TCI Friday

I got hit by a car once (actually a few times), but this particular time it took an odd psycho-emotional toll on me that affected my riding for nearly a year. The wrist I sprained firmed up after a few weeks. The scrapes healed. And then I was angry, and I stayed angry for months.

That anger was fear, of course.

The illusion of control and of relative safety had been shattered, and that pissed me off. Up to that point, I had assumed, probably subconsciously, that if I did the right things I would be safe on my bike in the city. Writing that sentence makes me chuckle, because it is patently false nearly word-by-word. I would have acknowledged that if asked. Intellectually, I understood the game I was playing. In fact, when the woman in the Volvo wagon cut across me, I saw her coming. Things could have been worse had I not been tuned to the frequency of the danger. But still, my whole mindset and approach to riding was wrapped in this ego-driven narrative about myself as so superior a cyclist that I was safer than reality eventually informed me I was. In many ways, I owe that woman a debt of gratitude.

Following the rules does not guarantee your safety. A bike lane is, too often, a bit of paint sprayed on the same asphalt that cars and trucks patrol like so many great white sharks at the summer shore. Traffic accidents are like any pandemic. They proliferate where large numbers of humans gather.

You’re safer in the woods, except when you’re not. In the spring, I was having a ripping day on the bike. I was railing all the turns, hucking the drops, and hurdling all the logs, but for that last one, the one that came up all of a sudden as we rounded the corner at speed. I mistimed that one, hitting the log below its apex, moving the pivot point of our interaction quickly backwards and down. I did that thing where I thought a hundred thoughts in the portion of a second it took me to hit the ground, the most salient being, “this is gonna hurt.”

I heard and felt the telltale click and pain radiating through my chest and shoulder, my ride ruined, my next few months instantaneously featuring more couch than saddle.

Most of my friends have moved away from road riding, toward dirt of whatever flavor, because it is ostensibly safer. I think what they mean is that it feels safer, or maybe that they think they have more control away from the predatory path of automobiles. Those things might be true. I’ve only offered you a couple of data points.

What I think is: If you ride as much as you want to, you’ll fall off sometimes. The consequences will exist somewhere on the spectrum that runs from “a good laugh,” to “a sad funeral.” I try not to let it bother me.

This week’s TCI Friday asks, how safe do you feel? What have you changed, if anything, to be more safe? And is there a point where riding your bike will feel so unsafe that you’ll stop doing it? For myself, I’ve made my peace with it. I’m not deluded anymore, and I’m still stoked to ride my bike.

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Join the conversation
  1. tcfrog says

    There isn’t anywhere I don’t feel safe. That said, there are some roads I avoid due to lack of shoulder or bike lane to ride on. I am fortunate that none of my crashes have ever been with a car, I have only my own stubbornness and need for speed to blame for my crashes. I am also fortunate that I have never been hurt while crashing, and I’m sure that that has impacted my feeling of safety.

  2. khal spencer says

    Last night I got off work and headed for the Tierra Trails for a quick ride. Sun was low in the sky, so I was slowly headed back with the sun in my eyes. Three other trail riders came flying towards me full speed. Fortunately, I could see well enough to get to the side as they bombed down the middle of the double track. You are never safe when there is stupidity around.

    As far as the road? Here, from a 2014 post:
    The 1979 gas crisis found me and my first wife, Robin, on Long Island during the odd-even days. I had just started riding again in ’79 on a borrowed bike. For the usual reasons of health (I was, shall we say, getting pudgy), convenience, and finances, it made sense to get bicycles to commute to the SUNY campus at Stony Brook, so we bought a Motobecane Mirage and a Peugeot UO-8 at a local bike shop, J&B Cycles in East Setauket. I had my Motobecane a week or two and was promptly 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. Waking up 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. Plus, riding was fun. Riding out to the east end of Long Island and back helped me get through the breakup with Robin and focus on self-improvement and finishing up graduate studies. In 1985, I got my first road racing bike, the original black Cannondale aluminum boneshaker, an SR300, to go with the reconstructed Motobecane commuter that had the decal of the VW Bug embossed on it from that ’79 crash….

    1. khal spencer says

      To answer the questions.

      how safe do you feel? Reasonably safe. I avoid riding roads at sunrise and sunset when the sun is in the otherwise distracted drivers eyes.

      What have you changed, if anything, to be more safe? Not much.

      And is there a point where riding your bike will feel so unsafe that you’ll stop doing it? Probably when I get hit and killed.

  3. Jeff vdD says

    HOW SAFE DO YOU FEEL? I feel safe. Probably safer than I am. But safe. When I’m on pavement, I keep my head on a swivel and pretend like I’m at once both invisible and a target.

    WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED TO BE MORE SAFE? In 2015, I hit the inflection point of my shift from pavement to dirt. Mixed terrain and the occasional road ride still see me on the tarmac, but those miles are a lot less than they used to be. I stalled my front wheel on the Western Greenway earlier this week and went over the bars. No head impact, nothing more than a minor cut and a few small bruises. I’m not really a risk taker, so my crashes tend to be of that sort. And they’re on me, not an inattentive driver. To be fair, my shift from hard to soft wasn’t really for the safety, it was for the joy and adventure. But I’ll take whatever safety increase that comes along for the ride.

    IS THERE A POINT WHERE YOU’LL FEEL SO UNSAFE AS TO STOP RIDING? Things would have to change a lot–either much scarier road situations (that would just drive me full-time into the woods) or a big degradation in my abilities. I’m okay with tomorrow being my last day on a bike or my last day on the planet–cycling owes me nothing and has given me far more that I could ever have imagined.

  4. TominAlbany says

    My car-related crash story: In 1988, in Rolla, MO I was riding my garage-sale Schwinn later in the day. I was riding down a false flat with the sun to my back when I heard tires squealing. Ahead of me, a kid had lit them up backing out of his driveway. Where there was once open road, there was now an early 80s Pontiac fully in the road. I laid a 20+ foot skid patch before realizing I wasn’t going to stop. (I didn’t know how to use a front brake back then though, I really don’t remember if I used it or not…) So, I jumped just as I hit the front, right quarte panel. (Caved it in..) I – and the bike – cleared the hood of the car and landed on the road on other side of the car. No helmet means I hit my head. Not super hard, I guess. I had a good bruise where my thigh hit the handlebar. Bashed my knuckles too, because I didn’t commit fully to the leap. The wheelbase on the bike was significantly shortened.

    I still ride unafraid but, more wary. Then again, I never really thought about how bad things could have gone if I’d been a little further down the road when the kid backed out…

  5. southcarolinamtb says

    How safe do I feel? Not very safe on the road. The continuous aggravations from distracted drivers crossing the lines with one wheel, two wheels, sometimes all four is really something I dread. Do I fear they will actually hit me? Well not really until I guess it happens. And that’s the thing. The near misses, especially in the same direction (being passed) are ridiculous. Added to that, there’s a genuine dislike for people doing something “foreign” around here. You might as well say “ain’t from around here” if you plan to ride a bike with a kit. You might get by and be given a friendly nod if you keep your wheel reflectors on and carry a bag to pick up the empties; but cycling – er, no. I’ve been hit before, but fortunately they were in city, low-speed situations. One was clearly my fault, too. the worst event, and one that filled me with a similar feeling of anger inspired by fear, was when someone shot at me after passing by. The responding trooper gave a nice low whistle when he found the casing. “10 mm” he says, “that just might do some damage.” I was really overwhelmed by that anger/fear and it took close to a year before I started to teeter out and feel “safe.” But really, it’s an illusion. It’s one that I choose to look for as often as I can.
    Gravel – better.
    MTB – much better.
    but I think my worst injuries have been on my Gravel / CX bike. Just trying to get too gnarly on tiny tires and drop bars. It’s a hoot until you holler.

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