“Just tell yourself, Duckie, you’re really quite lucky!”
— Dr. Seuss
I’ve frequently thought, since completing a transcontinental bicycle ride in the fall, how lucky we all were to finish the journey without a major mishap.
One careless driver, one piece of road debris, one aggressive dog could have resulted in the injury or death of any one of us in our initial group of 15. We encountered quite a few careless drivers, lots of road debris and a handful of very aggressive canines — particularly in Louisiana — during our journey from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla. But we all survived to ride again.
I’ve concluded that riding a bicycle more than 3,000 miles across a country whose highways cater almost exclusively to cars and trucks can be a very dangerous undertaking. To most drivers, a slow-moving bicyclist is simply a nuisance to be put into the rear-view mirror as quickly as possible.
Some roads have paved shoulders, designed primarily for motorists to pull off onto in case of emergency. But they are frequently littered with shards of glass, patches of loose gravel, large chunks of radial tires sloughed off by trucks and pieces of wood and sharp metal.
Highway planners in some states, particularly Arizona, are fond of rumble strips, rough ribbons of pavement between the outer edge of the highway and the shoulder. They’re intended to alert inattentive motorists if they start drifting off the road. But they’re a menace to cyclists.
On a steep descent from Signal Mountain Pass, east of Phoenix between Superior and Miami, we had to thread our fully loaded touring bicycles along a path about a foot and a half wide to stay between the rumble strip and the outer edge of the shoulder. At a downhill speed outside my comfort zone, there was no room for error.
A bad rumble strip is a menace to cyclists
Fellow rider John Vandevelde had similar thoughts on the dangers posed to cyclists in bicycle-unfriendly America. Three days from the end of of the trip — after we had logged 2,999 miles — he expressed those thoughts on Nov. 18 in his own blog, John Bikes America
. He encapsulated very well some of my own thoughts, so I’ll quote his blog at length:
“One of the things I knew I wanted to do in one of these last few blog posts is to thank the thousands of anonymous drivers who have passed me coming over my left shoulder, or waited for me to pass before pulling out in front of me, or slowed and waited to crest a hill before passing, or move over a full lane when passing.
“Now feels like the right time, even though we have about 150 miles to ride in the next three days.
“I hope I don’t jinx us. Things could change.
“For example, today things changed dramatically with Florida dogs. Six times today dogs were loose and took chase. The first time was a 3-dog attack. It was the first time I used my ‘U.S. Coast Guard Approved’ air horn — which I have dubbed the ‘Dog Blaster.’ It worked. Two short blasts startled and stopped the dogs.
“The second time I used the Dog Blaster today was when two powerful looking big boxers or boxer/pit bull mix dogs had chased two of our group riding about 100 feet ahead of me. The dogs tired, turned, and saw me — fresh meat! But a short blast froze them in their tracks and I was by them.
“The third chase made it clear how much we cyclists depend on the drivers of cars and trucks to pay attention to us and keep us safe.
“A very large black dog very close to the road got a good jump on me and all I could do was start cranking. I was riding so desperately hard I was unable to reach for the Dog Blaster. As I picked up speed, the dog started to drop back. When I finally looked up, I realized I was on the wrong side of the road facing an oncoming pickup about three or four car lengths away, with a small car behind the pickup. The pickup must have seen it all and slowed. There was enough time for me to cross back to the right side, which I did as fast as I could. The cars passed me, honking at the dog, and it was over for me and the dog. We were both safe.
“There have been any number of incidents like that involving one or another of our group. Thankfully, nobody has been hurt. …
Rumble strip that provides a decent bike lane. Photo by Felix Greiner and Jenny Prasiswa
“I have tried to figure out for starters how many drivers have passed me going in my direction. It is almost impossible. Riding the small country roads there is generally light traffic. It may be only a dozen or so vehicles per hour. On the highways, it is probably 50 to 100 or more. And on the multi-lane highways and Interstates, it is hundreds per hour. We have ridden something in excess of 200 hours, maybe closer to 250. So the number of drivers going by our left shoulder must be in the tens of thousands.
“And there sometimes are concerns about oncoming cars. Picture a two-lane, shoulderless country road. You look up and there are two cars bearing down on you — the one to your right is trying to pass the one to your left. You find yourself rooting for the passer, and at the same time cursing him or her — meanwhile calculating how you will bail out if the pass takes too long.
“Thankfully, they never did.
“I made some mistakes and some misjudgments as a cyclist in the last 8 1/2 weeks, but whenever I did, fortunately the drivers involved covered for me.
“I thought about recounting the handful or two of drivers who were absolute jerks. I remember every driver, and their car, and their honking, gesturing, yelling, seemingly intentional near-missing, and so on. If I could have caught up with them, I would have done something stupid.
“But I don’t want to waste words on them.
“What I feel at mile 2,999 is tremendous appreciation for the thousands of considerate, courteous, careful drivers who were watchful and protective of us. The drivers in the country are the most patient. And the long-haul professional drivers are incredibly considerate.
“In the last couple of thousand miles, I have made a point of waving and saying, really mouthing, ‘Thank you’ to the driver who slows and waits and otherwise is doing his or her best to keep me safe on the road.
“I wish I could thank them all again and tell them it looks like we are all going to make it.”