My morning commute to work is fifteen miles long. Six of those miles are spent in a heavily traveled four-lane road. Although I haven't counted, I must cross about thirty intersections in those six miles, all of them inhabited by morning commuters who drive while they talk on their cell phones and put make-up on. By now, I know many of the drivers and their cars well. The forty-something whose cargo van is plastered with Peter Criss stickers. Not stickers for the band Kiss mind you, but just Peter Criss (the band's drummer). Then there's the overweight woman who listens and sings along to Barbara Streisand with her windows rolled down, no matter how cold or rainy the weather is. I also see a die-hard Metallica fan every morning, a young man with dark hair and a tiny mustache who uses wood screws to hold panels of his car in place. He seems to prefer vintage Metallica, and I've been stuck behind him many times. These drivers, their memorable cars and their musical tastes are all part of my morning commute. I can only assume that I'm part of theirs. I'm the crazy guy on the bike...and I'm okay with that. I make eye contact whenever possible, and wave when they give me space. I want them to see that I'm an actual human being. My musical taste is slightly better than Barbara Streisand, but I'm no different from them.
In this particular street, there is no shoulder for me to ride on. I find myself having to pretty much take up a full lane in order to ensure my safety. The result? Well, as you can probably guess, angry drivers honk and curse at me as they pass. I've had water bottles thrown at me from cars, and my sexuality has been called into question more times than I can remember. As these one-sided conversations take place, drivers proudly show off the sheer horsepower that their 14 year old Toyota Previa's still have. Who knew that reaching 30 miles an hour in 50 seconds could be such an incredibly loud undertaking? It was after one such loud encounter with an aging car a few weeks ago that I came to a sudden realization. I don't know about you, but when I have a "sudden realization", it's as though a beautiful unicorn has grazed me with his magical horn, and thus a rainbow of magic and happiness surrounds me afterward. The rainbow symbolizes how I've been granted new insight into the world. Such a moment usually looks a little something like this:
On the day of said realization, I saw the only other bicycle commuter I ever spot on this particular route. I see him about twice a month, and we usually wave at each other or exchange a quick "Hello, how are you?" at a stop light. On that morning, my fellow commuter was wearing a black t-shirt with large white printing on the back which proclaimed "one less car". I saw my fellow commuter from nearly a block away, but I could read the shirt's message easily. In the midst of all the cars, he looked tiny and fragile, unlike the bold all-caps letters on his shirt. In that context, surrounded by cars, his shirt suddenly seemed like an extremely bad choice. Cars angrily revved their engines around him at the stop light, and there he was, alone with his shirt.
In case you're wondering, no, I'm not saying that wearing such a shirt was a bad choice because cotton has no wicking abilities...that's not my point. It's just that at that moment, wearing that t shirt made him look like he was taunting a bull with a bright red rag, or mocking a lion by smacking it around the face with a steak. He was probably pissing drivers off with his self-righteous shirt, which I assume was the point...but in comparison to the sturdy metal cars around him, he suddenly seemed small, squishy, and vulnerable.
As cyclists, we're already seen as outsiders. Why ride a bike when you can drive? Why not ride a bike on the sidewalk instead? Why not ride a bike on Sundays in a suburban bike path? That's what rollerbladers do. With all these questions looming over our collective heads, the idea of bringing anti car pseudo-politics into the equation while being surrounded by them suddenly seemed stupid to me. Don't get me wrong, I know we're all unbelievable geniuses by the mere fact that we own and ride a bike. I know that we're all better than anyone who has ever driven. I fully understand that we're all making the world better by merely resting our taints upon our saddles, and we will thus single-handedly save the planet as a result. But when we're surrounded by big cars made of hard steel and aluminum, cars that can pulverize us, the issue at hand is not "one less car", but "one live cyclist". The issue of concern is our safety. Am I crazy for thinking this way? While I appreciate the human need to show everyone how you're smarter/better/cooler than them, you are basically trying to state that fact as hundreds of people are around you with loaded weapons. Am I suggesting that simply wearing a certain shirt will get you killed? Do I think all political discourse should cease in order to not ruffle feathers? No, of course not. I'm merely suggesting that we should be on the lookout for ourselves and our safety...and in some cases that means trying to blend in and perhaps make some friends along the way.
Look, I fully understand the appeal that being "different" has for some. I comprehend the need to gently antagonize others, and I'm certainly not immune to the euphoric feeling that being right can give us. Believe me, I devoted years of my life to metal, punk rock, and yes even straightedge music. As a result, I was deeply involved with the fashions, socio-political views and general beliefs that came with those musical scenes. As Frank Lloyd Wright's family motto stated "Truth against the world." In other words, we are not only right, but the world around us is wrong. I see the appeal in this world view, but I stopped enjoying the feeling of steeping in it as a teenager.
As proof of my involvement in musical subcultures I give you Exhibit A (above). What is Exhibit A you ask? Well, it's proof that I'm one of the few people in the world to identify the similarity between Christian Vandevelde, and the drummer from Earth Crisis.
Now that I'm older, and perhaps a tiny, tiny bit smarter, I've decided that when it comes to my safety, there's a better path to take. Clearly, riding safely and wearing whatever you may deem "safe riding attire" is key. To some, "safe riding attire" means bright clothing, to some it means dressing up as a reflective construction barrel...that's up to you. I'd like to make a suggestion however, and it's a silly one...so bear with me. If up until now you've thought I was some kind of enlightened soul while reading this post, it may all come crashing down, but hear me/read me out. Here's something you may want to try, something that is the opposite of wearing the "one less car" shirt:
Wear stuff from your local NFL football team during your commute or your rides.
It sounds silly, I know. But it works. You see, the fantastic realization I had when I saw the guy wearing that t shirt (remember, it was the moment when the unicorn grazed me with his horn) was that I should try to be one with the drivers, and perhaps not to antagonize and anger them further. The path to a driver's heart around here is easy. I live in a city that is absolutely rabid about football, and pretty much every car that has ever cut me off has a huge sticker of said team on it. Everyone here is obsessed with football, and I have often found that sports are the only way in which I can connect with every single person in this region...so why not try putting a patch of the team on my bag? I bought and stitched the patch on my backpack one Sunday night, and tried hard to see if I noticed a difference that week. Sure enough, I did. Although it's nearly impossible to exactly quantify a difference (I forgot to put on my handlebar-mounted counter that week), I most certainly noticed it. The drivers behind the wheel of pick-up trucks that would normally honk in anger as they passed me began to act differently. The patch, I assure you, made a difference. Perhaps I was no longer the guy who was putting their entire lifestyle (driving a huge truck on a short commute, wearing white high-tops etc) into question. Maybe I was a football fan, just like them, who was out riding a bike. I was one of them, nothing more.
At this point, you may think I'm dreaming, and that I'm imagining this...but I'm telling you that it has made a difference for me. I'm not delusional, I know that a simple patch doesn't work as a safety shield around me. I also know that distracted drivers, not angry ones, are often the most dangerous. But if many cyclists put on tiny reflective stickers in hopes that it will make them safer...why not a patch or huge sticker supporting your local football team? What's that you're saying? You don't live in a city that is crazy about football? Perhaps hockey, soccer (aka football), rugby, cricket, hunting, or fishing is the way to go where you live...but consider it. I myself don't have a problem with wearing anything from my local team. I'm actually a fan, and when it comes to perhaps saving me from another annoying close encounter with a passing car...I'm a HUGE fan.