Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Another Casualty

I recently learned that one of the cross-country ski instructors in Jackson, a man who had lived the car-free lifestyle for many years, was run down while cycling a couple of months ago in Massachusetts, where he summers. He has been in physical therapy for weeks and has not appeared in Jackson as he usually does in advance of the winter.

In the winter, he teaches both downhill and Nordic skiing with exquisite technique. He skis from place to place in the village when conditions allow, riding his trusty Litespeed when he needs to go somewhere by road. That was before this accident. I have not learned whether he will be able to resume this lifestyle.

This summer and fall's casualties underscore that bicyclists don't have fender-benders. Our bodies are our bodywork, so the dents go in us.

Cyclists, like pilots, climbers and mariners, always want to know all the details about a crash, so we can check our own procedures, to make sure we're doing all we can to avoid going down ourselves. In its harshest form, there's a definite tendency to try to blame the victim. Pilots I know will get curiously detached describing the catastrophes of even people they know. Climbers are much the same. It isn't a lack of compassion, just a defense mechanism to help us assure ourselves we are less likely than these other poor boobs to suffer the same fate. Otherwise it can be pretty hard to get yourself to go out or up again.

In heavy traffic the cyclist faces the harshest environment. Whenever you ride beside a motor vehicle you are in the greatest danger from it. That's why I cringe when I see someone splitting lanes at full speed between slow or stopped cars. It may feel like a great power trip to show those idiots how much better you have it, but remember that they're idiots at best and homicidal at worst.

Those big vehicles are bloated creatures with their piggy little eyes mounted way up front. Their view to the rear is limited to what they bother to notice in their mirrors. Their view to the side is subject only to the whims of chance. If they see you, will they register you? If they register you, will they consider you worthy of consideration? Will they judge your speed and distance correctly, even if they do pick you up on their sensors?

The next big danger comes from vehicles turning across your path from the opposite direction. Bike equals toy equals slow. Sure, they can make that hole shot. And if they don't, YOU"RE not going to hurt THEM.

Finally we have traffic entering from side streets. All factors come into play there, especially in a chaotic mess like the eastern Massachusetts road system. All those roads basically started out as goat paths. Look at how they wander and intersect, widened and paved, repaved and widened more to try to accommodate the burgeoning population of motorists over the years. They were never really designed. They just grew.

The Boston driving style is world famous. Aim for the gap and punch the gas. It's your only chance to crack into that endless flow of steel, glass and plastic. This method applies throughout the greater Boston area, which is effectively the entire eastern half of the state.

Despite these dangers, many people choose to ride bikes there, as they do in many congested urban areas. The freedom of cycling outweighs the danger of an accident. One does not set out expecting an accident, but the drawbacks of being a motorist don't discourage people from exposing themselves to a certain degree of hazard for the sake of cycling. Freedom, as is often said, is not free.

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