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Eric Hartley: 'Invisible' biker takes to the web

The Capital: Eric Hartley: 'Invisible' biker takes to the web

By ERIC HARTLEY, Staff Writer
Published 06/20/10

By Joshua McKerrow — The Capital

Brock Snowden says his daily commute down West Street is scarier than the 60-mph downhill portion of a mountain race he once did. Snowden’s helmet cam records to this walkie-talkie-like device he keeps in his backpack.

He's biked with people who raced in the Tour de France. Once, in New York state, he rode down a mountain in a pack of 150 cyclists, reaching speeds of 60 mph.

"It really isn't as hair-raising as a commute on West Street," he said.

Snowden, 39, rides 10 miles each way on his blue Cannondale bike from his home in Crownsville to his job at Capital Bicycle, a shop in Annapolis.

Simple distracted driving can make that half-hour trek on busy roads like Generals Highway and West Street dangerous. (Snowden has seen drivers eating and talking on a cell phone at the same time.)

Worse, in the past couple of years, Snowden has noticed a marked increase in aggression on the roads. To document it, he bought a helmet cam about 2 1/2 years ago and started posting videos of his daily trek online.

His new YouTube handle says it all: NaptownRoadkill.

Standing outside Capital Bicycle last week, I asked Snowden why he started taking video, and he said, "I just felt like if I got killed and left by the side of the road somewhere, the police might have a chance to track down who did it."

He didn't appear to be joking.

A few of his YouTube videos are several minutes long; others are as short as 20 or 30 seconds. They have titles like "4,000 Pound Temper Tantrum" and "Annapolis Drivers Have Rabies."

In one caption, he wrote, "Every ride in Annapolis is a near death experience."

The videos are alternately disturbing and amusing, as cars cut him off or testosterone-fueled jerks race by and gun the engines. When he's cut off, Snowden sometimes blows a high-pitched, 100-decibel air horn called an Airzound. When startled, he yells things like "What the (expletive), man?!" and "God! You blind?"

He can't help yelling in surprise, but he admitted, "I don't think it helps."

In one video, Snowden pulls to a stop next to a work van driver who'd zoomed ahead and says matter-of-factly, "I'm calling your boss when I get to work. Dumbass."

Another video ends with shots of actual roadkill - the obvious message being that this could be Snowden or some other cyclist. (Go to youtube.com/user/NaptownRoadkill and youtube.com/user/socomcorky to see the videos yourself.)

Some of the videos show an ugly side of our motorist selves and raise the question: Why are we in such a hurry, anyway?

Lt. John McAndrew, supervisor of the county police Traffic Safety Section, said his section handled one fatal bicycle crash in 2009 and one serious accident each in 2008 and 2009. (Other, less serious accidents involving bicycles are handled by patrol officers and not included in Traffic Safety Section data.) Annapolis police statistics weren't available.

McAndrew said he hasn't noticed a particular increase in aggression. He said the biggest problem has long been impatience.

Snowden's theories run more to the political/sociological.

"The tough guys in the gigantic pickup trucks with the American flag stickers are the most dangerous and aggressive," he wrote on one video.

On another, titled, "Redneck Temper Tantrum," he wrote: "Gotta scare that cyclist off the road cuz Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin say conservation is un-American."

Snowden, a slim, balding redhead with bushy eyebrows, said the biggest problem aside from the jerks is something we'll call bike blindness. Otherwise sighted individuals, who presumably have taken the eye tests required to legally operate a motor vehicle on public roadways, simply seem not to see bicycles.

"You're invisible," Snowden said. "I would advise anybody that's going to ride their bike to feel like you're the invisible man."

Snowden's helmet cam connects to a walkie-talkie-sized device he carries in his backpack. He gets home every evening and reviews the evidence, like a store security clerk after a shoplifting.

"Sometimes I just don't want to look at it again," he said. "I just hit delete."

McAndrew said cyclists, like all drivers, should drive defensively, while motorists should be more aware of bikes.

People often don't provide enough space when passing bikes, not realizing 3 to 4 feet is the safe distance because of wind shear and the potential for a bike to hit a pothole or grate and be jarred slightly out of position.

On one video, Snowden wrote over a picture of Osama bin Laden: "The reason I ride to work? I can't stand the idea that the money I spend on gas will fund terrorists in the Middle East."

And he told me, "For the last 55 days I wake up to live video of this horrible oil well spewing oil into our ocean. Every single one of us is responsible for that. And maybe this is my way to make up for that."

As it happens, he also doesn't have much choice at the moment. His car blew up over the winter, and with the cost of treatment for the diabetes he's had since childhood, he can't afford to get it fixed.

Snowden is dedicated to biking. Yet he said of his commute, "I'm not sure how much longer I can do this."

"I used to get kind of excited and feel good before a ride," he said. "Now I get up and I feel sick to my stomach and nervous and scared."