Thursday, March 4, 2010

Of Fistfights and Flowers

Bike Lane Bliss:
Of Fistfights and Flowers

What has perplexed me for years is that the same person who would hold a door for me at a coffee shop is the same person who would maniacally drive into me for causing them less delay than I created in the line at Starbucks.
And yet consider this inventory of hardware:
· One Craftsman 9/16 box wrench
· One empty Southern Comfort bottle
· Countless lit cigarettes
· One Lipton ice tea plastic bottle half full of tobacco spittle
· One cup of beer
· One heavy gauge steel chain with engine hook attached
All this has been tossed at me by motorists. Nothing has ever caused bodily injury. But it certainly wounds one’s pride. And I must say that the vast majority of that inventory came at me before Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France.
And the roadside scuffles have been too numerous to list. Most of the altercations are simply shouting episodes with empty threats. On a few occasions carloads of young men have emptied out of cars and attacked groups with whom I’ve ridden.
I would be lying if I did not confess to particular joy while catching one such driver, who had swerved, honked and not-so-politely instructed me where to go. Finding him mired in beach traffic, I drew up to the man’s car with his girlfriend next to him and got my helmet fully inside the passenger side window to ask what he wanted to say, giving the middle-aged guy a Flomax moment right there.
But upon reflection, I realized that win, lose or draw, I achieved little from those altercations. And the residual impact would be a negative regard for every cyclist those people encounter thereafter. The result of all those altercations between cyclists and motorists fostered the creation of the Facebook page “There’s a Perfectly Good Path Right Next to the Road You Stupid Cyclists.” Right or wrong, that page had nearly 40,000 “friends.” (The group urging Facebook to remove the page, mind you, had 46,000 friends).
To be a cyclist in America requires enormous patience with people. One has to draw a lot of lessons from folks like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. There is one key difference. Those folks did not choose to be subjugated to discrimination and cruelty; they were simply born into a bad situation. Cyclists choose to be minorities. And if the horns and epithets and projectiles of anger prove to be too much, they can simply quit cycling.
For nearly 30 years I had ridden bikes with a brazen defiance. With a bit more speed and a lot more confidence than most cyclists, I never display cowardice while riding in traffic. I hate day-glow green. That is not to say I have no judgment. Yes, I wear a helmet. And yes, I ride with full-on lights at night and have reflective straps. But I also don’t festoon myself in so much reflective garb and accessories so as to advertise fear.
It’s a fine line between riding in a deliberate, confident fashion and riding in an arrogant and aggressive style.
Really decent people have been known to fly off the handle when motoring behind cyclists. Consider the case of Michael Bryant, a former Ontario attorney general once touted as a front runner to serve as Ontario’s premier. This guy made prosecution of road rage a cause célèbre during his service as the top law enforcement man in that Canadian province. And then last summer he snapped on a cyclist, striking the guy and then purposefully dragging this young father repeatedly into lamp posts and obstacles, and then leaving him to die.
So what unlocks that mentality? What turns a mild-mannered professional into this homicidal maniac?
Conversely, what changes that seething person behind the wheel of a 3,500-pound weapon, into the same jovial person willing to politely wait for the potato salad at a company picnic?
One day I discovered the answer.
Upon riding home from my Boston office I had cause to get my wife some flowers. After picking up a bouquet, I hopped back on the bike and pedaled north on Massachusetts Avenue in Lexington, a broad roadway made famous in April of 1775. Cradling the flowers in my left arm, I kept to the right and out of the way of rush hour traffic. As traffic stacked up to turn left, I felt a car press up behind me, swerving right to continue straight. The engine revved and then shut down, apparently due to my presence in the roadway. I could feel the irritation of the driver behind me and braced for yet another conflict. I refused to change my line; I refused to be intimidated. I was just a guy trying to get home.
The car swerved to reveal a Subaru Forester with a suburban mom wearing an exasperated look. In the back seat sat a small girl with her window half down. She pointed to my colors and my bike and smiled upon spying my flowers.
The mother’s entire expression rinsed into a warm grin and something about the flowers connected me to something human. The flowers told the world I had somebody at home and a nice personality.
She backed off the accelerator and calmly passed by, even offering a little wave of support as every motorist behind passed me with a smile.
I have read that in designing spaces to control large crowds – such as town squares and stadiums –flower beds are always respected and never trampled on.
I saw that in an instant with that driver.
Realizing I cannot always ride with a bouquet of flowers, I had cause to reflect on how can I, as a cyclist, create that reaction with others.
So I have developed 10 basic and somewhat broad rules that have since served me well. I will touch on each in future blogs but for now I find that when I break these rules, bad things happen. My rules for riding include:
1. Be Nice
2. Be Deliberate
3. Use the Magic Word (And it is not “please”)
4. See and Be Seen
5. Say Nothing Mean
6. Please and Thank You
7. Yield Down
8. Pay it Backwards and Forwards
9. Have Compassion
10. Forgive
To read the list takes less than a minute - to fully integrate these rules into one’s cycling requires a lifetime of practice.
I’ve been cycling for nearly 30 years when – by accident – the power of those flowers revealed themselves to me. Like Thomas Merton’s revelation, I had been given this gift. And like Merton, these lessons blend elements of Christianity and Buddhism. But unlike Merton, I choose to pray on a bike on Sundays.


  1. awesomeness Richard pure awesomeness...

    For me, spending a couple years pulling my daughter to day-care in a trailer was a very enlightening experience, and similar/identical riding with flowers (just longer lasting). With the trailer cars are patient and much more forgiving and accommodating. On the same roads with the trailer where I was left alone, riding without the trailer was like waving a red cape at a bull.

    It is tempting sometimes to ride all the time with the trailer, even without a passenger in it.

  2. Amen brother. I learned this lesson while on a group ride with an ex-pro. After buzzing and honking at us on a group ride, a truck was stuck in traffic. My friend went up to the passenger side window and rather than starting an argument, said "I know you, aren't you...." His recognition immediately changed the dynamic. Once we treat drivers like people, they have a chance to see cyclists as people rather than pests. Sometimes it works.

  3. Last Halloween Riding to work with my Knight costume in my pack for am evening party afterwards, I needed to carry my Broad Sword on my back. Talk about respect. By far,better then neon jacket or any blinky light!
    You might want to add that to your list,,,,"and carry a Broad Sword!"

  4. Well said. There's something about being behind the wheel of a vehicle that makes people feel entitled. It's all road rage. People would never act that way in line at the bank, or at the grocery store, where face to face interaction takes place. But the private chamber of a car makes some feel as if no one should inconvenience them at all.
    Living on Cape Cod where the drinking is rampant and the roads are tight with non existant shoulders, I've had my share of battles. The greatest thing about my passion for bikes is that there's a thing called mountain bikes. It always surprises me when guys don't want to try mountain biking because it's dangerous. Sure you can have some crashes, but it's only as dangerous as you decide to make it. Some things just can't happen in the woods. Like getting hit or just having to deal with angry motorists.
    I know it doesn't help the commuters much though. If only we could all just move to Belgium. I've never seen anything like it. It makes me embaressed (even more) to be an American.

  5. Thank you for putting your list together - I am going to print it out and put it on our refrigerator as a reminder/inspiration for both of us.

    I have spent the last 14 years listening to my cyclist sweetie complain about the horrible behavior of mean-spirited and lousy and inconsiderate if not dangerous drivers...those complaints wear on both of us (and make me worry).

    My thought is that since we can't change anyone but ourselves (we just have to pray for everyone else and wish them well waking up being themselves), we might focus on working on ourselves and the way we react to aggressive behaviors...Forgiveness is my new 'F' word. PS - Knowing you, I was almost expecting to read that you gave the flowers to the Subaru mom - just to shock the hell out of her (and to change her feelings about cyclists)...she obviously needed some, don't you think? But not as much as your lovely bride.

    I've always thought flowers and an airhorn should be standard equipment for cylclists...xo