists need to understand that a touch of fenders between two cars merely results in a dent in each, whereas the touch of a fender on the rear or front wheel of a bicycle, to say nothing of a full-fledged sideswipe or frontal collision, has the very serious, even likely potential for catastrophe for the cyclist. Do motorists really want to maim or kill cyclists just because the latter are rude, inconsiderate, slow or inconvenient? As it turns out, even the behaviour of cyclists can be classified and spotted a priori.
There are the four types of cyclists usually seen in the public streets: road riders, triathletes, commuters and bike messengers (MTB folk wisely tend to stick to non-paved rural tracks where trees, rocks and precipices are the main obstacles). Triathletes ride what are known as time-trial bikes given the individual nature of the sport. These bikes have aerobars jutting off the front handlebars on which the rider can rest their elbows in order to lower his/her aerodynamic profile (since most of the gains in bicycle speed come from overcoming wind resistance). Triathletes mostly ride alone except on occasional social rides, mainly because the triathlete must learn to suffer, fuel, eliminate and otherwise cope by his or herself given the nature of the sport (this is especially true of the long-distance triathlete, although some short distance triathlons now allow drafting in packs–see below).
Road riders (known as “roadies” and identified by their curled handlebars and stylised clothing) usually ride in groups, do not use aerobars (which are dangerous in packs if one is stupid enough to try to ride on them), and lessen their wind resistance by drafting. Drafting is a practice where one rider “pulls” the others by leading out front for a short spell of time while taking the brunt of the frontal air flow, upon which the following rider moves up front and the lead falls to the back of the “train” of riders behind him/her (I should note that the drafting effect is even greater when swimming given water resistance, and is even possible while running). This allows all riders to rest and give maximum effort during their short “pulls.”
The trouble with this practice is that it produces a double line of cyclists, those going forward and those going backwards, which on narrow open public roads can lead to lane blockages even if the pack is riding at 50-60 kph. As a result, roadies are the cause of most motorist rage, although triathletes often cop the blame from road raging cowards because they are alone rather than sheltered by a pack and hence are easier to intimidate from a moving vehicle (a situation that is often worse for female riders). Roadies often compound the problem of group rides by spreading 3 or more abreast in order to converse or gain some space in the pack. The trouble is that the law prohibits cyclists from riding more than 2 abreast, so in going beyond the “2 wide” rule they are illegally blocking the road. No wonder motorists get angry. Road riders in groups tend to be the the cause of most of the more egregious examples of anti-cyclist road rage, be it in the moment or later.
Commuters come in all sizes and shapes and ride all sorts of bikes, and are seen mostly in cities rather than in towns. They mostly stick to surface streets but have been known to ride footpaths and stray onto major arteries. They often share bike lanes with buses, which makes them hated by and targets of bus drivers. Many use what is known as a “California” stop at street lights and stop signs, which is a slow roll-through when cross-traffic is clear rather than a full stop (this practice spans all types of bike rider, especially those wearing “clipless” bike shoes with special soles and peddles to maximise rotational efficiency throughout the peddle stroke, which if efficient makes for cumbersome foot plants at short notice. I have been guilty of employing the California stop from time to time, given that I have fallen more than once while trying to quickly unclip out of a clipless peddle).
Bike messengers ride hybrid bikes (road frames with MTB bars and gearing), and tend to exhibit an unhealthy regard for personal safety as they play a form of bicycle parquet during the course of their errands. They often are the most accomplished bicycle handlers and often are competitors in some form of cycling when not working, but they also tend to have the loosest view of traffic regulations and the interface between street, footpath, alleyway, steps and any other potential riding surfaces. They are a major source of motorists’ ire in large urban areas.
This brief exegesis is offered so that readers who are motorists but not cyclists will understand what they are dealing with when they come upon bicycle riders in the road. Virtually all cyclists are acutely aware of how vulnerable they are and most take pains to avoid confrontations with motorists. But sometimes terrain, context or circumstance conspire to bring them together in an untoward way. The fundamental thing that a motorist needs to understand in such instances is that, no matter how rude, inconsiderate, wankerish or otherwise inconvenient that rider’s presence may be, he or she is a living, breathing person made out of flesh and blood who has a right to life as much as you do. Injuring or killing them with your metal steed in an effort to prove a point or teach them a lesson is not only stupid–it is criminal. Even if it takes a minute or two (or five) to get around a cyclist or group of riders, perspective has to be maintained: a slow delay versus a thwarted life–is that a fair or reasonable trade off? Moreover, motorists need to understand that most of the roads they transit now have cyclists on them, and that cyclists have a legal right to be there. That means that motorists need to drive as if horses with riders were on the road–caution must taken in blind spots, on curves and hill summits and the two meter legal separation distance between cyclist and motorist must be respected when overtaking.
In the case of the irresponsible, arrogant or generally tosser rider(s), better to call the cops to the scene and/or demand more stricter enforcement of cycling and road safety regulations so that the minority of those who make up the bulk of the conflict with motorists are made to understand that with the right (and freedom) to ride a bike comes the responsibility to behave according to the universal rules of vehicle conduct. Otherwise homicidal or negligent motorists will have the final word on every cyclist’s fate on any given day.