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The thrills and spills of a commuting cyclist

The Sunday Star-Times: The thrills and spills of a commuting cyclist

By MICHAEL DONALDSON - Sunday Star Times Last updated 05:00 11/10/2009

OPINION: IT’S ALMOST impossible to bring perspective on the cycling versus motorist debate that seems to be consuming our country at the moment.

That’s because, like most bike-car incidents, there’s a massive communication gap; drivers do not understand cyclists and cyclists can be devilishly stubborn, zealous about what they do. The zealotry is a result of being passionate about cycling; we don’t ride because we have to, we ride because we want to.

My wife worries for my safety. Some friends think I’m mad. I recently met a traffic management engineer and we started talked about cycling. He told me it was the fastest way to shorten my life.

I say it’s also the most enjoyable way to live my life, but lately I’ve been wondering because, as a cyclist, I feel like I’m in a minority hated with a passion reserved for neo-Nazis, thieves and rapists.

Sometimes I think people in cars don’t care if they kill me as long as they get to work on time.

I’ve been in love with bikes since I was six. I cannot remember much about my first bike other than it had a banana seat, ape-hanger handlebars and orange slick wheels. OK, we were living in America and it was 1969... back in New Zealand in the 1970s I saved the money from my paper round to buy a Chopper – off which I fell numerous times because it had a tendency to get the speed wobbles.

I biked all around the Kapiti Coast area, from Raumati to Paraparaumu Beach and once to Paekakariki.

As a student in Dunedin I was always on a bike. I’d bike to play sport and I’d bike for fitness. One day I decided to bike from Dunedin to Christchurch for my summer holidays. The first day I got as far Temuka where I slept, sunburnt but happily tired, on the side of a country road without cover and was woken by thunder and lightning.

The rest of the journey seemed to transpire with lightning forking all around me.

I’ve ridden around the entire South Island, the length of the North Island, around the East Cape... from Sydney to Terrigal. Can I say why I’ve done all that? The challenge? The fun?

These days I’m a commuter and I ride because I like the buzz, the thrill of racing downhill, the feeling of biking home from inner-city Auckland to Titirangi in the evening and glimpsing the Manukau Harbour through the kauri – the joy of a tailwind cannot be adequately described.

But I genuinely believe I’m more at risk riding to and from work each day than I was on state highways with trucks roaring past at 100km/h.

When I’m commuting, when drivers seem to be so impatient, they do reckless and careless things.

I’ve had crashes where cars have pulled out left without looking, I’ve been hit by a u-turning car, by a car turning left in front of me, by a bus overtaking me and slamming on its brakes straight away at a stop (madness). I’ll never forget the startled faces of the passengers as I ploughed into the back of it.

I’ve had my own crashes: into a traffic island while watching surfers instead of the road, while trying to ride one-handed down London St in Dunedin, in the rain; while trying to ride down steps... I can say I’ve been as stupid as some of the drivers I’ve met.

In fact, I’m certain I’m as stupid and reckless as many drivers – we’re all stupid and reckless from time to time – but I encounter around 1000 cars a day and it only takes one of them to be really stupid and reckless and I’ll be dead.

A thousand cars you ask?

One thing that motorists may not believe is that cyclists know far more about drivers than the other way around. The basis for this is how many interactions I have each day with cars. In a kilometre of riding I can be passed by up to 30 cars. In contrast a car driver whizzes past a cyclist only occasionally and might pass only a handful in a day.

I know more about what drivers are doing than drivers know about me. I know how many of those cars are speeding (a lot), I can see which driver is fiddling with the radio, eating, combing her hair, talking on a mobile, swerving drunkenly, reading, yelling out windows, blaring horns, throwing cigarette butts, disciplining children.

As a result of years on the road, I know what to expect and have become adept at making myself seen and safe. But it doesn’t stop me getting abused and occasionally threatened by drivers who do not understand what I’m doing.

A classic example is coming to an intersection with a straight ahead lane and left-turn only lane.

If I’m going straight ahead I have to get into that lane, and that often means having to pedal on the white line between the left-turning traffic and the straight ahead lane.

Recently while doing this, while going downhill at 50km/h, a man, with a teenage son sitting in the passenger seat, overtook me and deliberately tried to push me off the road. At the intersection I asked him why he’d done it and he replied I was "riding in the middle of the road".

D’oh! If I wasn’t in the middle of the road I’d have to cut across turning traffic just to go straight ahead. My anger and the downwardly spiralling conversation that ensued, ended with him threatening to run me over. I have no idea what his son made of all this.

Another thing. Motorists, I am convinced, cannot stand the sight of a bike in front of them and have to pass that bike as soon as possible, no matter whether the cyclist is already doing 50km/h downhill in a 50km/h zone, or if the road is windy. This is typical of our driving culture, which is all about getting somewhere as fast as we can. Cyclists are obviously not in a hurry, otherwise we’d have taken a car, and it seems to me that drivers see us only as obstacles slowing down their trip.

Then there are idiots. People talk about cyclists running red lights ... this year I’ve seen at least five cars run red lights; one came perilously close to me as I pulled away from the green light. My abusive yell was heard, the car slowed down and the driver asked if I wanted a "smack in the head".

But I also forgive drivers a multitude of their sins because I realise they cannot always see me. So I try hard to make myself visible, to make eye contact with people who want to pull out in front of me, to not sneak up on the inside of a car turning left.

And I do sin. I have turned left on a red light, done a shallow u-turn and turned left again to avoid waiting at the lights, but also to avoid pulling away from an intersection alongside drivers who insist on flooring the accelerator to get to the speed limit as quickly as possible or to race the car beside them. There is no orderly procession away from a set of lights, it can be mayhem if you’re on a bike, so occasionally I cheat to stay alive.

Those are the reasons I sometimes ride on footpaths, or the wrong way up a one-way street ... actually there’s no sane reason to ride the wrong way up a one-way street so I apologise for all the times I’ve done that!
Cyclists do things that might not make sense to drivers, but safety is usually a prime motivator, and that’s one of the reasons cyclists ride two abreast to be more easily seen.

Despite the dangers, I still love cycling.

When I get really stressed at drivers’ reckless disregard for my life, I try to think of my commute in terms of prehistoric man avoiding attacks by woolly mammoths and sabre tooth tigers.

I’ve been cycling for 40 years and hope to have another 40. But a lot of that hope is based on my faith that you, as a driver, won’t kill me.