Tales of Horsepower and Manpower
FIT THE FIRST: ANOTHER STUPID BICYCLE MOMENT
Sitting here nursing an achy head and bruised rib, as I contemplate my nice Eddy Mercyx road bike's smashed Campagnolo wheel. I commute each day by bike, riding a round trip of about 10 miles (5 each way). In the morning, I try to leave home and get to the office by 0640 or so, the idea being to try to avoid peak auto commute hours for safety's sake; ditto for the PM ride home. This afternoon I was riding home from the office at my usual time in the afternoon (about 4PM) and was about a block away from my starting point when I stopped (as usual) at a particular cross street intersection at the juncture of two one-way streets.
Each day when I reach this potentially dangerous juncture I very carefully gauge the two streams of traffic before making any attempt to cross this potentially dangerous junction. Usually, knowing full well how automobile drivers disregard the rights of bicycles, I have learned from experience that you simply cannot play by the rules when you and your bike (weighing a total of about 170 pounds) are competing on congested road space with massive steel and rubber monsters weighing as much as 5000 pounds or more. Given the fact that automobile drivers often 'bully' bicyclists into yielding their right-of-way (by threatening them with the potential for severe injury that collision with the bulk and inertia of their cars poses), most city bike commuters quickly learn that you simply can't compete head-to-head with these 4-wheeled battering rams. In response you are forced to use your inherent smarts and the natural maneuverability advantages of bikes to outwit them and defeat their stupid automobile driver tricks through careful application of savvy thinking and cleverness. The process is sort of like David managing to outwit Goliath (to use a Christian bible analogy), or a smaller, lighter MiG-15 outmaneuvering a heavy McDonnell F-4C Phantom (to use a military aviation analog).
At any rate, this particular intersection is a stoplight controlled intersection joining a one-way street going West to East and another going South to North. If the West to East traffic doesn't threaten to run over you, the right-turning South to East traffic predictably violates your right to cross by daring you to continue to walk across the street (with the pedestrian green on) as they turn to the right in front of you. It usually takes a very brave or very stupid pedestrian (or bicyclist) to call their bluff and continue to insist on the right of way, in the face of the two-ton wheeled battering ram that demands deference. A couple of years ago I finally understood that it was far better (brighter) to nip across the street when there was a gap in the East to West traffic flow, rather than wait for the cross-walk light to allow passage (since that's when the right turn motorists seize their inertial advantage to cut across in front of you). This is normally how I deal with this perplexing problem each day, when I am face to face with this perplexing segment of my ride. The whole idea is that since motorists routinely act like a bunch of childish bullies when they are in their vehicles, you have to defeat them with tricky moves using the only meager resources you have at hand—your brains.
Brains over sheer strength—the same old advantage underdogs have been employing successfully against dim-bulb, insensitive bruisers for centuries. Normally, therefore, when I reach this street crossing I grab the next available opening in the traffic flow and make my getaway, regardless of any technical illegalities implicit. Today, however, just as I got to this crossing, I noted a Highway Patrol car opposite me in the South to North lane, so I most uncharacteristically waited like a good, patient little proletarian for the cross-walk light to go on before crossing the street. Somehow at this moment (and for reasons largely unguessable) I felt encumbered by the need to impress this politzei that I was a good, safe, and responsible bicyclist, given the fact that most law enforcement officers have a strong bias against (and probably maintain an intense personal dislike for) any human powered two-wheel vehicle that attempts to use streets designed (and originally intended exclusively) for automobile use.
So there I was, being a well-mannered little nerdy cyclist, struck by a momentary seizure of moral rectitude to comply with traffic laws and trying to 'make nice' by Mr. Protector of Law & Order, when finally the ped lamp lit and I legally and properly started to ride my bike across the crossing.
Suddenly…W*H*A*M! I found myself lying on the asphalt on my left side, and sprawled off my bicycle that now lay horizontal on the street. Mucho perplexed by the suddenness of this and still trying to figure out what had happened, I disentangled my legs from the bike's frame (I was still semi-attached to it) and stood up, checking carefully to see if I had sustained any damage to myself. Everything appeared to be attached properly, helmet still on head, arms and legs all accounted for, and just a little road-rash on my left arm (which had taken most of the fall's impact, along with my left side) but that appeared to be the extent of it. Looking about and still somewhat stunned by whatever had happened, I noticed I was in the middle of the cross walk, but fortunately there was no oncoming traffic at the moment (the red light was still on for them).
Glancing at the bike after picking it up and finding that it wouldn't roll, I noted the rear wheel of my expensive Eddy Mercyx road bike was bent neatly in two, sort of in the shape of a German pretzel. So I was forced to pick it up and get off the street because it wasn't going any where like that! While doing this, I recall observing the stupid faces of the automobile drivers arrayed at the intersection, noting with some disgust that they all that the same look that fight fans have at a boxing match, or that displayed by spectators at a bull-ring (a semi-excited, anticipatory look that suggests they've just had a whiff of potential blood and violence to come).
As the Highway Patrol officer pulled over to park nearby, having seen whatever had happened as a direct witness, I heard a voice behind me say (in typical dope-smoker style: try to picture Cheech Marin of 'Cheech & Chong' doing his Berkeley stoned-out hippy routine and you come close to the sound of it): "Whoa! DUDE! Are you OK? Wow, man. I'm really sorry, dude! Wow! Bummer, dude!"
Looking around at the source of the voice, I saw a typical 'inner city' post-adolescent (mid-20s) type person, complete with beard and Salvation Army recycled clothes standing by the curb holding his bike up. Then it finally dawned on me, rather than my having missed the pedal when I tried to place my foot in the trap and fallen over by my own ineptness (I've actually done this before—the cause of my only other bicycle accident in several decades of two-wheel riding), this bozo had been riding heedlessly along on the wrong side of the road and traveling against the traffic flow on his 1950s style solid pig-iron kustom kruiser. He had suddenly emerged from behind a parked car (where I could never have seen him, had I been looking directly at him) and obliviously smashed into my rear wheel, going about 15 mph.
Seeing who had done this and what the likelihood of ever getting any compensation from this yahoo for my $300 Campy alloy wheel (now destroyed) was (ZERO/ZILCH/NADA), I simply faced the officer, who had now gotten out of his vehicle and shrugged at him. The officer had that characteristic ironic look on his face I have seen so many times before in accident situations involving a bicycle that non-verbally communicates the feeling: "Another stupid bicycle rider causing problems on the street". Since I seemed to be OK and uninjured, I decided to simply write this one off to experience and learn from it to never assume safe passage across a cross-walk, even when there were no cars present during a green light. After all, who would have thought that you would be hit by another bicyclist? Cars, yes, but other bicycles….?
The yahoo who had hit me made all the obligatory noises about how sorry he was ("Wow! Man, REALLY sorry about that. Dude! Wow!", etc.), so I waved him off, signifying that it was OK (what else could I do?—clearly, expressing simple anger was not a productive option), simply picked the bike up and carried it back to the office (only a block away), where I was able to call home for a pick-up.
Sitting here now and reflecting on all of this really gives me something to ruminate on, since I consider myself a super-safe car driver, a very highly skilled motorcycle driver, an excellent and highly experienced bicyclist, and someone who is far more safety conscious than the so-called average individual (thanks to decades of experience in aviation, where constant situational awareness is 75% of the winning formula, with the remaining 25 % breaking down into 24% training proficiency and 1% dumb luck). As a result, I realised once again that this accident was one of those freaky one percenters: accidents that fall into that one percent over which you have absolutely no control at all.
Statistically, it happens to all of us—even the most cautious and the most well-prepared. In aviation there is a saying (actually one of many such old aeronautical aphorisms) that "There are bold pilots and old pilots, buy very few old, bold pilots". Even cantankerous old Chuck Yeager (now an old fart of 84 years), the man who broke Mach for the first time on 14 Oct 47, encountered more than a few of these unavoidable "1%ers" in his long and colorful aviation career as a flight test pilot.
Before my ride home arrived, I spent a few minutes telling a colleague about what had just happened. He's very much into Eastern philosophy and religion, being Penoy (Filipino). Expecting a bit of sympathy, I was flummoxed when he and told me that I should look on the 'bright' side of the philosophical bridge (that is the side on which the waters of the Tao te Ching had not yet run under), observing that that it could have been far worse. Instead of just a smashed (and replaceable, if expensive) rear wheel, it could have been my head or an arm, or worse. Or it could have been a collision with a car, instead of just a spaced-out bicyclist mindlessly pedaling along on his 1958 Schwinn Cruiser. In that assertion he is, of course, completely correct, so it was useful information that he shared with me to help dull my sense of anger and frustration. Ironically, as a student of those Far Eastern disciplines myself, I would have come to this conclusion on my own after the adrenaline rush had drained off a bit, but he was correct. It could have been far worse.
Still, I can't help but think that if I had been willing to resort to my usual traffic-coping trickery I normally employ, instead of choosing for once to play it strictly by the Boy Scout rules (what kind of irony is there in this, I ask you?), this accident would never have happened at all. The lesson in this, I think (upon mulling it all over) is that only unimaginative and rather non-creative types play strictly by the rules all the time, for the percentage of cheaters who prey on the rule-followers and actively exploit the predictable 'good behavior' of most mature individuals is such that you are basically screwing yourself by blindly following rules you know others frequently disregard entirely. Now obviously there are many rules governing everyday affairs that you simply can't ignore and must comply with, but insofar as commuting by bicycle in heavy auto traffic is concerned, the only way to really survive a bike commute and stay ahead in this daily jousting tournament with automobiles is to use that applied trickery in full measure. Make no mistake, fair reader…there IS a battle raging out there on the street and it's usually a 'do or be done unto' proposition at best.
Being by nature and inclination an intellectual 'thinker' to an almost obsessive degree, I couldn't help but reflect in my post-accident analysis, that if I had not been slightly delayed getting out of the office by a few minutes (I am normally out promptly on time, about 99.9% of the time), this incident would not have taken place. All of this is largely non-productive thinking, of course, since none of us humming beans can ever hope to logically understand the highly illogical (perhaps even chaotic) mechanisms of what we call fate, random chance, or 'the odds against' (forget Superman: where are the Vulcans when we REALLY need their uniquely logical outlook on things?). Still, it makes for an intriguing problem to ruminate on (or perhaps figuratively urinate upon, depending on your own outlook).
I find, now that I am home, that it's a good thing I decided not to work-out on my Bow-Flex, since I seem to have either bruised or fractured a rib. This wasn't immediately apparent, right after the crash, but fortunately it isn't much of a bother: just a little stitch in the ribs that makes it hard to sleep on that side. I'm sure it'll be fine after a few days and fortunately I didn't fall on my head or twist my neck (even with a good helmet on that's a very bad circumstance to experience on a bike, at best). The other guy wasn't wearing a helmet (off course…whoa, dude!), but not only was he not injured, his $50 big bruiser of a cruiser bike wasn't even scratched.
So, you ask (if you're even still there reading this through to its conclusion), what's the moral to this real-life demonstration of the laws of physics and the randomness of fate in the here and now? Probably none at all, other than the tangential fact that we Americans still live in a nation that is pathologically (and probably terminally) addicted to the use of internal combustion engines for primary transportation and a mainline addiction to depletion of non-renewable oil resources. Since this is somewhat off the principal subject of my discourse on my accident, I won't go on for another three pages about this unhappy, if separate, fact, other than to make the statement that it is largely thanks to this colossally abysmal lack of American concern with finding alternatives to the unrelenting use of wasteful personal vehicles that us bicyclists continue to be relegated to the unhappy status of furtive second-rank users of public transportation roads and highways.
It's bad enough to endure the sneering contempt that law enforcement officials typically maintain for the rights of bicycle riders when you've been involved in an accident, and terribly ironic at best that accidents like this take place through careless acts by other thoughtless two-wheelers, but the fact that those of us who use bicycles in an earnest attempt to bring about much-needed social change continue to be regarded by the average dim-bulb car-driver as social pariahs is simply a further sad indictment of the deficit level of public awareness manifest in this arguably 'greatest nation' of the entire world (the USA).
FIT THE SECOND: BUSTER THE WONDER HONDA
In 2003, Yahoo asked car owners "Do you judge a person's success by the car he drives?" 52% of Americans said yes, as did 46% of the Chinese, 39% of the British, but only 15% of Germans and 12% of the Italians. This confirmed a suspicion I have long held about why 'Buster the Wonder Honda' (my bright orange 1979 Honda Civic station wagon) is treated so rudely by drivers of larger vehicles on California's roads. But more about that shortly.
As a native Californian born in 1946, I was brought up at the epicenter of America's car culture. Despite my credentials as a long-time leftist liberal, anti-war protestor, environmentalist, and rabid bicycle rider, my personal love/hate affair with cars began with a 1940 Chevy Coupe I got for $50 in my sophomore year in high school. My next car was a used 1962 VW rag-top, bought while stationed with the Air Force at Minot, North Dakota, in 1966; it formerly belonged to the local Lakota Sioux Chief's son, who used it to transport sheep around the reservation (I later found an inch of sheep-feed under the back seat). Later, as a Berkeley undergrad, I continued my love affair with German 'air-suckers' and owned a variety of VWs that included a Ken Kesey inspired 1955 VW transporter named 'Urge'. Although I lusted after legendary Porsche 'bathtubs' and mid-engined 914-6s, I settled for Fiats, helping race G Production X-1/9s in SCCA San Francisco region races.
In 1983 I began 10 years of expatriate work in the Middle East, driving first a Romanian ARO 240 (Baron Frankenstein probably drove one too, at his castle in Transylvania) and later a 1981 Russian Lada Niva (the 4WD mini Soviet SUV) that I had purchased from the camel souk in Taif (loved that car, but it smelled peculiarly like Borscht gone bad, wasn't as reliable as a camel in sandy dune areas, and it used more water, too!). [For those of you who are not automobile-wise, the Russian Lada is a Fiat in a babushka, since Fiat supplied the infrastructure to Russia to build Fiats under a Russian identity.
Everything from the body shell to the engine and running gear started out originally on Fiat engineering blueprints, although over the years, Lada has wrought substantial proprietary changes to the original designs. The Lada Niva is an original Russian design for a 4WD vehicle, however, although it uses a 1600 cc Fiat type engine. Mine was desert sand tan and I loved the balky little bugger—it had REAL personality. Since Ladas lack all the usual stringent US type emissions controls, they are about as welcome in the US as an illegal immigrant. They were sold in Canada for a number of years, although I have not heard further as to whether that is still the case or not.]
Finally, in 1997 I returned to the US after my lengthy sojourn abroad and settled down in Santa Cruz to work as a heart surgery perfusionist for a spell. Since one's wheels speaks volumes about the driver (whether you are regarded as 'successful' or not), my lifelong rep as an unconventional person (read: 'Bohemian creativity') soon had me searching for something suitably edgy to be seen tooling around in. This ended up being 'Buster the Wonder Honda', a sublime light blue 1979 Honda Civic station wagon.
Buster came to me with only 65,000 miles on it, the former property of a sedate, retired couple who had purchased it new. Before long, Buster had a coat of bright orange paint and stood out among all the ubiquitous Accuras and Bimmers like a wart on Angela Jolie's nose. It was perfect! Functional, economical, modest, and unassuming (not to mention extremely utilitarian!).Buster was the perfect compromise automobile for someone who would rather everyone drove bicycles or walked, but still needed occasional 4-wheeled transportation!
Buster is actually the perfect SUV (Small Urban Vehicle)! There really seems to be nothing it can't do in terms of hauling humans, dogs, kayaks, ultralight gliders, or odd shaped cargo in its capacious aft section (once the rear seat has been folded down).
After I acquired the Buster, I picked up several classic Porsches (914-6), a Japanese crotch-rocket bike or two, and a 1977 Chevy C-10 pickumup, but Buster the Wonder Honda is still my favorite vehicle. So 'favorite' that I recently sold the Porsches, but kept the Buster!
The only problem is that Buster somehow seems to incite drivers of larger vehicles to acts of rude disregard, much as a red flag seems to antagonize bulls. As a result, Buster lives in constant fear of getting a surprise semi-truck enema, since many drivers today appear to think that any small, unimposing vehicle, driving precisely at the speed limit (in the so-called 'slow-lane') is a threat to their macho self-image. Ah well, Buster is the perfect town-car. My two large Siberian Huskies regard it as their cozy personal kennel on wheels and it hauls my kayak and bicycles around with finesse. In Berkeley it would be viewed with uncloaked envy as a truly great little town car; in cow-town Sacramento (the capitol of California) other people look down on it as if it were so much trash on wheels.
Actually, to continue that thread of thought about road-rudeness, even as automobile fuel prices soar to US$ 4.00 per gallon and beyond, the latest surveys seem to show that Americans are still driving as many or more miles than they ever have.
They appear willing to undergo severe financial pain at the pump as long as they can drive their large, oversized, overpowered, and shockingly wasteful larger vehicles as they always have. Statistics show that these intellectual midgets persist in driving their huge cars, concurrently enabled by curtailments in other elective expenses they would normally incur.
That is, they willingly pay steeper gas prices, whilst cutting back on other consumer expenditures (and then whine about how unfair it all is, LoL). By my reckoning this is both a frightening and not unexpected development, since America has been largely built up around the automobile industry for almost 100 years now. We are a culture of gearheads who consume petrol as if it were a caffeinated beverage for landyachts.
The automobile companies, for their part, have been codependents in this process along with the large oil industries for almost the same length of time and most Americans are now so thoroughly brainwashed into buying into this consumptive mind-set that the only thing the typical American seems to love more than his car is his gun (or guns plural, as is more often the case). This dovetails nicely, in terms of social and cultural trends, with the great tradition of rural anti-intellectualism that typifies so many 'average' Americans. Americans have become obsessed with consuming material gadgets and gimcracks as a national philosophy. Compare this with the French, for example, who would rather consume ideas, concepts, philosophies, beautiful women, and wine (not necessarily in that order, of course).
America has always been a 'larger than lifesize' concept, with a sort of commensurate frontier mentality accompanying its national development that values exaggerated spaciousness and unlimited quantities of everything beyond all else. While that attitude may have been allowable and understandable up till about 1945 or so, the handwriting of 'finity' has now been clearly etched on the wall of higher American social consciousness for at least a couple of decades. We may now comprehend (if we try) the fact that there are limits to everything and that the world is no longer our private reserve of natural resources to plunder for the sake of our economy. The sad thing about this 'American Disease' of uncontrolled consumption we Americans started is that other grossly overpopulated nations are now emulating the American archetype (China and India are the two best examples of this disaster in the making), with every promise of rapidly outstripping even our excessive standards of wasteful material consumption.
China alone promises to very quickly become the world's largest consumer of petroleum, as its formerly backward economy races to catch up with the west. Once that parity has occurred and consumption of world-wide natural resources has increased by a logarithmic order of magnitude, the entire population of the planet are in for a rather huge shock.
But to return to my reference of Buster the Wonder Honda being constantly threatened on the road by the gratuitous belligerence of large vehicle drivers, it isn't just my imagination at work here. For all of the above reasons and due to a national obsession with 'bigger is better', I am convinced that (plain ignorance as a factor being excluded for the moment), these large vehicle drivers almost unconsciously redirect their sublimated frustrations over the ineluctably higher costs of driving their road-tanks into free-floating hostility towards anyone who appears to be bucking the trend (by owning and driving smaller, more economical, and functionally less costly vehicles like….ahem….older, smaller Honda Civics).
This would in part explain the daily acts of aggressive antagonism I experience whenever I drive the Buster, the persistent refusal to yield or display appropriate legal deference to a smaller vehicle when the rules of the road dictate such an outcome in an encounter between two vehicles. The symbolic body language manifest in such reactivity is clear in these daily iterations of often shockingly antagonistic displays of small-mindedness that the mere sight of my bright orange little car seems to elicit. I admit to being a bit more sensitively aware of such things than many others would be, but no matter how you analyse it, the average dim-bulb behind the wheel in that other, larger care clearly resents the fact that some people deliberately drive smaller, more economical vehicles as a matter of frank choice.
Returning to the statement I started this rant off with (about how what you drive is seen as an accurate reflection of your economic status), it is clearly impossible to confront each and every one of these yahoos and explain the ethics of applied personal consumer constraint, so I simply shrug each one off as it occurs and hope with something approaching blind faith that their acted-out, reactive stupidity doesn't result in an accident for both of us.
Although life isn't always easy for small, unpretentious, and ever-so-economical imported cars on today's 'bigger is better' American roads, I find myself turning down the occasional offers (from the enlightened few) to buy it without a second thought. Buster is as much a part of the family as the Mach-2 Lockheed F-104 Starfighter I take care of at the local McClellan Aviation Museum, and I reckon I'll risk being viewed as 'unsuccessful' , 'eccentric', and 'quirky' by the unenlightened hoi poloi, since it continues to fulfill my every transportation need admirably! I have a bicycle rack installed on the rear of it to emphasize that 'my other car is a bicycle'.
As no other than famed English economist E.F. Schumacher once noted, "Small is beautiful!" And it is, too!
[Note: The above took place in Sacramento (California), the capitol of that sorry state of confusion; dis kine stuffs neva happin' on Molokai, brahs an sistahs! Nextime you see bruddah on bike, no need tink him futua roadkill, jus a brah who wen lissen to different pahu, eh!]