Lobotomized Bicycle Riders?

It’s May. (At lease it was, when I started writing this.) National Bike month, according to the League of American Bicyclists, a fine organization of which I am a card carrying member.

Too bad the League’s national offices are down there in Washington, and not up here in Boston. With May typically being cold, wet, and windy, they might consider moving Bike Month to July. “The Season” is getting into full swing. The bike shops are doing land office business on weekends, with hard-core racers standing in line alongside soccer moms, waiting to purchase the best goodies they can afford. (I know they’re soccer moms. I see the enormous SUV’s, with their “Al Gore” bumper stickers, parked in the vicinity of every well-known shop. There’s something of an “oxymoron” there, I think)

Last year, I did a column about the top ten drivers every bicyclist should be on the look out for, while riding. I promised my faithful readers (both of them) that I believed in “equal time”, and I would do a column on the top ten bicyclists to watch out for, while driving. Well, now that the season is indeed under way, I’ve decided to do just that. First, some history is in order:

I grew up during the 60’s. During this time, kids could walk, or bike, to school. In fact, it was normal to do so. If you were driven to school, there had to be some sort of reason for it, such as a physical condition, illness, or something like that. From springtime, until late fall, kids biked a lot, to school, the playground, and the public swimming pools. So, safe bicycle riding was included in school. It wasn’t a major item, such as reading, or arithmetic, or history. (I know I’m dating myself, by admitting that they taught history and geography when I went to grade school. Too bad they don’t any more, as we now have college graduates who think it was the Germans who bombed Pearl Harbor) Safe bicycle riding was something which came up in class every year, usually in April. It simply consisted of the teachers telling us kiddies to ride on the right side of the road, with traffic, to stop for red lights, you know, common sense things like that. In the early 70’s, the “bike boom” was on. “Ten Speed racers were being bought by the boatload. People were riding to school, work, and everyplace else. This “boom” was partially due to the gas crisis, and the “ecology movement”. (Remember those funny green ‘e’ symbols?) It was also because “10 speeds” had become commonly available. Mine was a blue “Raleigh Record”. A bad side effect of this was that there was also a “boom” in bicycle theft. It was ironic, buying a nice, fast ten speed racer, then having to buy a 50-pound chain to lock it up with. Such is life in America. But there was something else, something that, today, would be considered very odd: Everyone riding stopped for red lights, and followed the simple safety rules of the road. You didn’t think about it, really. You simply did it. Weird, yes? Rare indeed was the bicyclist that carelessly blew through a red light at a busy intersection In fact; such people were held in low regard, for making all cyclists look like selfish fools.

Today, I don’t know what has gone wrong. A few others and myself are apparently the only ones who acknowledge the fact that yes, we have equal rights to the roadways, and yes, we have an equal responsibility to follow the safety laws. Every time I ride, I see well-conditioned cyclists, across all age and gender lines, routinely ignore the rules of the road. It would seem that we have “come full circle”, or something.

With that, I present, (Insert Drum roll here)

The top ten types of Bicyclists to watch out for, while Driving. (Or riding.)

10. “The Rocket Scientist”. One of the most frustrating cyclists because he/she always has some idiotic means to rationalize their idiotic behavior. Example: “Oh, I don’t need a helmet, because I ride on the sidewalk”.
A woman with a master’s degree in engineering actually said this to me, when I suggested that she would be much safer with a helmet. In most states, riding on the sidewalk in a business district is illegal. When I tried to explain this little fact to this woman, her face just sort of glazed over. She clearly did not want to hear any of it. Yep, a real winner.

9. “The Politician”. This one comes in all ages, but is usually twenty something. Zooming along at a steady clip, the politician will slow down briefly at a red light, look casually, then blast right through the light. They believe they are making some sort of political statement by doing this. If you attempt to explain that such action is stupid, dangerous, and illegal, be prepared to get an earful of “The F word” for your trouble. If you try to tell them that they are making all cyclists look like idiots, be ready for the classic response: “Well, I don’t care”. You almost want this one to go head-on into a cement wall. Almost.

8. “Johnny Applecheeks”. He looks soooo cute on his new bicycle that dad just bought for him at Wal Mart. The oversized T-shirt, the oversized shorts, no helmet, no headlight. Did dad take a few rides with him, and explain the importance of safety, and the basic rules of the road? Nope. Did dad or mom see to it that he had acquired good bike handling skills? Nope. Did anyone? Nope. Johnny Applecheeks will ride anywhere he wants, including right down the middle of busy streets, the sidewalk, busy parking lots, you name it. Watch yourself at intersections, as Johnny Applecheeks will come right off the curb, right in front of you. After all, if you hit him, dad can sue, right?

7. “The WHSUPIES”. You pronounce that word “wuh’-sup-pees”. It stands for “white suburban yuppie parents”. This species is very big on status. That’s why they took up weekend bicycling. And that is the only reason. Mom, dad, and the little screamers have the very latest, most expensive bikes. They don’t know how to ride them properly, but they have them. You will see them pull up to a local riding hot spot, in dad’s SUV. Dad then takes about an hour, getting the bikes off the rear-mounted bike rack, and figuring out how to put the bikes’ front wheels on. During this time, mom will be gleefully explaining to the kids how they are going to stop for “fresh croissants”, or designer ice cream. Now, the kiddies will all be wearing helmets, perched back on the backs of their heads. Mom will have one as well, worn in the same fashion. Dad, being a “decision making executive”, wears none. Luckily, their ride ends after about an hour and three miles. (Gasp!) Then, the bikes will stay in the garage until the next picture-perfect weekend. Oh yes, dad may stop at a gas station, “to have air put in the bicycle’s tires”. Dad has not figured that they make these wondrous gadgets called “pumps”.

6. The “Zombie”. Male, or female, the zombie is likely to turn up anywhere. Riding along, at a fixed pace, never too fast, or too slow. Eyes fixed straight ahead. Totally blank facial expression. Sometimes wears one of the old “Bell Tourist” helmets, from the seventies. Favorite bike seems to be a rusting, but still functioning, 3 speed Raleigh. If you encounter the zombie, try a greeting, like “Hey, how’s it goin?” If there is any reaction, it will be a slow turn of the head, and a blank stare. Not really dangerous, but you just never know. Male of this species bears strong resemblance to the “unabomber”, Ted Kazinsky. Female of species may appear to have an eating disorder, or perhaps a vitamin deficiency. There’s really nothing wrong with her; she just always looks that way.

5. “Mister Impressive”. You have to wonder about this one. Always male, Mister Impressive gets a new bicycle every year, and it’s always the very latest frame and components that the big bicycle companies can get on the market. He also owns the latest style helmet, lock, jersey, heart rate monitor, and every conceivable gee-gaw known to bicycling science. Funny thing is, he rarely rides his bike more than a few miles from his home, and always seems to be in the same gear, no matter what conditions he is riding in. A real head-scratcher. His Favorite thing to do would seem to be making fun of whoever does not have “the latest thing”. His dream is to acquire one of the bicycles that Trek Bicycle Corp. supplied to the Secret Service, for use in patrolling the roads around the White House. (It won’t happen. Those bikes were special issue from Trek, and are just not available to the public, but don’t tell him this. It will break his heart. )

4. “The Studly Racer”. This one is easily spotted on weekends, Used to be exclusively male, but females have made progress here. (Sorry ladies, that is not a compliment.) Could be riding alone, or with a hard core road-racing club. Wears jersey and shorts that are team issue to well-known European road racing team, and has bike to match. Species has the very best cycling computer and has his cadence, heart rate, and distance calculated to the nanosecond. The riding ability and handling skill of this one is top notch, but common sense protocols never kicked in. One actually told me that the reason he can’t stop for red lights is because doing so “will screw up my numbers”. Uh, if he gets totally creamed by a large truck because he ran a red light, won’t that “screw up his numbers” even worse?

3. “The Death Deifier”. Another one that is exclusively male. Watch for a serious, dual-suspension mountain bike, made of alien spaceship material and equipped with enormous knobby tires. He only does the “real” trails, “with razor sharp rocks the size of your head!”. The endless bragging about how he’s done all the hardest trails can really grind down whoever he’s cornered, but there is hope: He switches sports very often. In a month or two, the bike will go into the attic, and he will switch to sky diving, bungie jumping, scuba diving in shark-infested waters, or something else. If he really wants to do something for the sake of machismo, he might try riding around Boston’s “Big Dig” project, on a hot Friday afternoon at about
4 PM, or, riding down Broadway in South Boston on Saint Patrick’s day, while wearing a jacket made from a “Union Jack” flag.

2. “The Dead Head”. Alas, a rare, dying species. Male or female, the Dead Head looks as though he/she set off for Woodstock thirty years ago, and is still looking for it. They ride vintage 10 speeds, or, perhaps even a Schwinn Paramount that has seen better days. Tie-dyed t-shirts, sandals, and a knapsack with one of those old “ecology” symbols sewn to it completes the image. Not dangerous at all, but may ask you where he/she can “crash”, wear he/she won’t be “hassled by the man”. This species is commonly observed during the summer weather, riding around coastal resort communities, especially if there is an artist colony in the area. If you want to play a mind game with the dead head, simply say that you heard that “the brown acid is not particularly good”, or, to really press his buttons, look him squarely in the face and say, in an authoritative tone, “Nixon’s the One!” Then ride away quickly.

1. “The crazy one”. This one rides along the bikeways or roadways at an impossible speed, never seeming to let up. He carries no water bottle, and wears no helmet. He does not even have on cycling shoes. And yet, he blasts along, at a speed and cadence that Greg LeMond would admire. He stops for nothing, not a red light, or the pedestrian he knocked to the pavement a few blocks back. His facial expression is a grimace of determination, (or else he has eaten at Taco Bell.) Beware, he really is crazy, on under the influence of medications, which he definitely did not purchase at any legitimate drug store.

No, I know I may have missed a few, such as “Crazy messengers”, but these are the most common nut jobs, I think. I’ve seen people riding along wearing football helmets and hockey helmets, and I wonder how they manage to dress themselves in the morning. So, you may be wondering why the rant and rave against fellow cyclists. Well, it’s because I’m rightfully worried.

For more than one hundred years, cyclists have been able to use the public roadways, without any need for such things as licenses and registrations. It’s really very simple: If you are using the public roadways, either for walking or cycling, or even horseback riding, it is implied that you are decent enough to behave. Driving a motor vehicle is inherently dangerous; thus, a license and state registration is required. (It doesn’t stop some though. Police departments are full of “unlicensed operator” reports.) You’ve never heard of a drunk running down and killing five people while being drunk and walking. Ditto for cycling. An intoxicated person isn’t likely to be able to balance a bike, let alone ride one. But, I really am concerned that the right to use the roadways is in serious jeopardy.

During the 70’s bike boom, the idea of making cyclists be licensed was tossed around the Massachusetts state legislature. (There were enough people riding at that time, so that certain legislators saw a potential source of tax revenue.) The idea went nowhere, and those legislators have long since departed, but the idea is kicking up again, in Massachusetts and elsewhere. The city of Boston now requires messengers to carry registrations. The “number plates” are small orange affairs, which “must be permanently affixed”. Cities and towns in Massachusetts may do this under present state law. In Texas, there was a proposal to make cyclists wear large, orange signs that would have read “Slow Moving Vehicle”. To the well-conditioned cyclist on the expensive road bike: Do you want to wear one of these, or face arrest if you don’t? I didn’t think so. That measure in Texas was defeated, luckily, thanks in part to some intense work of many sensible Texas cyclists, including Lance Armstrong.

Rage against cyclists is a popular topic on talk radio programs this time of year.
(Granted, a lot of callers to these programs sound as though they are talking through an Budweiser-induced fog.) The host of one such program was recently railing that cyclists should have to carry licenses, registrations and insurance, “so they can suffer like the rest of us!” This is the type of thinking that worries me.

There is absolutely no defense for not knowing, and following, the rules of the road.
When you blow red lights, ride on the wrong side, ride without lights at night, etc., you are NOT making any kind of political statement. The only statement you are making is “I am a moron!” The Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition has taken the time, and server space, to post the bicycle laws, for all fifty states, at their web site. If you still can’t accept this as “official”, then visit your local library. In Massachusetts, the bicycle laws may be found under the general laws of the commonwealth, chapter 85, sections 11A, 11B, and 11C. (Notice that section 11C states, in plain English, that a police officer may indeed issue a civil citation, to any bicyclist whom commit a violation that the officer observes.)

So, whatever bicycle riding advice you may have received from Mommy, Daddy, “weird Uncle Tommy”, or anyone else is, in all likelihood, wrong. Visit the website, and give yourself some real information. Read a 46 page booklet entitled
“Bicycling Street Smarts: Riding confidently, Legally, and Safely”, by cycling legend and legal expert John S. Allen. (Under five bucks at most bike shops)
There is simply no excuse, or defense, for not behaving, and following a few simple civil laws, which were put on the books decades ago, and were followed, faithfully, for decades by many bicyclists who came before us.

Let’s police ourselves, before someone decides to do it for us.

Bruce Black

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