A Series of Unfortunate Events

It’s kind of crazy the things that go through your head when you are sliding across the pavement after having been hit by a car. I was still in motion, appreciating an upside-down view of the black SUV that had just run over me, breaking the frame of my carbon fiber Specialized Ruby that then punctured my calf when I said to myself “oh good—they stopped.” Only then did the wailing commence.

Many who ride have a personal story about run-ins with cars, or know someone who has been hit, gravely injured, or worse. My experience—hopefully the last—reads more like a series of unfortunate events vs. anything malicious or willfully stupid. It wasn’t a drunk driver, a texter, and it wasn’t vendetta driven. For me, this matters. Yes, the result can be the same, but when I hear of the intentional, violent mowing down of cyclists, it is an assault on the soul. A reason to hang up the road bike and all of its attendant joy. Take up knitting and Xanax™. Fuck it. You win.

A question that always comes to mind for me when I’ve been buzzed, threatened, had bottles of Skoal spit hurled at me is this: if I was walking down the street would you try to murder me? Throw a cup of spit on me? Why? Some communities such as my former home in Marin County, California have well-known, notorious demons. “White Pickup Guy” has been haunting the roads of Marin for years. The Bicycle Coalition there worked with the County Sheriff as the encounters piled up. In a relatively progressive move for a law enforcement agency, the Sheriff actually paid a visit to the harasser, let him know that he was very much on their radar. Unfortunately, the only way WPG (White Pickup Guy) can be arrested is if he actually hurts someone.

But I have digressed. Here is the complicated scene as best I can relay it. I was riding on Highway 1 near Tomales Bay in Marin on or around New Year’s Day, in or around 2010. Ron and Craig were ahead, the glittering bay beside. We had just come over Marshall Wall, a beautiful, relentless grunt of a climb and were happily rolling along the flats, a scant four feet above sea level. The oft-photographed wreck of the Point Reyes, listing heavily starboard, was in the rear-view and we were approaching the kayak rental place, the boats on the wet, gray sand like plastic, pastel bananas, patiently waiting to be sailed away.

The Wreck at Point Reyes, Photo by Adil Ashraff via Wikipedia.

There was a disruption ahead in our petite peloton. Craig swerved left, Ron swerved left. I had barely stopped pedaling and uttered an internal “??” when a woman stepped in front of me. After the fact we found that she was in a rental car, the kind where the rear hatch comes down automatically. It surprised her. So she stepped away from it and into the three of us riding by at just that instant. Ron and Craig brushed her, causing her to step farther into the road, her own internal “??” having been activated. I hit her full on. She fell to the right. I fell to the left, into the path of the black SUV that was trying to pass as this pocket of pandemonium exploded.

It all happened in a flash, as these things do. The California Highway Patrol report, long in coming (the officer I visited two weeks later to inquire after the report whistled and said “Wow, this is a complicated one”), established a 35% responsibility for the woman who stepped in front of me, a 60% responsibility to the driver for passing on a double yellow when the “roadway was not clear.” This strikes me as darkly humorous as the reason the “roadway was not clear” is that my body was sliding across it. Presumably I received 5% responsibility for just—you know—being there, available for hitting.

A quick trip to the ER and a few x-rays confirmed a minor miracle that despite having been run over by 5,000 pounds of moving metal, nothing was broken, concussed, or otherwise significantly out of place. Due to the location of the permanent dent in my left calf, if you squint just right, it can look like that leg alone has been going to the gym, working to get “cut.” Several months later when on a mountain bike ride in Folsom with a group of gnarly blokes, I chatted with my pal Mike. Mike was the gnarliest of the set, a serious trash-talking downhill dude with redneck tendencies and enough machismo to fell an elephant.

TCI is sponsored, in part, by Shimano North America.

“So, Mike—how are ya? You been getting on the road bike lately?”

“No, not so much since the accident.”

I ran through my mental files, surely I would have been told if Mike had been in an accident? Had I forgotten? Finding no such file, I tentatively continued.

“Oh…? Were you… in an accident? I didn’t hear.”

“No—Yours!  Spooked the hell outta me when I heard you got hit. Haven’t ridden since.”

Strangely, it wasn’t that hard for me to get back on the road bike, perhaps because the whole affair was so patently absurd, the confluence of events so unlikely and vaguely fantastical that my brain did not categorize it under “Things To Be Afraid Of.” And trust me, my brain does plenty of that. Similar to Mike’s newfound road-recoil, there are multiple trail obstacles on my home turf that I balk at cause Jeanette/Ron/Anne/Jim-Bob crashed there once, my mind helpfully internalizing not only my own crashes, but those of others as well. It’s a wonder I can make it around the 8-mile, intermediate Tamarancho loop without turning into a quivering pile of rubble.

That road riding is inherently dangerous is understood. It should be handled with care, approached with joy, but also with focus and reverence. But if you’re like me, you know tons of bad-asses who’ve ridden a gazillion janky, harrowing road miles astride a narrow ribbon of asphalt between a gaping canyon and a tractor-trailer, gap-jumped this, or hucked that against long odds with nary a scratch, only to break a femur tripping on their pajamas or taking out the recycling. You could get hit by an asteroid while sitting on your couch. Get electrocuted trying to get the stuck toast out.

Might as well ride your bike. 

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  1. alanm9 says

    Great piece, sorry I didn’t see it sooner! So much of this matches my feelings. I’m a 30+ year commuter and roadie, been to the ER three times through my own stupidity, so I’m thinking motorists aren’t my problem. 😉

    1. Maureen Gaffney says

      Thanks Alanm9! Though this happened a long time ago, but I just wrote this up recently and it just posted today.

  2. hmlh33 says

    Thank you, I appreciated your piece and it’s perspective. And who amongst us does not know at least one person who has been taken out by an asteroid while relaxing on the couch?

  3. Miki Vuckovich says

    Good work, not getting killed. Funny how we put the onus on the cyclist to evade the assailant. But I wonder if the cat-and-mouse with cars and crappy drivers is part of the allure of modern road riding. Like, we see just how close to the bleeding edge of the pavement we can ride as a car approaches from behind, like it’s a balance drill or our own Danny MacAskill moment. I, for one, am riding much more gravel these days–it’s more fun! But also love putting the long smooth miles on the pavement now and then. My latest adaptation? The Garmin Varia tail light/radar. I was looking at the iFly tail light/camera, then decided I’d rather be warned by the red glow on my head unit of an approaching death machine and AVOID being killed, than record said death. It may be a panacea to lull me into a sense of security, but I think we’ve all made conscious or unconscious changes to our riding habits to lower the chances of our being the next statistic. A couple weeks ago I very nearly slammed into the back of an SUV backing out of a driveway, in full skid down the 18% grade (I was already going fairly slow). I yelled a few expletives, then realized the driver wasn’t driving away. I approached her window (remaining at a non-intimidating distance) and apologized for my reaction. Swearing isn’t nice. She asked if I was okay and apologized for pulling out, and we had a good conversation about sharing the road and all that. The point being, that my approach to dangerous drivers henceforth (if I can manage not to freak out) will be to engage and recruit–to share the what and why I’m out on the road, and how we can all accommodate each other. If nothing else, I hope the karma from each such interaction adds up and keeps me out of the morgue. Because when it’s us vs. a 5,000-lb. battering ram, we’re not going to beat them. But maybe an olive branch will convince enough of them to join us.

  4. khal spencer says

    You came out of that pretty lucky. Thankfully so. I had my worst run in, so to speak, with a motorist in 1979. I had just bought my first adult bicycle, a Motobecane Mirage, a week or two previous to the crash as a cheap and gasoline-free way to get to my campus. Long story short, I was launched over a car driven by a motorist who was making a sudden U-turn, as a fellow motorist in a gas line stalled his own car and a gap opened. This, of course, was during the 1979 gas panic on the East Coast.

    Waking up from an asphalt-induced slumber as the ambulance arrived, I joined the legions of cyclists who have been indoctrinated into The Friends of Mr. Pavement. There is a picture taken of me glumly sitting at the kitchen table a couple days later with black eyes, a broken nose, stitches in my forehead, and contemplating the increasingly intense bouts of the dry heaves I was getting from the concussion. Thankfully, I can’t find that photo.

    Unlike many who decide after a bad crash that cycling is too dangerous, I kept riding, occasionally kicking myself for not handling that crash better, given my years on motorcycles, both road and dirt bikes. Lesson learned. Life is unpredictable, and one has to be the equivalent of a fighter pilot on a bicycle, waiting for that Red Baron to ambush you.

    The only other trip to the ER due to a bike crash was self-inflicted, i.e., I overlapped wheels in a training race and turned my collarbone into very pretty and disconnected shapes.

    But I’m still riding, albeit in the Categorie Geezer. It beats being a couch potato.

  5. Maureen Gaffney says

    I love/hate these stories. Thank you Khal, Miki and hmlh33 for yours!

  6. Ransom says

    Thanks for this story. It helps to hear from another internalizer of every available worry about the risk being real, but worthwhile. I love cycling, but am not super-immersed in the cycling life, so sometimes the connection feels tenuous and the concerns gnaw.
    I confess to spending a lot of time on the trainer these days.

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