Saturday, May 22, 2021

Trial by combat

 The weather is getting nicer and people are getting nastier. Drivers bring their prejudices with them when they crowd New Hampshire roads in the warm months. The combination of aggressive attitudes and sheer numbers raises the stress level no matter what mode of travel you choose. But on a bicycle you are more exposed and at times you are more vulnerable.

Drivers treat each other badly. Think about how many games of chicken you get sucked into in the course of normal operations. The majority of drivers may simply want to get from place to place fairly cooperatively and without drama, but embedded with them are the ones who are starring in their own private movie, and you're an extra in the chase scene. More numerous are the ones who don't mind racing in a tight field. Driver training may suggest that you leave enough following distance to avoid trouble that may pop up in front of you, but standard practice is more like drafting in NASCAR.

Driving becomes a test of skill and nerve. Drop a bicyclist into this and you generate automatic friction. The law says that drivers have to accommodate cyclists. The majority of drivers who do so varies from a slim margin of 50.000000001 percent to a sometimes hefty 98 percent. Around here, as the roads get more crowded the cooperation level drops noticeably. On open stretches of steady cruising you may only notice a few more close passes, random yells, a bit of extra diesel exhaust blurped in your direction, or a tendency for motorcyclists to downshift abruptly just behind your shoulder. But at any intersection or other flow regulation point, the cyclist enters the trial by combat.

I already mentioned the bad design of the new ramp from Route 16 southbound onto Route 28 southbound. Further down, the state put in a rotary/traffic circle/roundabout at Route 171 to reduce or eliminate the occasional bloody smashup that would occur at the old-style crossroads.

Not much of New Hampshire is flat, especially once you get away from the coastal plain. As these traffic circles become more numerous, you notice how many of them sit on a slope. It means little to a motor vehicle whether the in-run is uphill or down, unless it's very steep. You do need to regulate your speed, but you have throttle and brake that require little effort to change speed by several miles per hour on demand. Not so much on the bike. At the 171 circle, I can come into it with a gravity assist on my way south. I can snap accelerate to catch a gap and maintain a speed in the 20s easily. But in the evening, tired from a long day, I face a slight but noticeable climb into the circle itself, and have to fight gravity around that arc to continue plodding slightly uphill all the way out the exit chute to stay on 28 north. As a result, I don't usually do that.

Route 28 descends for more than a mile coming down to the flats approaching the Route 171 intersection from the south. Even a tired old fart on a heavy bike at the end of a long day on his feet can pull speeds close to 30 almost all the way to the in-run on the circle. But there the land rises, and drags the energy right out of those tired old legs. However, you learn to manage the forces of gravity and your own insufficiency. I will stay well to the right and sacrifice a little bit of speed, to encourage as many drivers as possible to go past me before we get into the confined chute. Sometimes, drivers who roared up at supersonic speeds along the straight road on the flats suddenly lose it all just when I wish they would keep rolling a little longer and get the hell past me. Now they're stuck until I finish my maneuver, but it was their choice. I always wonder if they really considered it. Worse are the ones who don't get on by, but don't back off, either.

Northbound through that circle, my standard move now is to hold off the armored cavalry as best I can in the chute, and snap a hard right to take the first exit from the circle, onto 171 east. I get an instant gravitational assist as the road drops sharply, throwing me up to about 25 mph. Even if one or more of my pursuers have come out the same way, I get a quick gap on them before the road rises just as steeply and knocks me back to the kind of speed most people consider normal for a cyclist. If it's early in the week and I'm feeling frisky I can stomp up the rise in good shape. More commonly I grovel to the top as the motorists pass with varying degrees of compassion or contempt. At least it's a straight piece of road and they're more eager to get on their way than waste time with me. I then snap a descending left turn onto Old Route 28 to merge back to the new highway in a mile or so. It's a pleasant diversion that adds very little distance and rewards a rider with a touch of tranquility.

I had a classic example of it on my ride home last night. I'm a little fried after four days of fairly hard riding for an old geezer on a utility bike. Coming into the circle I was passed by a pickup with a plow on the front, followed closely by another vehicle, with a third lining up as we got close to the entry to the circle itself. That third vehicle was determined to squeeze past me wherever we were, regardless. I slapped him back long enough to sprint a couple of yards and drop into the sharp right. He came out the same exit, but didn't catch up to pass until I slowed for the climb. Then he seemed to kick it down to a lower gear a bit more noisily than necessary. Gotta assert that dominance.

I could be a stickler for the law and cover the lane, riding into the circle and around, but I can guarantee that drivers would try to pass me at any point during that. There would be horns, shouts, anger, frustration. Vehicular purists and effective cycling instructors might say to hold the line and lead by example, because eventually the motoring public will get used to it. It will become normalized. But normalized is not normal. Normal people are self centered and self serving. Those impulses are probably responsible for 90 percent of traffic incidents. Bad behavior is constantly eroding good training, if good training was even provided in the first place.

Motorists who force bike riders to defend their place on the road do it from the safety of their armored vehicles. The drivers have nothing to lose. Even if they hit a cyclist, they usually face no penalty. They have their standard excuses, all based on the understood principle that cyclists on the road are crazy idiots who brought trouble on themselves. Our only asset is maneuverability.

Infrastructure like the Route 171 circle and the new 16-28 merge is anti-cyclist. Clearly the designers consider that bike riders are a small enough minority that we can be left to figure out our own survival strategies to get through them. We've had a lot of practice, so I guess it's true.

I do acknowledge that if the majority of motorists really wanted to kill us we would all be dead. It would be very easy, and most of it would probably be considered accidental. That's what it's called now, even if it started with a pushy driver bullying the rider, and it took a bad turn. Sorry. Breaks of the game. No driver will ever admit to the responsibility after the fact, nor will witnesses likely come forward to refute the story that will be told by the living, defaming the dead. You simply have to accept this part of the terms and conditions and put it out of your mind. Hassling a cyclist, even injuring or killing one, is like littering. It's just another technically illegal rude habit that will never lead to an arrest.


Rob in VA said...

I really dread traffic circles around here. The recent fad for replacing 4-way stop intersections with traffic circles is allegedly to improve traffic flow and reduce fuel consumption. However, here in Southwest VA, the trend has been to construct them with much smaller diameters than would be seen in regions (typically in Europe) where their dynamics are better understood. In our compact little imitation traffic circles, merging and diverging occur so rapid-fire that many drivers are intimidated and therefore slow down to such an extent that fuel savings are negligible. A signal of one's intent to exit the circle, whether by motorist or cyclist, may be misinterpreted by a following vehicle. Is it your intent to turn 2 seconds after signaling, at the 1st opportunity, or 4 seconds after signaling, at the 2nd opportunity? I have yet to see a bike lane incorporated in a traffic circle around here, and am skeptical that it could be done in a manner that enhances cycling safety.

greatpumpkin said...

There have been a lot of traffic circles in rural northern Virginia as well -- outside of the DC metro area but close to its edges. I was out there a lot last year working with a home-buyer couple who are also bicycle riders.

Reading about the long climb to the circle reminded me of my least favorite sections of the W&OD trail, where a long gentle upgrade ends in a shorter steeper grade. The steep grade would be easy except I'm already low on steam by the time I reach it, so it's agonizing. My least favorite is the stretch from where the trail crosses Broad St in Falls Church to the overpass crossing I-66. The first part almost exactly follows the old railroad right of way. But when the trail was created, it diverged up a steep hill (and on the sidewalk) apparently to save money by using an existing bridge over I-66. You can see the old route on a map and how much easier and better it would be to ride.

Reading about people driving aggressively toward cyclists, I remembered the well-liked competitor in the Race Across America who was struck and killed by a pickup truck during the race. After I saw the documentary about the race, one of the filmmakers told me there is evidence to support suspicion that it was intentional. Of course no charges were filed.

But another point about aggressive driving around bicyclists is that what is perceived by the bike rider might not be what the motorist intends. Car drivers are always communicating in some fashion from inside our tin cans. When riding, I might interpret a loud engine near me as aggressive, but when I am driving, I might appear aggressive when I have no such intention. The loudly down-shifting motorcyclist might simply want to alert you that he is there, or he might want to scare or intimidate you. I noticed that after I changed the aftermarket exhaust on my Morgan back to the louder original-type system, people react to the noise a lot, including treating it as a challenge or something to be challenged.