I saw him coming. The goofball in his mid-twenties was riding on the wrong side of the foreshore bike path, helmetless, not looking where he was going, abreast of friends, if not the road rules. I rang my bell with increasing urgency, then came to a screaming halt – literally, I was screaming – all to no avail. I was motionless when he crashed into me with the stunned look that infants reserve for, well, you know.
Near as I can figure I’ve ridden about 80,000 kilometres (50,000 miles) over four to five thousand hours. I’ve spent half a year, 1% of my entire life, riding a bike.
Many of us recall the joy and freedom we experienced with our first bicycle. The bike enabled us to go places faster, farther, and harder to find than Mom and Dad could, or the school, or the police, for that matter. It bred a sense of independence, as well as irreverence for authority and the law. It was borderline anti-social, especially when we did it in packs. Stop at traffic lights? Stay off the footpaths? Signal before turning? Wear a helmet? Are you kidding?
Somewhere along the line, despite the best efforts of Lance Armstrong and his cohort, bicycling became respectable. So did the packs. Now “Bicycling is the new golf!”, a reference to the grey-haired Baby Boomers who in their characteristic hoards use cycling as an opportunity to network in stunning attire. They stop not just for red lights, but for stop signs, regardless of traffic. Objectionable costumes that are fitness level and age inappropriate are tolerated without comment. The rules, traffic and social, are followed.
I have been slow to adapt to this new paradigm, so this crowd considers me to be somewhat recalcitrant. I do wear a helmet, as there’s no reason anybody else should pay for years of rehabilitation when important parts of my brain fertilise a median strip. But beyond that, I have difficulty complying with many of the rituals that have evolved around cycling.
The networkers are a weird mob. These guys – and they are mostly guys — ride once a week, early on a weekend morning, shouting at each other all the way, waking every household in their wake. On $8,000 Italian bicycles, wearing misfitting overpriced gear, they complete a brief ride hyperbolically focused on “performance” and “establishing a new personal best”. Then they linger for hours over over-priced coffees at overrated cafés. I admire, even envy, their decadent self-centredness.
I wear cotton shorts and a t-shirt when commuting daily on my $600 hybrid. I exude some level of disapproval on recognition of the contours and texture of a 58-year-old’s flabby buttocks through his Lycra. I groan at the bleating of coffee-worshipping sheep that confuse java with the transubstantiated blood of Christ. I never stop at stop signs, but then neither does anybody in a car. If there’s nobody around, traffic lights are a mere suggestion to me when cycling. After all, I propel a ten kilogram vehicle at 20 kph, not a thousand kilos at 60 kph.
To be sure, I’ve had my fair share of bicycling bingles. Arguably, it is a fucking miracle I am still alive. Or maybe it is just good training. When it comes to bicycling mishaps, I cut my teeth, and pretty much every other surface on my body, playing “bicycle hockey” in my teens. Bicycle hockey, or alternatively, “cycle polo”, is exactly what it sounds like: polo played on bicycles. It has acquired a cult following in recent years, developing things such as “rules” to prevent the death and disfigurement of its participants. Strongly supported by bicycle mechanics globally, there’s even a push to get it into the Olympics (http://www.norco.com/news/2014/02/support-bike-hockey-in-the-2018-olympics-bikehockey2018).
In my day we did not have benefit of such civilising governance. Yet even back then “tripping”– inserting one’s stick through another’s spokes — was an offence. Usually it resulted in the destruction of several spokes, but without exception it resulted in the victim going over the handlebars in spectacular fashion – well worth the two minute minor penalty. By necessity, our affection for the game lasted only as long as our spokes, but even in that short period of time I learned how to fly off a bicycle at speed then roll to minimise injury.
In my early twenties I took a lot of chances doing a lot of stupid things, and bicycling was no exception. Few things were more thrilling than swerving sans helmet through rush hour traffic on Boston’s Boylston Street in the Back Bay. One morning in Copley Square I decided to pass a bus on the right when it unexpectedly opened its doors to discharge passengers. I slammed on the brakes just as a lovely young woman stepped out in front of me. My left pedal grabbed her nylon stocking – and some of her skin beneath – creating an ugly mangle, her blood streaming through a shredded nylon.
I turned to offer help, apologise, and exchange insurance information – even at the age of 22 I had coverage for utter stupidity, which was cheap back then. But she would have none of it. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. “I am SO sorry,” she blurted, “it was all my fault, I didn’t look, I don’t know what I was thinking, are you OK, is anything damaged…” She went on.
I just nodded my head, fearing a break in her train of speech, thinking “Shut up. Just shut up.” For one of the very few times in my life, I did just that. She gave me her phone number and wandered off across four lanes of stalled traffic. That was that.
My next bicycling accident was commuting to work one 1984 morning on Beacon Street in Brookline Massachusetts. A panel van took a left turn in front of me – and stopped. Unfortunately, try as I might, I did not. I careened into its biggest broadest panel on its right rear side. It made a big broad “Poom!” noise as it yielded to my inertial insistence, before making a satisfying if somewhat comical “Fwoop!” noise in rejecting my advance, regaining its structural composure by projecting me into traffic. I found myself laying spread eagle in the middle lane, struggling to regain composure, structural or otherwise.
The driver, still intent on making his delivery, feigned surprise to find me. “Was that you?” he asked, making me wonder how regularly his van made such Poom and Fwoop noises. He trotted off with a package under his arm.
“Whaddaya think, I decided to sunbath here?” I shouted after him, taking stock of myself and the bike. No harm done that I could detect. “Ya oughtta look before cutting across traffic!” I barked. I shook my head and started to ride off.
“You ought to be more careful.” he said snidely. Truer words are rarely spoken. Yet, what an asshole.
Many of my bicycling mishaps were the result of my own stupidity or carelessness. For example, I discovered that carrying fifty pounds of ill-attached laundry on the back of one’s bicycle while stinking drunk is a ticket for a trip to the hospital. On the other hand, few events in life have given me more pleasure than kicking in the door of a Porsche whose driver called me a “fat shit” while cutting me off. But for the grace of traffic, he’d have killed me.
One of my favourite bicycling mishaps occurred on Boston’s Esplanade near the Longfellow Bridge. It was a pleasant spring afternoon, and I was unhurriedly headed home on an otherwise unremarkable commute. An older gentleman – well, older than I was then, but younger than me now – was bicycling ahead of me. He was a bit wobbly, spinning fast in a low gear so moving slowly, his seat so low such that his knees jutted out sideways. This recreates a visual effect commonly associated with Elmira Gulch (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4kiXh8YOzk) and other cyclists whose primary reason for cycling has more to do with blood alcohol levels than choice.
I slowed as I approached. Some yards back, lest I startle him, I announced “Passing on your left.” At the last possible moment, Mr. Gulch made a sharp turn to his left, directly in my path. I slammed on the brakes, but we collided, shoulder to shoulder, at a crawl’s pace.
It was an instant that seemed to last an eternity. I got both feet on the ground astride my bike, while my eyeballs locked with his, inches away. His sneakered feet remained on his pedals as he teetered, first leaning into my shoulder before collapsing in the other direction like a sack of potatoes, his eyes never leaving mine. “Are you alright?” I asked desperately.
I was met with an icy silence. He brushed off his tweeds, assessing the damage. It was clear he was pissed off, and in his demeanour I detected that a lawsuit was on his mind. Happily, there appeared to be neither personal nor property injury. He lectured me briefly, and started to remount his bike.
At that very moment, my dear lifelong friend Allen happened to ride by in the opposite direction. Instantly sensing the circumstance he asked “Now who have you run into?”
Suddenly the object of Mr. Gulch’s stony stare was Allen. Behind him I made furtive hand gestures, cutting across my neck, as if to say “ix-nay on the okes-Jay”.
“What are you talking about?” I protested hypocritically.
Finally grasping the gravity of the matter, Allen soothed the outraged Mr. Gulch, “Oh, um, just kidding, really…”
I’m not sure why — maybe it was because now there were two of us and only one of him — or maybe he WAS drunk — but Mr. Gulch muttered something incoherent and rode off.
I thanked Allen. “You fucking asshole…”
If you live in a city with street cars, I advise you to use bicycle tires wider than the trolley/tram track groove. On two occasions I have gone heels over head over the handlebars, completing a full somersault to arrive in the middle of a busy city street on my buttocks, my cycle still standing tall behind me, wedged in the tracks. On both occasions I was more humiliated than hurt – indeed on one occasion I got a round of applause from the pedestrians that appreciated my gymnastics.
While on the subject, I advise that no surface is more slippery than a wet street car track. Any cyclist who dares the slightest change in direction whilst crossing a wet tram or trolley track will discover the true power of gravity in a hurry. In learning this, the minor knee scrape I got became woefully infected, leaving a nasty scar. I don’t know what they put on those tracks, but let’s hope it isn’t carcinogenic.
Boardwalks, piers, docks and other planked surfaces present many of the same hazards as trolley tracks. That is, there are often gaps into which one’s tires fit all too snugly, and they, too, are slippery as hell when wet. Proximity to the sea can add the thrill of a salt-water dunking to a fresh wound.
Just last year, I was wrapping up an end-of-day meeting in which I had recapped a month of work. In closing, I said “Just in case I get hit by a truck, here’s where you’ll find all these files…” Then, cycling home, I got hit by a truck.
Before anybody thinks I am going to complain about truckers, let me say that I find truck drivers are usually quite careful and thoughtful with cyclists. The bigger the truck, the more careful and thoughtful they are, in fact. That may be the result of the literally weighty responsibility they bear. Like commercial jet pilots, they are astonishingly responsible, even when drunk.
Of course, there are exceptions. Construction vehicles come to mind. Unlike freight haulers, construction vehicles do not carry valuable cargo that might be damaged by the inconvenience of rolling over a Styrofoam helmet. Indeed, mankind has yet to invent a set of brakes that will actually stop a loaded concrete truck. And construction sites are notoriously bad at providing safe passage for bicycle traffic. Beware.
But I digress. Like I said, cycling home, I got hit by a truck. Actually, it was more of a van than a truck. Courier van drivers are the worst, in my humble opinion. They spend their entire lives with a cigarette in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other, programming their GPS to direct them to unfamiliar addresses where they speed while talking on a mobile phone and contravening a myriad of other traffic regulations.
Anyway, I was peacefully riding through a South Melbourne traffic circle when one such professional entered the roundabout at speed. “Failure to give way” puts it mildly. I slammed on my brakes and screamed simultaneously, his front bumper slamming low into my front wheel. The bike yawed out from under my right leg, tumbling onto the roundabout. I first came down on my left foot, and somehow – I still don’t know how – I did not get clocked by the van’s elaborate rear view mirror as it passed. I did go shoulder and head first into the side of the van (Poom! Fwoop!), which then came to an abrupt halt. Amazingly, I ended up on my feet, leaning against the van.
I was sore – physically and emotionally – but unharmed in any determinable fashion. My right thigh would develop a kaleidoscopic bruise over the next few days, but that was it. More stunning was that my bicycle was entirely undamaged. Indeed, the derailleur seemed to work better.
The driver, to his credit, was extremely apologetic. He admitted he hadn’t seen me coming, that his van had a problem with right-side visibility, that he was in a rush to get back to base, and that he had perpetrated fourteen serial murders in New South Wales during the eighties. Well, not that last part, although if I hadn’t stopped him I think he would have.
My anger quickly dissipated into nostalgia for a time when an innocent young woman bleeding through her shredded stockings forgave all, sending a guilty man free, lesson learned. I took down the driver’s details and let him go with “You need to fix that right-side visibility problem.” He agreed enthusiastically.
So two weeks ago I had my most recent bicycling bingle. As I said, I saw him coming. I picked myself up off the grass with plenty of bumps, bruises and one very sore pinkie finger. At once I composed, orchestrated and performed a symphony of blasphemy and unsolicited suggestions. I discovered once again that my bicycle was entirely undamaged.
Then I recalled an “old man” in tweed and sneakers on Boston’s Esplanade. That day, I was the idiot. This day, I took the current idiot’s photo, got his details, and sent him on his way. “Watch where you’re f##king going!!” I proposed.
As it turns out, he did break my right pinkie finger, which will be in a splint for the next four weeks. Sigh.
We Baby Boomers began life by dominating our parents, adolesced by overwhelming our culture, realised pre-eminence by outnumbering the next generation, matured by ensuring our offspring a progressively diminishing standard of living, and may exit this planet having assured its ultimate demise. All of this in the name of peace, love, drugs, and rock and roll. It’s a remarkable record, really, leaving little wonder that it is with some relief to all involved – including ourselves – that we’ll be dead soon.
In the meantime, I will try to suffer fools – and broken pinkie fingers – gladly.