Walking into a store with a helmet on, or wearing cleats into the doctor’s office generates a certain amount of staring. It also draws conversation with strangers in much the same way you might imagine draping a live python around your neck might do. Fair enough. I’ve become used to this and actually welcome engaging with my community, rather than passing through it wordlessly. If wearing sports equipment in incongruous circumstances starts a conversation, I’m all for it.
But sometimes it gets strange. After work the other night, I stopped into the grocery store on my way home. In line at the deli, the attendant asked me about my helmet, and so began a short, pleasant exchange about aerodynamics and the value of extra vents on a hot day. So far so good. Another gentleman in line took the opportunity to join in, "hoping you’re not one of those who LEANS in to traffic, are you?” “No,” I assured him, “I stay in my lane.” Only later did I think about this objectively. If the direction I lean on my upright, moving bicycle matters to you as a motorist, then you, sir, are passing way too close.
Connecticut is one of 19 states so far to have passed the 3-feet law. Although it’s been far from well-publicized, the law says that wherever possible a motorist should keep 3 feet of clear space between his/her vehicle and a cyclist. This is not always possible, granted. On sections of Route 44, there is no bike lane at all, but where the bike lane disappears, there are instead two lanes of traffic in each direction. If a car is in the left lane, and you are in the right lane, and a cyclist is hugging the fog line as closely as possible while avoiding roadside gravel that can pop a tire, what’s a driver to do? Slow down. Wait until the car on the left passes. Swing wide around the cyclist. Easy. It only slows you down a tiny bit, and you’ll probably catch right up with that passing car by the next light.
The conversation with Leaning Guy in the deli, didn’t end there, though. He continued, as people frequently do, with his own anecdotal experience of bicycle-related-death-and-dismemberment. It’s almost funny how many feel this is the most logical topic of discussion when talking to a rider. His particular story was of a former Olympic swimmer in the 1950s who hit a stick somehow while riding and poked her eye right out of her head. Hmm. Nice.
Others are not so graphic, but the stories nevertheless lean towards fear, tragedy, and destruction. “Have you ever been hit by a car?” Yes, but my bike and I survived pretty well. “What if you fall in traffic?” You pick yourself up and get out of the way as fast as you possibly can. It happened to me recently in San Francisco, where I embarrassingly got my wheel stuck in a trolley car track. Over I went, skinning my knee and arm. The car behind me stopped in plenty of time and even pulled over to make sure I was OK. Sometimes these questions bring to mind a happy-ending adventure, like San Francisco; other times the topic lingers, making me a little nervous or shaky--conditions not advisable when traveling an arm’s length from multi-ton vehicles passing you at 40-50 mph.
Well, what else can you say? How about tell a story about how you used to ride when you were a kid and the adventures you had then? What happened when your child first learned to ride? When was the last time you rode a bike--where did you go--how did it feel? Have you considered taking up the sport again after years away--would you like to start riding roads or trails or the bike path? Do you wonder if cycling would work for your weight-loss goals? If you don't ride, what do you do instead to keep fit? Do you have questions or experiences to share about the different equipment options? Let’s even talk about cycle-car traffic laws. More on that in a future post. The possibilities are endless. Give some new ones a try. Cyclists (I think I speak for most of us--but chime in if you disagree) love to talk about cycling, and we’ll welcome your attempts. We’d just prefer to steer clear of the death-and-disability angle.