Rolling Stoned (and other gene-pool culling activities)
Bicyclists are a sturdy breed. They have to be to survive mean streets and hostile ignorance. But sturdy or not, sooner or later either luck or skill runs out and things happen that might never have previously seemed possible.
Back when I was in high school (early to mid 60s), surfing was the big popular craze sweeping the adolescent population of California (thanks to Hollywood’s ‘Gidget’). Although there were several ‘classes’ of involvement (surfer, hodad and gremmie were the three main types found at the beach: surfers were the REAL article, hodads were strictly posers who probably never set eyes on an actual wave set, and gremmies were usually irritating little wannabees who had few or no wave skills and were always in your way), regardless of the regalia, the attire, the affected attitudes and just about anything else used to project an air of surfing authenticity, all that was required to determine whether a surfer was a real wave-sliding brah or not was a glance at his legs: real surfers all had gnarly calluses just below the knee that were the hard-earned result of endless board mounts on countless wave sets. These calluses couldn’t be faked and due to the peculiarity of their specific location (just below the kneecap), they were a surefire and certified legitimisation of one’s wave-sliding bona fides.
Something akin to this also exists with regard to bicyclists. Whereas back in those days we high-schoolers typically left our bicycles behind among our childhood possessions, thinking them mere toys that marked pre-pubescent passage, today the recognition that two-wheeled human powered transportation has relevance to all ages is (thankfully) all-pervasive. As cycling gained added adult legitimacy back in the 70s and 80s, a recognised visual clue that one was a hard-core bicyclista was evidence of outsized and overdeveloped thighs that strangely contrasted to a rather insignificantly developed chest. Nowadays, as the science of health & fitness advances, promoting a more balanced blend of all-important cardiovascular toning with the muscular development aspects of the sport, the result is a more uniformly developed physique (at least in men). Although cycling is absolutely great for both cardiovascular fitness and lower extremities muscle toning, additional upper body weight training is usually included in most training disciplines of serious athletes today. The broader goal is to achieve more of a triathelete’s superb overall toning in that all aspects of the body are uniformly developed together, in a wholly integrated fitness approach to superior health and physical development.
Aside from any other visual clue that someone is a cyclist, there are other indications of ardent wheelmanship for the alert observer to note. One is what we call ‘helmet hair’, or a perpetual state of follicular disarray on the head that, unless one has a perfectly optimized skull shape, can convey the impression of a permanently ‘rumpled’ look. Some cyclists are more sensitive to this disarray than others, the personal gender-attraction disadvantage being felt most keenly by those whose larger than normal egos would make singer Carly Simon’s ‘You’re so Vain’ song seem like a bland paean to modesty. Of course, this sign may not be present if one is a ‘fixie’ rider who disdains a helmet as somehow restricting one’s aesthetic freedom on two wheels. My own assumption is that since fixie-riders seem to demonstrate that they have less raw intelligence in their skulls to protect than others, a sturdy helmet would probably be a waste of their time anyway.
One sign of bicycle addiction that will invariably be present, regardless of one’s aesthetic tastes in cycling is evidence of frequent and abrupt encounters with the ruder physical forces of nature on one’s lower extremities. In particular trophy cuts, scrapes, abrasions, gashes, bumps, bruises and other forms of evidence that one has run afoul (once again) of the laws of gravity that prevail on our planet clearly demarcate cyclists who regularly use two-wheeled personal transportation to get around on.
As I sit here, tappity-tapping this on my PC, a twinge from some recently acquired road-rash makes me mindful afresh of several recent encounters with asphalt I myself have had as an ardent proponent of cycle culture. Reaching absently down to rub the source of the discomfort, I note that a scab has pulled slightly off due to a shift in sitting position I just made. The scab in on the left lateral knee area, that part of my body that two weeks ago absorbed most of the damage sustained, occurred as the result of a downed tree limb that some kind-hearted soul (read: blithering IDIOT!) had deposited in the bike lane of the street I use to commute to work on each day.
It was a very foggy morning, a condition precipitated by recent heavy rains, followed by clear skies and a cold night, and I set off as usual, trusting in my years of experience to cycle safely navigate despite not being able to see ahead more than 20 feet, max. The high intensity headlight I had acquired earlier in the year was blazing away in a manner that normally ensures good forward visibility, but of course in fog, a good deal of that bright light is caught up by the suspended water particles and reflected back in the light beam: the result being that you still can’t see much of what lies just ahead of you. At such moments, the only reasonable course of action is to slow down and proceed with all due caution, so as to allow as much safety margin as possible should there be something hazardous looming in your immediate path.
And so, following this advice scrupulously, I continued through the fog on the bike lane, all the while uncomfortably mindful of the fact that that recent strong winds had deposited a considerable amount of debris in the lane. Under such circumstances one is encouraged to stay on the borderline between the bike lane and the vehicular lane so as to avoid as much of that edge-of-the-roadway windstorm clutter as possible. Speed cut back from a normal 20 mph to a more prudent 8, I felt fairly secure in the thick pea-souper, having survived a number of similar adverse seasonal circumstances over previous years without any untoward experiences. However, I had just entered a stretch leading away from an intersection and there was a car, I was aware, bearing down from behind to my left, so I felt encumbered to stay as close to the bike lane boundary as reason permitted. As is so often the case, this particular stretch of the roadway was very poorly lit, with very few streetlights along its span to help make the going any less risky.
And then, right in the middle of a particularly cluttered stretch of that bike-lane verge, the thought occurred to me that I had left the collar and dog-tags of a much loved and abruptly departed pup at home, instead of bringing them with me (I had been carrying them with me in my daypack as a link of fond remembrance, since the loss of the pup, who had suffered a sudden cardiac arrest, was only a few days prior and the residual effect on me was still palpable). At that precise moment, my intense focus on the bike-lane winked out of adjustment, just vanished, and at the same instant I came upon this humongous tree limb sitting crossways to the bike-lane before I had much chance to react.
The collision was, I suppose fortunately, a glancing one that threw me to the left, rather than straight into the tangle of branches, but that same deflecting motion pitched me out into the street, directly in the path of the car mentioned above. My only lucid thought of the moment was “Oh shit! I’m about to be run over!” and I fully expected the worst to happen. To her credit, the lady in the car had been driving with appropriate care and she slowed to a stop a few scant feet from me. After reassuring her that I was OK (I reckoned, since I still had a head and two arms/two legs), she continued on her way, doubtless now provided with something of unusual interest to share with her office-mates over coffee.
For my part, as soon as I was able to move my arms and legs, I managed to get up and remove my carcass from the roadway, since I am well aware that not everyone using this street drives as carefully as did this particular driver. Looking quickly over the bike, I was amazed to find that it had suffered none the less for the experience and seemed to be fully intact without obvious damage. After a few moments of further assessment, I mounted up and returned the mile or back to home, pedaling slowly and still not believing I had apparently escaped any more serious injuries than a banged-up shoulder and some road rash in several places on my left side.
It took a few days for the abrasions and scratches to heal sufficiently and I had to stop my noontime running for a week, since the body at age 65 isn’t quite as forgiving as one bearing half that many years. Still, the experience gave me considerable pause to reflect on just how fragile the human body is at such moments, when Newton’s Law of Gravity works its predictable effects, unexpectedly.
This is only my fourth bicycle accident in about 10 years, so I suppose I’m slightly ahead of the law of averages. The first one was actually my fault, since in a fit of gratitude over actually having a driver stop for me at a crosswalk, I had raised a hand from the handlebars to wave a brief thanks and immediately fallen over on the walkway in mid-transit. No damage done that time, but the car driver must certainly have wondered about this cyclist who appeared to be so uncoordinated that he fell over on a cross-walk travelling at a mere 2 mph! My fault, of course, for trying to be friendly instead of remaining focused on steering my machine over the walkway and across the street.
My second accident, one in which I broke a bone in my left hand at the base of the thumb, took place two years later, across the street from the office (the California State Treasury) and on the sidewalk that fronts the State Capitol Building. I was trying to avoid a gaggle of tourist lookie-looies who had just disembussed and tried to get by them on the grass strip to the left of the paved walkway. Having managed that maneuver successfully, when I tried to get back onto the sidewalk the front wheel of the bike caught the edge of the concrete and down I went, somewhat heavily catching the fall on my left side. I remember scores of Japanese tourists looking down at me stupidly as a lay there, as if this were all part of some bizarre Yankee entertainment arranged for them by the tour operator. More road rash from that, but also a broken thumb that wasn’t at first apparent. There’s still a twinge occasionally from the thumb, several years after the incident.
The fourth and last accident before this latest collision in the fog took place again at a cross-walk. Instead of crossing the intersection when there were no cars present as I normally would, I decided to wait until the light changed and proceed lawfully across to the other side. It was likely the presence of a Highway Patrol cop in his car waiting at the stoplight that prompted this display of obsequious civic mindedness, now that I think about it. Stupid me for acting on that impulse, though, since I had no sooner pushed off on the walkway when the ped cross-walk light came on than something smashed into me and knocked me flat on the street. Fortunately vehicular traffic was stopped, but nothing should have hit me and yet there I was 10 feet from the point of (apparent) impact, and thrown some 5 feet away from my (Greg LeMonde) bicycle that now had a strangely crumpled rear wheel!
Looking around, totally mystified by exactly what had caused this completely unexpected impact, I found a local hippy-dippy dude standing near me and making sounds of concern (“Dude, are you OK, Dude? I’m like REALLY sorry, Dude!”). Long story short, this guy (seemingly stoned out on something very pleasant and relaxing…maybe ‘medical MJ’?) had been pedaling his big, heavy cruiser bicycle along on the wrong side of the street, in the wrong direction of traffic flow, and hadn’t stopped for the red light. Moving at about 10 mph, he had slammed into my rear wheel from the left. Clearly, he had no money, no insurance and very little awareness of exactly how wrong his actions had been, so I just shrugged it off, told him to scram, and called wifie on the cell-phone to come get me and the bent bike. Fortunately, the only damage (to the bike) was minor (although a bent Campy rear wheel is expensive to repair) and I hadn’t suffered any apparent broken bones, but my legs had suffered their usual quota of scrapes, abrasions and cuts. Ironically, neither the ‘Dude’ nor his big fat cruiser bike had sustained any damage.
To top it all off, the Highway Patrol officer across the street had witnessed the whole thing and walked over to stand over me on the roadway, giving me a look as I lay there on my back that clearly said “When are you f**king bicycle jerks ever gonna ride safely?”…as if it were my fault! His barely disguised police bias against two-wheeled vehicle operators (involved in any accident with automobile drivers) is something that I have encountered regularly throughout my years of bicycle riding, so I wasn’t surprised by his this disdainful lack of empathy on his part. After watching me get up and slowly move my wrecked bike off the street, his facial expression a mix of boredom and disinterest, he simply got back into his car without a word and drove off. So much for law enforcement’s sympathy for bicyclists who have suffered a potentially life-threatening spill on the roadway!
But to return to the most recent incident in the fog, I felt reasonably ‘OK' after the event, felt I had had had my share of close-calls for this statistical segment of my life and continued to commute to work a few days after that crash, as before. As it turned out a mere three days later, I came about as close to being fresh road-kill as I’ve ever come!
It was again a cold, dark morning before sun-up and about 0530 AM. I was only about 4 blocks from home and traveling north along this same street to the office. Now at this point in the road, there are a series of serial asphalt speed bumps built up on the road’s surface that cross perpendicular to the roadway. On each side of the middle yellow line separating the north and south lanes the city public works department engineers have made pass-through cuts that are about as far apart from each other as the axle width of a modern fire truck or ambulance. Intended to allow emergency vehicles to cross those speed bumps without slowing their passage, they are not intended for ‘convenient’ use by the public. That fact seems not to faze large vehicle owners, however, who obviously think that these pass-through cuts were custom installed for them to take their big full-size American pick-ups through. Regularly, these chuckle-headed idiots with tiny ‘RAM-tough’ Dodge advertising message blasted brains, will swerve out of their lane to straddle the yellow center line and breeze through those emergency vehicle speed bump cuts like they feel any real man is entitled to….whether there is a bicycle present or not, in most cases. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon regularly and to me it’s a clear result of the egocentric culture of selfish individual entitlement that America has become.
Normally, I avoid trying to use the cut on my side of the yellow line to pass through if there are any cars within immediate view, but this particular morning I must have failed to observe my usual precautions and started to go through the cut regardless of a fairly near set of oncoming headlights. Just at this moment, the pick-up traveling toward me in the opposite lane swerved over to pass through the bump without slowing. There wasn’t time to respond, move, react or do anything except KNOW that again I was about to die, mangled under two tons of remorseful, wheeled vehicular steel.
It all happened so fast that my only fleeting awareness was the slight brush of the left side of his truck’s sheet metal passing within a scant inch or two of my handlebars. Looking back on it now, the driver must have decided that I wasn’t going to get out of ‘his’ way after all, so he pulled back into his lane just in time to avoid taking me out. It was close enough to put some really serious wind up me, I can tell you, but he was gone before I even had time to scream out some suitably filthy obloquy in his departing direction. I know I’m lucky and I also know that events could just as easily have turned out otherwise.
Situations like this last and most recent one are just as much my own fault as the other (ignorant idiot) driver’s, of course, since being ‘dead right’ will do me know good if I am killed in the act of standing up resolutely for my rights. Sometimes prudence and wisdom dictate that it’s a far better course of action to simply withdraw from the flashpoint and thereby perhaps extend one’s life a little further, despite the fact that the other party is flagrantly at fault, and that is usually the decision experience has prepared me to avail most often. However, we’re all human and this was a case of my failing to heed my own wise council at a critical moment when any other response would clearly be judged hazardous by any reasoned analysis.
Still, all questions of stupidity, right and wrong, and lack of driver concern aside, the fact that motor vehicle operators take chances like this each and every day with bicyclists is profoundly disturbing. It is clear enough that they utterly fail to make the distinction between the result of a 2-ton steel behemoth hitting a soft package of human muscle and tissue, weighing several hundred pounds. The empathy required for such an understanding can be affected by several factors, most of which seem to be lacking in the average driver dipshit’s thought processes. One obvious one is sheer lack of intelligence (stupidity, if you will), since there are a great many drivers on the road who have questionable basic intelligence to begin with. Another is the fact that far too many motor vehicle drivers have never had the sobering experience of having to share dangerously busy and often crowded roadways with fast cars, seated on a bicycle; as a result they are totally unable to relate to just how precarious life can be from moment to moment on any human-powered two-wheeled vehicle.
In my opinion, although I know such a turn of events is not practically possible, all drivers license applicants should have to undergo mandatory bicycle riding experience in traffic as part of their driver’s license requirements. While it might fill up local hospitals with an excess of trauma cases, this would at least provide a basis of comparison for these blithely unaware souls that one can only hope they would retain and remember. As I said, time, funding and staffing constraints simply wouldn’t permit such a radically enhanced consciousness-raising experience to be codified, required, or enforced in a state like California with its millions of drivers and vehicles, but it certainly would be an effective device for sharpening driver awareness (I should imagine) in a smaller state or municipality where policies might permit it.
Regrettably, America over the past 100 years has become a nation where automobile culture is regarded as ‘normal’ and bicycle culture is considered ‘abnormal’. This state of affairs is contrary to that championed by enlightened nations such as the Netherlands and Denmark, where bicycles are regarded as vitally important parts of the national transportation matrix and automobiles are regarded with moderate disapprobation as being costly, hazardous and environmentally unfriendly. But then, the relatively small size of these nations facilitates perpetuation of this enlightened outlook and America’s vast openness (and our relentless need to go nowhere fast) clearly works against it.
As I sit here, regarding my most recent crop of aches, sprains, rashes and abrasions, I have to admit that there are times when my activist determination to fight ‘the good fight’ on behalf of enlightened public transportation policy weakens appreciably. It’s probably a reflection of the encroachment of caution and safety concerns that age brings with it, since when one is young, hale and hearty, tilting at windmills seems less daunting and threatening to one’s daily survival. I also admit that there are times when I sneak a longing look at people safely encapsulated in their personal, little rolling cocoons of chrome-plated steel and wish that I could forsake my principles for the relative safety that automobiles accord. At such moments a small Honda ‘FIT’ or a ‘For-2’ sedan seems almost a reasonable compromise, given the increased safety they provide in the frenetic moments of extreme mental disconnect one sees every day on the streets and inner urban roadways. Poised as I am on entering my 65th year, it almost seems a reasonable trade-off, but I know myself all too well and my past decades of life as a social protestor and die-hard cultural rebel simply will not let me forsake my principles, despite the wisdom of these arguments to simply stop fighting the current, yield to the inevitable and just go with the flow of dumbed-down conventional mediocrity.
Then too, I am mindful of another incident that happened hereabouts about 18 months ago, when an older bicyclist on his way home from work found himself being forced off the roadway bike-lane by a thoughtless pick-up driver who was using it as a right-side passing lane. Reacting as I have so often myself been tempted to, the cyclist (who was about my age) yelled out a stream of personal insults at that driver, who then calmly pulled over to the shoulder, waited for the distraught cyclist to pull alongside, drew his gun and shot him dead. The cyclist crumpled, killed outright by a single blast from the .357 Magnum handgun aimed at point blank range, as the pick-up truck driver then just as calmly drove off and left him lying there in a pool of his own outraged blood.
Lest any of you think I am making this up or exaggerating, rest assured I most definitely am not. It actually happened not far from here about a year and a half ago. In a pathologically semi-crazed culture like ours, where it has become the increasingly popular fashion for disgruntled individuals to settle their personal grievances at the point of a gun, such things are no longer products of mere fanciful imagination. Incidents like that really happen and they give one pause to reflect, as I said much earlier, about whether or not it’s time to finally hang up the lance and shield of righteousness, loose the war-horse to graze in the north 40 and get as far the hell away from our sick society as possible before something similar happens a bit…um, closer... to home?
“When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And (unlike subsequent inventions for man's convenience) the more he used it, the fitter his body became. Here, for once, was a product of man's brain that was entirely beneficial to those who used it, and of no harm or irritation to others. Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle.” ~Elizabeth West, Hovel in the Hills
“When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.” ~H.G. Wells
A treasury of thoughtful bicycle quotes