Friday, June 22, 2007

Would it kill you to be on time?

Would it kill you to be on time?

It might.

When I go in on time, I'm in what passes for rush hour around here. Toy Town rush hour is nothing compared to the real urban meat grinder, but especially in the summer things can get pretty aggressive. If I run my typical five-to-twenty minutes late the roads are remarkably more peaceful.

The other day, on track to arrive slightly early, I rode in the narrow, curb-lined canyon of Center Street. Rain had become moderate to heavy, so I was glad I'd chosen the fixed gear. I rode slightly in the lane, but was not blocking completely, because no traffic was coming the other way.

A tractor-trailer came up behind me. I held my line, preserving a little escape space to my right, but allowed him to start past. Just as his cab came even with me we both saw another tractor-trailer coming toward us, loaded with tree trunks. We were all going to pass at once in the narrow street unless the trucker next to me thought to put the binders on and back out.

Of course he did not. Like a big, wet, stupid dog, he sidled up next to me and drove ever so slowly by. A wall of whirling truck tires spun by my shoulder, inches away. He seemed to be trying to hold his own line, giving me a few inches of pavement so I wouldn't slam through the deep-set storm drains next to the curbing, but the further back I got the more I knew he could forget me as I disappeared into his blind spot. The last set of wheels is the most dangerous.

The rain made my brake useless. I didn't want to use resistance-pedaling, because it would make me sway slightly and I didn't have room. If the downrushing tire cleats caught any part of me I would be sucked into the crusher.

This happens about once a year, maybe a bit less often. It only happens when I let it happen.

You get one chance to snap the whip on the nose of the advancing beast. You get one chance to claim the lane and force the driver behind you to choose. By placing yourself in the field of view and making your claim to road space obvious, you say the them, "now it's premeditated, not merely negligent."

Once the nose of the vehicle comes up to you, you have lost control. That's why you need to keep tabs on what's going on in front and behind. If you look ahead and see traffic coming that might scare vehicles overtaking you to pass you with too little margin, shut that gate. If you think the overtaking vehicles will pass you widely and shove oncoming traffic into the ditch, shut that gate. Everybody already thinks you're an asshole just for being out there on a bike. You might as well be the asshole in charge. It's fun to be in charge.

In heavy traffic you neither can nor should try to hold them all back. They are bigger and demonstrably stupider. On a bike you must constantly watch the situation and plan your tactics. Sometimes you just pull your shoulders in and hope for the best. Look for a bailout as soon as possible, but never look like you're bailing out. You're in control, remember? Even when you aren't.

Image really does matter when you're interacting based entirely on the impression you create by your driving behavior and body language. Never let them know you are scared. Be scared. Sometimes it's scary. But that can be true of anything worth doing. Good fear will keep you alert and alive. Look alert. Look a little predatory if you can, like you'd stop and eat someone's liver if you weren't late for an appointment.

You get one chance to snap the whip on the nose of the advancing beast. Don't hesitate to do it.


Unknown said...


"Everybody already thinks you're an asshole just for being out there on a bike. You might as well be the asshole in charge. It's fun to be in charge."

Is good medicine today. I was in Dinkytown (urban commercial district in Minneapolis with heavy foot traffic) and some Joe was riding his rusted bucket-seat excuse for a lowrider down the sidewalk, expecting people to get out of his way. Being a very aggressive street rider, I generally don't have patience for cyclists on crowded sidewalks in my neighborhood. So I pointed to the 4x4-foot sign painted on the sidewalk that said no riding on the sidewalk.

Wow, was he pissed off. It's not like I was asking him to do something that I don't do every single day for several hours. Even the urban meat-grinder areas of Minneapolis are pretty safe. And just about every single street has bike lanes. I mean, what more do you want?

Apparently this guy wanted to call me a "fucking nerd" before he ever-so-slowly crept out into the street. I didn't think that last part was necessary, so shouted "there you go--just like that!", prompting him to look back over his shoulder and promote me, at the top of his lungs to "asshole", just as a squad car was passing him. I wanted, prayed for someone to open their driver-side door at that moment and ruin his complexion.

Like you said, "Everybody already thinks you're an asshole just for being out there on a bike." Especially the other cyclists who don't have the stones to go out there with you. So, if you're going to be an asshole, you might as well be the one in charge. And last I saw the poor schmuck, he was riding in the road, if not in the bike lane. Twit.

Dr. Logan said...

Good post. Too often car-drivers feel that their time is more important than your life. They'll gladly take chances with your safety to save three seconds. Like when they drive past you then swerve into a driveway causing you to bail/crash into them/lock up the brakes/slide by and kick their car. Anywho, keep up the good work. Logan

Anonymous said...

I've had this truck thing happen before. I should'a shut the dang gate! That was incredibly frightening...those enormous tires whirling round and round so close to me.

Good post, albeit a bit "triggering" for some of us!