I was unconscious. Just below Mulholland Drive, on the forty-plus-mile-per-hour descent of Beverly Glen, a furtive pothole induced a slow-motion somersault over my bicycle handlebars. A debatable number of minutes later, the curious paramedic tested my basic math skills by thrusting incalculable fingers in my face in the back of his ambulance. There was blood dripping from my helmet and my inability to speak or answer simple questions resulted in uncontrollable giggling. Subsequent to a hospital road-rash body check and sponge bath, x-rays and CT Scans, eight stitches to my left auricle and zero change in my ongoing headache, despite two doses of Vicodin, my date took me home. Escorting me from the emergency room to my front door in a taxi, followed by a treacherous walk home in his cleats was probably not exactly what he had in mind.
Fortunately, the closely passing vehicle immediately following my crash managed to avoid running me over, but pulverized my Bianchi and continued on its merry way.
A few months later, as I rose from the saddle on my climb up Sepulveda, my derailleur seized and my brand new Litespeed catapulted me face first onto the asphalt like a cantaloupe blasted from a slingshot. I was, once again, covered with road rash, the left side of my face resembling Rocky Balboa on a really bad day.
The rush-hour traffic on Sepulveda managed to avoid my carnage, but I left the drivers thoroughly entertained with my face plant. Instantly following both accidents, several of the entertained, but kindhearted, pulled over to help.
Even without an automobile collision, my accidents caused plenty of bodily damage. A decade later, I found myself face down on Dr. Robert Bray’s cervical spinal surgical table, due to delayed symptoms of trauma to my spine. I shudder to think about the outcome had I been hit by a car. I have had way too many extremely close calls and I know too many cyclists who have not been as lucky.
The three-foot bike rule that recently went into effect in California is designed to provide three feet of distance between cars and cyclists. As a woman who regularly commutes on my bike from the valley to the west side, I have found, for the most part, that drivers are courteous. But there are always those who are just not paying attention. There is also the occasional bully who uses his or her vehicle as a shield and a weapon. (I once had an elderly woman in a scary large black Mercedes threaten to run me over on Wilshire Boulevard if I didn’t get out of “her lane.”) Here is hope that the three-foot rule will draw more attention to us two-wheeled commuters, but I’m not sure that’s the only issue. I have no doubt that 99.9% of drivers out there will generously give me room if they see me. It’s the seeing me that is the problem. In this ADD age of commuter multi-tasking, it is a very real danger. We desperately need drivers to pay attention. And, as drivers, we are all in our own little protective bubbles. When I’m on my bike, I don’t have a bubble. Where’s my bubble?!
I have heard drivers complain that cyclists are a nuisance and cause traffic blockage. I do sometimes take over the lane, but only when absolutely necessary and when it is the only safe choice. It is mostly to make sure you see me, driver, so I don’t die. Sometimes there is just no room for me. I promise, dear motorist, I really do try to stay in “my lane.” I am in a constant state of communication with you and am working at anticipating any sudden movement in my direction (see Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink). Please note, however, that my lane often consists of a broken glass-filled gutter, blended with sharp pebbles and other tire exploding debris. And do I really look menacing in my stretchy Lycra and Styrofoam helmet? I swear, heavy machine operator, I do not want to piss you off and I’m hoping with all my might atop my seven-pound carbon fiber frame that you will be my friend. Please. Pull out your old Trek, Cannondale, Schwinn or whatever you can get your hands on and come join me. Aside from the occasional disgruntled Jeep jockey who wants to kill you, it’s awesome out here.
And, honestly, am I really slowing you down? Is the three to five second interval created by your having to slightly maneuver around me on that narrow road creating a bigger gap than the twenty-something texter who is simultaneously applying mascara and creating the same gap (plus the length of her car)? I’m helping you by being one less of her in your path. And FYI, if you’ve snagged a piece of my hair, you’re closer than three feet. I am not Rapunzel.
On a recent ride over a very congested Coldwater Canyon, I made several unsuccessful attempts at passing a young woman who practiced a repeated snake formation in front of me, rendering it impossible. On my fifth try, I pulled up beside her, lightly knocked on her window (since her eyes were welded to her phone and she did not see me) and politely requested she keep her eyes on the road. She just stared me down with terrified Margaret Keane eyes. (See earlier comment re: Lycra and Styrofoam helmet.) I wasn’t angry with her. I just wanted her help. I am not just a cyclist. I am one of you and in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I, too, am guilty of handling and looking at my phone while behind the wheel of my car. I am conscious of the dangers and work at restraining that impulse.
To be fair, there are just as many bad cyclists on the road as there are bad drivers. Entitlement issues are entitlement issues and we seem to be embroiled in a highway tug-of-war. We raise our children to play nicely and share and then we get behind the wheel of a car and all hell breaks loose. What message does that send? I’m not asking you to give me your road. I just want to play here with you. Can we lose the armor and implement common courtesy and the golden rule? We are in this together.
How amazing it would be to see the U.S. approach road-sharing philosophies of places like the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark (which boasts a cycle superhighway with nearly 250 miles of designated bike lanes) where almost everyone rides a bike. As we progress further into the global warming point of no return and drain our oil surplus, I predict many more of us will be utilizing the use of our legs as a means of transportation and there will be a real need for more bike lanes. I am confident and hopeful that we can all find a way to pleasantly and graciously share our roads.
My bike has provided me with precious gifts. It has been my friend and my companion. It has brought me health, transportation, adventure and unadulterated fun. I have spent countless therapeutic sunrise hours on Mulholland, processing life and composing thoughts and ideas for my music and writing. I rode when I was nine and I plan to ride when I’m ninety and, even in the wake of my accidents, I have never regretted a ride. Everyone remembers the exhilarating escape and alien rescue scene in Steven Spielberg’s ET. Who didn’t root for those boys on their bikes? Do I need an alien in my basket for you to root for me?
Most of us learned how to ride a bike. If we have kids, we taught them to ride. If we never rode, we love someone who did or does. You don’t have to root for me. Root for your child, your friend, your sister, your brother, your lover. Root for the little kid in you and the freedom of that first time you pulled away from the curb, picked up your speed, caught up with your friends and laughed because it just felt so good. Root for that kid in all of us.