Cycling with a pale rider

I got a brief reprieve today.

I spent the last couple days of last week working at my new job. Or more precisely, not working. They weren’t really ready for me last week, so I spent two full days sitting at a desk doing nothing.

And since I would have been out on my bike if I hadn’t been stuck there, they were, in effect, paying me not to ride.

I mean, I know people hate cyclists around here, but that’s ridiculous.

Fortunately, they thought so too, and told me to take today off while they got a little more organized.

Which meant I had today unexpectedly free. And that, of course, meant I was on my bike.

For once, it was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, there was hardly any wind, and only a few people on the on the bike path, so I could ride as hard and as fast as I wanted, without having to slow down for pedestrians or slower riders. Well, not much, anyway.

So naturally, I enjoyed the ride.

And I thought about death.

It’s been on my mind lately, both because of what could have happened — but thankfully, didn’t — following my infamous bee encounter last year, and because we lost a couple of loved ones this year.

My mother-in-law — my wife’s stepmother — passed away this year at 96. Then we lost a good friend cancer; a beautiful, kind and loving woman who died much too soon, and yet another reason I hate cigarettes.

But the reason it was on my mind today was this post from New York’s Bike Snob. (Thanks to No whip for posting the link.)

In it, he tells of encountering a police investigation on his way to work, and later learning that a cyclist had come out on the wrong end of an encounter with a school bus. That led him to this thought:

“… As a human being you’re never really all that far from death no matter what you’re doing, but when you’re on a bicycle you’re especially close. When I’m on a bike I think of death as a membrane so thin you can’t see it because when all is going well you’re looking at it from the invisibly narrow side, not the all-encompassingly wide side. But when things go awry, and a series of decisions and coincidences sends you directly towards it, it’s all you can see. And the death membrane has extraordinary wicking properties, so sometimes all you need to do is touch it in order to wind up on the other side of it in a puff of vapor like an evaporating bead of sweat.”

As an experienced rider, I’m aware that death is always one possible outcome anytime I ride. Just as it is with any number of active outdoor sports, such as diving, mountaineering and rock climbing. And as with any other form of transportation, as last Friday’s Metrolink tragedy shows.

But unlike other forms of transportation, cyclists must share the road with cars, SUVs, trucks and buses, as well as any number of obstacles and road hazards, with no protection other than a helmet, glasses and a thin layer of padding between our legs. Which makes us particularly vulnerable.

You can’t really think about it, of course. If you did, you’d never leave the house. But it’s always there, like a silent, ephemeral riding partner. Especially in a city like this.

And if you want to avoid it, you have to be aware of it on some level.

I deal with it by saying a quick prayer anytime I get on my bike or behind the wheel of a car. I never, ever ride without a helmet. And I’m always on the lookout for anything that could pose a risk, and ready to react instantly to avoid it.

Like today, when a driver on a cross street saw that the cars were stopped on the street I was riding on, leaving just enough room for her to dart across, but never noticed — or even looked for — the cyclist coming up beside them. Fortunately, I was watching her, with my hands on the brake levers just in case she tried something stupid.

And she did. Although, despite almost hitting me, she made it quite clear that she hadn’t done anything wrong, from her exceptionally myopic point of view.

Of course, there are other cyclists who ride as if they have a death wish, zipping through red lights and stop signs without helmets, and with no regard for safety. Or common sense, for that matter.

Like the guy I saw at 7th and San Vicente today, riding on the wrong side of the road, and crossing against the light as oncoming cars jammed on their brakes to avoid him. He somehow managed to get away with, while giving no indication that he’d done anything wrong, or that he had placed himself, or anyone else, at risk. And rode off without a care in the world.

Now, I don’t want to imply that I don’t take any risks.

I do — probably more than I should. But I’ve learned what I can, and can’t, get away with. I never take a risk unless I know that I have the skill and experience to pull it off. And I never forget that there’s someone waiting for me to come home safely.

Or what could happen if I get it wrong.

That’s why I’m so adamant about creating a safe environment for cyclists, with streets and bike lanes that allow cyclists can share the roadway without unnecessary risk. And that are intelligently designed to help us get from here to there, swiftly and safely.

Because no one should ever have to risk their life just to get to work or class.

Or to enjoy an afternoon ride.


While I’m driving to work for the first time in over a decade, Bike Girl goes the other way, car-free for a full month. Tamerlane considers the ethics of cycling and the efficacy of infrastructure. Outdoor Urbanite sheds some light on bike lights, which I’m going to need if I ever want to try riding to work. Mikey Wally tries to make peace, and ends up getting punched and his bike stolen by some jerk — keep your eyes open for a black fixie with an unidentified jackass on the saddle. Town Mouse takes in the local leg of the Tour of Britain — amusingly, and very descriptively, as always. A San Diego cyclist encourages new riders to get out of his bike lane in today’s Times. And L.A.C.B.C is looking for people to kids’ bikes and helmets for a day, on October 11th at Santa Fe Dam.

One comment

  1. disgruntled says:

    Cheers for the link.

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