Winter is coming (actually it arrived here in Michigan on November 11th…or October 13th…). And the night is dark and full of terrors….but the roads are worse.
Fear is a tangible thing for most true cyclists these days. Every time I go out on the road I wonder if I’m going to make it back. I’ve been honked at, sworn at, swerved at, flipped off, had cups and garbage thrown at me, etc., all by angry drivers who don’t believe I should be on the road. Mind you, I always ride as far to the right as practicable (as required by Michigan law), and I ALWAYS obey traffic laws, lights, and signs! Although I did get a speeding ticket on my Roubaix once for doing 35 mph in a 25 mph zone…which the officer graciously tore up after I let him take my bike out for a spin! “They wouldn’t believe me anyway” he said! Every cyclist’s proudest moment is a speeding ticket!
Further infuriating to me, however, is the fact that the state of Michigan enacted a law two years ago, requiring motorists to give a minimum of three feet when passing a cyclist on the road. This is quite probably the most broken, and least enforced law, in the Michigan vehicle code, based on my personal observations and experience. If you think three feet is too much space to leave a fellow human being when overtaking them in a much swifter vehicle then please, take your child or grandchild and stand within the yellow line in a train or subway station sometime. Feel that draft wanting to suck you in? Smell that fear? Welcome to my life on the road!
Today I am celebrating my eighth year post bariatric bypass. A life changing, lifesaving procedure that has seen me lose over 170 pounds and keep it off…as well as losing all of the meds I was on at the time….insulin, metformin, Actos, blood pressure….I have been drug free for eight years – except for pain relievers I take for arthritis developed as a fat man! Regardless, in those eight years I have pedaled over 49000 miles in order to keep the weight off, remain as physically and mentally healthy as possible, and, most importantly, to enjoy life. Those miles have been put on in 18 different states, eight different countries, and three different continents. Amazingly enough, I have been struck by a motorist only twice in that time….and each time was within 12 miles of my front door!
In addition to always riding within the proscriptions of the law (yes, I know several people who ride bikes do not, but most of them are not cyclists – you can seriously tell by their equipment, or lack thereof), I do try to make sure I am noticed….not seen, NOTICED (there is a difference!). This involves wearing brightly colored clothing – yes I am a true MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) and more than once my former students and even my own children have vomited a little in their mouth when I arrived in my kit at the end of a ride! Most importantly, however, and the point of today’s post (I know, took me long enough), is I use lights. Lots and lots of lights. Front lights. Back lights. Lights on the front and back of my helmet. Lights.
Now, when I first started riding after surgery, I had one headlight, and one tail light on my bike. Several close calls on early morning rides and rides at dusk and later had me concerned that I might have to find another form of exercise. Then I went riding with a club I belonged to in Ottawa, IL…the Starved Rock Cycling Association (SRCA) …. one night on their Monday night ride. Things were going well on our way to dinner, as they should because it was still light out. After dinner, however, my friend Don and I headed out to return to the city, some 15 miles away. I got on my bike, powered up my headlight and tail light, and was ready to hit the road. Don, however, was not. Don was still turning on his lights. He had TWO headlights up front, one flashing, and one steady. More impressive, however, was his rear end! Wait…..that came out wrong! Seriously, however, Don had EIGHT tail lights going at the same time! Some flashed, some steady, but all were being powered up. I chuckled and followed him back to Ottawa. Then the chuckling stopped. Every motorist that came from behind us was slowing down and swinging far over to the left to pass us. Every. Single. One. Not sure if they thought he was an emergency vehicle, or a UFO, but his ploy worked.
My lesson was learned. I returned home from that trip and purchased more lights. Lots. More. Lights. I never had a close call at night again after that. The key word there is “night.”
The first time I was hit was in broad daylight. It was a Saturday morning. A nice spring day. I was heading west. So was the minivan that hit me. I was riding almost on the fog line as I saw the van approach in my rear view mirror. There was a vehicle coming in the east bound lane, but it was more than a quarter mile away when I felt something strike my left elbow…hard! How I managed to keep my bike upright, I’ll never know. I remember looking at the van and watching its passenger side mirror flying in the air. The oncoming vehicle had to do some fancy maneuvering to avoid hitting the debris as it rolled around the asphalt. The van driver? Never stopped.
Fortunately, nothing on me, and, most importantly, my bike, was broken. My elbow was swollen for weeks after, and, emotionally, I still get antsy pedaling that stretch of road. Don, my mentor, asked me when he heard about it, how many lights I had turned on at the time. I was stunned. “Well, none. It was broad dayl…”
“Well, there’s your problem,” he said. “They didn’t notice you. I use my lights at all times, Night or day. Make them notice you.” I’ve been using them ever since…day and night.
Of course, not all drivers will notice you. That is because they are too busy noticing other things. Like their cell phones. The second time I was hit was just a year and a half ago. Yes, I had all my lights on. It was broad daylight, in the middle of the afternoon in early summer. I was in the right lane, and she turned into a convenience store from the left lane….coming from the same direction! I was T-Boned! This time, there was damage. About $1000 worth of damage. She cried to the officer “I didn’t see him! I swear I didn’t see him!” The officer and I pointed out the number of lights I had on at the time, in addition to the two that fell off the bike and were smashed by her wheels, but were still flashing!
That, fortunately, was the last time I was hit. I remember thinking that our daughters had just lost their mom a few months previously and were not ready to be orphans yet. I also remember thinking I was very lucky to not have any serious injury to my person, and, so, their mother was probably whispering in God’s ear (like a child that just wants five more minutes of sleep), “No, I’m not ready yet! Keep him there. Just five more years. PLEASE???”
However, this is not to say that I am infallible. My most serious injury on a bike came this summer. Yes. I was running all of my lights. Yes it was day light. Yes, my brother-in-law and I were following all of the rules of the road. No, I didn’t get hit. This time, it was my fault.
We had finished dinner after a day of touring and we were headed back to our camp site. The road we were on was a four lane highway, and featured a freeway exit ramp. We were in the right lane, riding two abreast (legal in Michigan as in most other states), and when we noticed cars approaching from behind, I would drop back and we would ride single file. This worked out fine. Until it didn’t.
This is all second hand information from my brother in law, as I don’t remember any of it. Apparently, just as we approached the freeway exit ramp, and were about to turn off the road into a convenience store for night time…snacks…, a truck approached us from behind and laid on her horn. There were no other vehicles in the east bound lanes of traffic at the time, but she was dead set on having the right lane to herself. I went a bit closer to the fog line. Spencer said he looked back and saw her almost upon me and laying on her horn continuously. I tried to move over to the right more, and my wheel got caught in a crack in the asphalt and I went down. Hard. He said he looked back and saw me laying on the roadside absolutely still and thought I was dead. My Garmin 820 detected the incident and sent out an alert to our youngest daughter, who tried calling and got no response. She thought I was dead or seriously injured also.
I remember coming to in the ambulance, where they had been asking me all kinds of questions, which I was answering correctly….for the most part…which concerned Spencer even more. God I was sore, but I refused to be taken to the hospital. Organizers from the tour showed up and transported Spencer and I back to the camp site. It was a really rough night…hot, humid, no wind, but plenty of pain! You know the kind! However, the next morning, I managed to tear down camp, load the bags into the baggage truck (with Spencer’s help), and he and I finished the tour with a 40 mile ride the next day.
I got home and decided to take Saturday off to overcome the stiffness. When you’re old, it takes a bit longer for the muscles and joints to recover (remember, I have arthritis as a former fat man!). Sunday morning arrived bright, warm….and painful…worse, rather than better. So I took Sunday off as well. By the time my sister, a Nurse Practitioner, arrived for lunch on Tuesday, she confirmed what I had already suspected….she felt cracks in at least three of my ribs and something going on with my scapula.
So my season was done, right? WRONG! Although the current medical practice is to not use a cast or binder for broken ribs, I decided to wrap my ribs anyway. Years ago, I had compressed some vertebrae in my lower back in a fall off from our deck and had discovered that riding my bike actually helped alleviate the pain due to a shift in posture. I thought it was worth a try, so I wrapped up the ribs good and tight in an effort to also stabilize the scapula. Four miles that day on smooth pavement were pain free. 25 miles the next day, the same thing….after that I didn’t ride at all in July without the ribs wrapped.
So why was all of this my fault? Because I gave up the lane to a pissed off motorist. She noticed me. Obviously. The lights did their job. My mistake was forfeiting MY RIGHT to the road. She may have been annoying, but she wasn’t stupid. She wasn’t going to hit me. She just wanted to force me off the road…by any means necessary without incurring violence. Never surrender your right to the road, as long as you are abiding by the law otherwise. There have been numerous researchers who have come to the conclusion that a cyclist who moves farther over to the right – to the point of riding on the fog line or narrow strip of shoulder – is more likely to be squeezed or forced off the road and incur injury than cyclists who maintain their path, slightly to the left of the fog line. Let the motorist honk. Let them flip you off. Let your kids and grandkids keep you around for a while longer. Those birthday bikes I spoke of in my last post wouldn’t have happened this year if that accident had been any more serious.
So, winter is here. The road is dark and full of terrors. How do we prepare? Here in Michigan our elected “representatives” cannot agree on funding for road maintenance and repair, resulting in an acceleration of crumbling infrastructure over the past few years. There are numerous stretches of road that I ride in my area where the asphalt has literally been worn or plowed over and the road bed is exposed for 50-100 yards. Last winter, an ice storm resulted in between 1-3 inches of ice. Normally good for a day off bike, but due to the state and county’s abject refusal to apply salt, this ice built up and clung to the dirt and back roads for over a month! Even with my fat tire and air pressure lowered to 8 psi, I crashed twice within a half mile stretch, and ended up not riding at all for a six week period! Our snowfall just two weeks ago also resulted in a foundation of ice on all but state highways. I gave it a day, then took my fat tire out and crashed about a mile from home, while still on city streets! Again, no salt or treatment from the state or county, but the ice had worn down and melted within two days. What is the solution? Our state Senate Majority leader has simply thrown up his hands and gone on record as stating that Michigan has too many paved roads and we should let many of them return to gravel/dirt. Of course, he didn’t address how quickly the remaining paved surfaces will deteriorate with the added traffic, not to mention how he would address maintaining those gravel and dirt roads which are as rutted in many spots as the old Lewis and Clark trail I remember stumbling across as a kid while on a family vacation!
Next week I will review winter riding gear, lights, equipment, and tips to get you through. Just because its winter doesn’t mean you have to quit riding. Just because the weather and Mother Nature are being uncooperative, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the sights and the sounds of the season. There is an awful lot to be said for the sound of snow fall…or the sound of a bicycle tire crunching through freshly fallen snow…or seeing the holiday light displays at a leisurely pace.
Ride safe. Ride hard. And don’t give up your rights. FDR was right. The only thing we have to fear, IS fear itself. And running out of Scotch Ale. I’m terrified of that eventuality!