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In Defense of Cyclists

My response to an article by my friend Ben Cohen who wrote an item the other day titled, "Reasons Why Cyclists Suck" in which he detailed a series of generalized gripes with cyclists, more or less grouping all of us into one category: self-righteous, entitled road hogs who seek to deliberately make Ben late for work.
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It's really easy to pick on bike riders, and so I don't mind admitting that I've been successfully trolled by two of my closest friends. Ben Cohen, who also happens to be my boss here, wrote an item the other day titled, Reasons Why Cyclists Suck in which he detailed a series of generalized gripes with cyclists, more or less grouping all of us into one category: self-righteous, entitled road hogs who seek to deliberately make Ben late for work. Later on, Chez Pazienza, my friend, podcast partner and fellow Banter contributor, jumped into the mix in the comments and essentially endorsed Ben's assessment.

So, true to my nature as a brawler, I have no choice but to respond.

I really try not to take criticisms of cycling personally. After all, it's just a sport that I happen to enjoy, and I don't expect anyone else to experience the same fulfillment as I do, nor do I attempt to force cycling on others like some kind of jagoff velo-evangelist. However, I routinely will rush to the defense of cyclists when challenged, or when I feel like critics are being overly nearsighted.

I hasten to note, too, that I also speak as someone who drives a car. In fact, I feel like this gives most cyclists an insight which many drivers/critics lack: most cyclists are also drivers, but most drivers aren't cyclists.

Along those lines, I'd like to clear up some misconceptions.

1. Cyclists are evidently the only menaces on the road. I love Ben and Chez like brothers, but to single out bike riders as the only entitled traffic-law-violators on the road is just stupid. Yes, bike riders sometimes cruise through stop signs and the occasional red light. But drivers never, ever, ever roll through stop signs or run red lights or speed or swerve or cut people off or change lanes without signalling or smash into bike riders they claimed not to see, do they? When Ben, Chez and some of the accusatory commenters show me their clean traffic records, I'll concede their points about law-breaking bike riders. Now, why do some riders coast through stop signs? While, yes, some bike riders are in a hurry just like drivers, it's often because it takes significant physical effort to accelerate back up to cruising speed. Stopping causes the heart-rate to slow and the muscles to cool off just enough that it breaks our physical rhythm and flummoxes our momentum. That's no excuse, but that's sometimes a consideration when approaching an intersection. For the record, I always stop at red lights.

2. All cyclists are the same: assholes. There are a wide variety of cyclists. I'm a road cyclist -- the Lance Armstrong Tour de France genre of riding that involves garishly-colored Lycra and sleek aluminum or carbon-fiber bicycles designed for speed. There are also mountain bikers, BMX bikers, commuter cyclists, hipster bike messengers and random guys on bikes who don't fall into any category. Generally, the most hated bike riders are the hipster bike messengers who zig-zag through urban traffic -- sometimes on sidewalks, which is wrong -- their bikes are stripped down, they often don't have breaks or gears (called "fixed-gear" or "fixie" bikes), and these bikes are often ironically accessorized, just like their owners. My hunch is that many of the bike riders who are most often cited in articles like the one Ben wrote are bike messengers. But griping about this ubiquitous urban feature is like griping about cab drivers and skyscrapers. If you chose to move to a big city, suck it up and deal with big city things.

3. Cyclists are the only people who flaunt and fetishize their sport/vehicle. Ben wrote, "Like vegans, cyclists want everyone to know that they’re cyclists. They wear cycling t-shirts, post pictures of themselves cycling on Facebook, visit cycling websites, and even start their own annoying blogs about cycling and how great it is." Good point. I never see people posting photos of their cars on Facebook or reading about cars on websites. Seriously, what? The car culture is arguably as American as hot dogs and beer-farts. It's inescapable. In a broader sense, with the rise of social media and the internet, everyone wants everyone else to know who and what they are, down to the most trivial and, more often than not, repulsive detail. Singling out bike riders, or vegans for that matter, is completely unfair since I can cite entire online/offline subcultures of car enthusiasts or truck enthusiasts or train enthusiasts or Harley-Davidson enthusiasts or Vespa scooter enthusiasts. Hell, there's an entire subculture of people who dress up in animal mascot costumes and have wild sex orgies -- and there are t-shirts available for it. So why are cycling enthusiasts suddenly not allowed to participate in the exaltation of their culture with the same enthusiasm as, say, the weirdo Harley people? (Kidding... maybe.)

4. Why do cyclists ride in the street? Ben makes the case that bike riders should stay off roads that aren't designed for bike riding. I'm not sure how this is even possible. Am I supposed to ride half-a-mile on a street within a token bike lane until it ends, then pick up my bike and walk it three miles until I reach another street with another bike lane? Of course not. Roads are shared thoroughfares. And, yes, sometimes cyclists ride in the street rather than on the shoulder. Why? Not because we're out to piss you off, but because most shoulders suck. They're cracked, loaded with gravel or they simply don't exist. The other ever-present issue is glass and debris that's jettisoned from, yes, cars. Thanks, drivers! This rubbish can result in flat tires or, worse, crashes. So, speaking for myself, whenever I encounter these issues and when I can maintain a speed reasonably close to any nearby cars, I signal then merge into the road. As soon as a passable shoulder appears, I merge back. If you can't wait five seconds to go around me or for me to merge back onto the shoulder, then I don't know what to tell you. I hope you're more patient with pedestrians in crosswalks -- making you late for your important whatever. By the way, if you're late, I trust you don't exceed the speed limit. Because drivers are saints who obey all traffic laws.

5. The Lycra is so weird! Bike riders are weird! One of the commenters, Kavalier05, under Ben's post mentioned something about "the silly Lycra" so I thought I'd take a second to explain. The silly Lycra is just like silly boxing gloves, silly baseball hats or the silly Lycra pantaloons worn by manly football players. It's equipment designed to help cyclists, you know, cycle. The fabric wicks moisture away from the body unlike a cotton t-shirt that rapidly transforms into a soggy, floppy sponge when it gets wet. The tight aerodynamics of the Lycra makes riding easier, unlike street clothes which act like parachutes especially in a head-wind. The Lycra is also brightly colored as a safety measure -- it's hard to miss, even in peripheral vision. And the crotch-padding, known as a chamois, protects the groin and other goodies from chafing and injury. Kavalier05 proudly remarks that her husband doesn't wear the "silly Lycra." Hmm. Okay. If he rides regularly and for distances longer than five miles, and if he wears jogging shorts or, worse, denim, his taint probably looks like hamburger due to the seams, and likely smells, well, like a crotch that looks like hamburger. Good luck with that. At least he doesn't look "silly."

6. Cyclists are asking for it. Also in the comments, Chez trolled, "I can't abide rude-as-hell cyclists who travel in packs, taking up the entire fucking road because they believe that somehow by sheer volume they equal an actual vehicle. No. You don't. Now, again, get the fuck out of my way." The answer to this one is simple. At no time ever in the history of the sport has a group of riders cycled in a pack because they think they're as big as a car. I have no idea where Chez got this idea. If cyclists are in a pack, it's because it's a group ride or a race. Also, you need to get the fuck out of my way. Why? Because you can kill me. Not the other way around. So back off my ass and wait for a chance to carefully go around me. Bikes are a feature of the road, just like other cars, slow drivers, stop signs, pedestrians, crosswalks and speed bumps. If you live in an area with bike riders, plan your commute accordingly. And if you're late, tough shit. You should've planned ahead. It's not my fault, and certainly not an excuse to get all aggressive with a guy on a bike. Oh, and one thing about this remark: "It would be wise not to piss me off lest you feel like being on the losing end of a video that gets 5,000,000 views on YouTube." Yeah, my wife was just asking for a beating.

7. Deference where deference is due. I was riding through a small town in Pennsylvania, and as I approached an intersection (I had a green light, by the way) a group of kids in a hatchback passed me then suddenly turned right, blocking my path. I smashed into the side of the car and the impact cracked my T10 vertebrae. When you’re sprawled across the pavement bleeding, wearing shredded Lycra with a broken back and a doofus kid who just hit you with his car hovering over you saying, "Dude! I didn’t even see you!" in spite of the fact that you’re a 6'4" man on a bike wearing garishly-colored regalia in broad daylight, the whole conflict becomes crystal clear. Drivers can kill/injure bike riders, but bike riders can’t kill/injure drivers, so who should receive the majority deference on the road? There are assholes and dickheads riding bikes, and there are assholes and dickheads behind the wheels of cars. I’m not a threat to an asshole driver but he’s damn well a threat to me. Just because there are assholes and dickheads on bikes doesn't mean they have it coming, nor does it mean they ought to get the fuck out of your way.

But even if I hadn't been hit, I was honestly dismayed by how casually various commenters -- on a mostly liberal site no less -- were tossing around what I hope weren't serious lines like "it's a wonder more of them aren't run over on purpose" and "if he were one of those self righteous pricks, I would be forced to run him over" and "it would be wise not to piss me off." Really? Are you really this militant in your hatred of cyclists? I really hope we're never on the road at the same, regardless of whether I'm on two wheels or four. Sheesh.

Ending on a positive note, perhaps it's a good idea to explain why I ride and, therefore, why a lot of other people do, too. First, I can eat anything. Huge perk. Secondly, in a physical sense, cycling both saved my life while, like the contradictory nature of any human endeavor, occasionally jeopardizes it. As with life, the difficulty of a seemingly insurmountable climb eventually gives way to a rewarding and exhilarating descent, making the tortuous struggle of the ascent worth the glorious high-speed payoff. There's an adrenaline rush about traveling far away from home under my own power and at "human speed" -- stripping me out of my comfy chair, exposing my heretofore sheltered body to the heat, noise, distance and exertion of the road. Each time I ride, I find myself alternatively pained and euphoric -- exposed to danger, testing my will and trusting my body's ability to endure long enough to get me home. I don't recall where I read this before, but I often repeat to myself: "When I’m riding I feel lucky to be alive, and when I stop riding I feel lucky to be alive." I've tried a lot of sports in my life and came to cycling late -- maybe too late to pursue it competitively, but it doesn't matter to me. It's my sport. I feel like my body, as well as my brain, was designed to be good at it. And I'm a better man in so many ways for pursuing it.

I hope in some way this provided a little perspective for those of you who believe that all cyclists are out to screw you personally. We're not. Likewise, not all of us believe that drivers are out to screw us personally. But we're all occupiers of the road, so the sooner we make room and share, the sooner the mutual animosity -- and the injuries -- will dissipate.

And I still don't own a cycling t-shirt.