So I’m a little ashamed of myself. Me and my potty mouth went off on a bike ride Saturday. And, cyclist, we made you look bad. I can’t quit thinking about it.
Accompanying me and my potty mouth on this ride was my younger brother, Jeremy, in town from Minneapolis for a family visit. On our way back into Lincoln, as we approached a red light, an angry driver we’d evidently delayed pulled up alongside me. He leaned toward me from the driver’s seat and jeered and swung a disgusted arm at me—nearly elbowing his wife in the passenger seat in the process.
I couldn’t hear him, but his face told me I was dog shit. I surmised his message to be that my brother and I were hogging “his” lane.
And, like the flathead catfish I become when I’m mad, I took his bait. I got mad back. If he didn’t mind his wife sitting between us as he raged, why should I mind raging back? So I leaned down toward that passenger-side window, and I let fly the bird, knuckled and mean, complete with all the associated vocalizations.
A father of three, I let it rip real good. If the woman sitting between her angry husband and my angry hand would’ve spoken just then, she might have said, “I am surrounded by assholes.” And I’d have been unable to disagree.
How did we get here?
Jeremy didn’t have a lot of time for this ride, so we cut our gravel short and made the push back to Lincoln on a stretch of shoulderless pavement, where our troubles began.
Experienced riders are of different minds on how best to approach roads like these. (Best practice is probably to avoid them altogether, but that isn’t always possible.) I am of the “ride big” persuasion. In this scenario, one rider might hug the white line to the right, while his partner “rides big,” a little left of center in his lane.
This tactic removes the temptation for drivers to pass without changing lanes. It forces them to treat you like a car. (In one of cycling’s many ironies, the sentences “Treat me like a car,” and “Treat me like a human being,” are synonymous.)
But riding big has a drawback. It really pisses off a hurried minority of drivers. Given time to cool their jets, these drivers would likely argue that it’s dangerous—that the cyclist is asking to get plowed into from behind. They’d say that if it weren’t for their own driving prowess and bold braking, I’d already be dead.
But these angry drivers never express a concern for my wellbeing. Rather, they respond as if I’ve pulled a dirty trick—underhandedly forcing them to slow and expend precious stores of their limited caution. Oh, the time I waste them!
A quick admission: While I ride big primarily for safety, side-by-side riding with your brother on a pleasant Saturday morning also allows for easy conversation. And I imagine that being forced to slow by two spandex-wearing brothers just chitchatting their chipper way uphill must be extra irritating. Because Lincoln’s handful of misanthropes were in top form on this sunny morning—their horns full-throated, their gestures bold, colorful, almost Italian.
And it got to me. We neared Highway 77, and there entered the aging gentleman from our opening scene. His “you are hog shit” glare took the last of my poise, and as I’ve already confessed, I let fly the bird. The driver motored ahead, and our exchange ended.
My little brother manages a Minnesota nonprofit that serves the vulnerable. To do that well, you must have an abundance of calm. And my brother does. He saw our interaction unfold. He saw my finger; he heard my words. And after the driver sped off, he said simply, “I try not to do that.”
My mind leaned straight to the silent woman caught between the driver and me. She didn’t need any of that. But Jeremy’s concern was more with the two of us. “You don’t know what that guy has in his glove box.”
Underneath that sentence: You don’t know how deeply this guy hates.
Sorry, Eric, but if you’re going to wear that DK200 jersey, you’d better be willing to
represent the best of your sport.
If Jeremy and I hadn’t been two cyclists—if we’d been, instead, a combine or a grain truck—the delay we caused that driver would have been roughly equal, but his reaction to it would’ve changed. There might’ve been mild irritation. There wouldn’t have been rage. The farmer would not have come away thinking, “I don’t know what’s in this guy’s glove box.”
Go to your newspaper’s website and look for a story on an auto accident. Read the comments. Now find a story on an accident involving a cyclist. Read those comments. I can’t guarantee you’ll find stuff questioning cyclists’ right to be on the road. Oh, who am I kidding? Yes I can. Go look. It’s there.
Every driver can talk of the time a cyclist cut them off, or ran a light, or did this or that dangerous thing. Call it a sin of the minority. When the minority sins, the memory of it is filed and retrieved each time that minority returns to view.
Certainly, every driver can also recall (many more) occasions of other drivers cutting them off, blowing lights, or doing this or that dangerous thing. But these are the sins of the majority. And they are processed differently. They are isolated incidents. They aren’t called upon each time the majority returns to view.
This same dynamic is why I can have a bad day at work and be seen as “Eric on a bad day,” while a black coworker in the same situation risks being seen as “Angry Black Man.” He will almost certainly feel pressure to smile through his frustration because the majority will see his frustration as representative of something larger.
I don’t want to draw a false equivalent. But my behavior on the bike enters this dynamic as a sin of the minority. It becomes representative of the whole of cycling by default. “Remember that time we passed those two bikers,” says the husband to the wife, “and that guy flipped you off and said those nasty things?”
“Boy, do I,” says the wife. “Maniacs.” The next cyclist she sees won’t be me. But she will see me. Me and my middle finger.
We’re not just ourselves when we ride. We’re ourselves, and we’re every other person on a bike. We’re ambassadors, like it or not.
That’s why I’m ashamed at how I acted. I could’ve represented you better. I could have just smiled when he told me to drop dead. Sure, it would’ve been a little sarcastic, but I could have wished him well.
I could have left him there, thinking there must be something he’s missed.