Monday, September 26, 2005

Sometimes it's the little things (part 2)

Went for an evening ride to the grocery store to pick up the makings for dinner. On the way, I rode in high gear, baskets, bags and all flying at over 20 MPH. I'm not sure if it was the big grin or the big helmet, but folks gave me lots of sidewise glances in the store.

On the way back home, the sky over the mountains exploded with color. It was right in that spot that you can only catch shaky glimpses of in your car's sideview mirror. So, another great thing about being a cycler: Year Round Convertible. Oh yeah!

Sometimes it's the little things

Saturday morning, we were riding downtown to meet a friend for brunch. Riding in the bike lane, we passed a line of angle parked cars. A truck began backing out, and I kept riding and tried to make eye contact. I did. The driver glanced at me and immediately turned back around and continued backing directly towards me.

I had to brake to a stop while he completed his maneuver. It wasn't close or really even dangerous, but it's these little occurences that sometimes add up to a sense of non-belonging for everyday cyclers on the road. It would be nice to think we're all watching out for each other, motorists/cyclers/pedestrians, but it seems instead to degrade into a survival game. As a little guy, a cycler sometimes spends too much time trying not to get squashed.

The motorists who just don't care are somehow more disheartening than the overtly aggressive. The loudmouths are empowering, make me feel like I'm still in the fight. The quiet ignoring ones send the message that I've already lost.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

How dangerous is cycling?

I've been meaning to write up my latest fun use of bicycles: bikefishing! I'll get to that soon, including my 99 cent fly-rod carrier. Meanwhile, as I biked the 12 miles home, I found myself musing about the relative safety of my transportation. Much of my route home follows the major north-south highway, which is known to be the most dangerous (for cars) in the state. When I tell people where I usually ride to fish, they generally answer with some variation of, "You must be crazy. I'd never ride that stretch!"

I'll admit the first time or two I was a little tense, especially when wedged between a guard rail and 4 lanes of high speed commuter traffic. It has become one of my favorite rides. The scenery is absolutely beautiful, and the terrain is varied and fun to ride. The next bit sounds made up but is entirely true.

I was riding along happily, watching the sun set on another lazy evening of fishing on my favorite small stream. I was thinking that I felt perfectly safe on this shoulder and was hard pressed to think of any remotely probable event that would undo me here. At that very moment, two semi's pulling tall loads of hay passed me. Usually, truckers are especially courteous to me on this road. This time, though, one was passing the other, and this precluded the near one from giving me any extra room. The near truck was too close for comfort, and the combined air disruption (plus probably my own reaction of mild panic) really knocked the bike around.

I was fine and continued on, but it did start me thinking about just how safe a visible, competent a cycler is. Jeff P. of OYB fame has been musing lately about how things are foolishly flipped around bewtween motorists and cyclers. That is, people in cars are really the ones at great risk, but it's cyclers who are always getting the safety rundown (helmets, anyone?). My gut feeling is that he's right, that motorists ought to have the helmets and 4-point harnesses, and cyclers ought to ride and not worry so much. It's hard to directly compare, though, given the HUGE difference between bike hours and car hours on the road. Of course we hear of and actually witness many more car accidents.

Has anyone seen a study that directly addresses risks to bicycle riders per hour ridden on roads? What would a good survey look like? The late Ken K. did a preliminary survey of this type in 2001. In his (small) sample, riders went about 1600 hours between injuries, which acording to Ken's comments suggested a rider is at more risk of injury than a motorist. The caveat, of course, is that the severity of injuries might be much less, on average, on a bike. This seems especially plausible since few of the reported injuries in his survey were the result of a car/bike crash (most were falls).

I agree with Jeff P. that a larger component of perceived risk is just that--perception--and does not correlate directly with statistical reality. I feel at greater risk on my bike in situations like the trucks' passing closely because I sense my vulnerability. Part of it may also be social conditioning. While I'm often told that I'm cycling dangerous roads, I'm rarely told that I'm driving dangerous roads, etc. I'd welcome your comments on this.

Monday, September 19, 2005

A Ride Up Blackfoot Canyon

A light rain settles in for the evening, and high, lead grey clouds hurry toward the canyon. It's the sort of scene that beckons a cycler. And few others.

I zip past stalled traffic beating a dreary path home after the football game. The damp faces are eerie, peering out curiously at me from steam soaked glass. I start thinking of the procession as some sort of zombie march. I also wonder what they're thinking of me: a lone cycler in the rain, riding through Hellgate Canyon, now turning north into that ominous scene in Blackfoot Canyon with three hours of murky daylight to see him through. If there's something to be learned as a cycler, it's to become comfortable being the crazy one.

By the time I crest the small hill that climbs away from the freeway overpass, the rain has moved off ahead of me. A wide valley's worth of storm pushes and squeezes its way into the narrow canyon ahead. Without the cooling rain, my layers are a bit much. I stop to zip the sleeves off of my first piece of "high tech" cycling gear, newly acquired. I vastly prefer riding in muted colors and quiet, natural fibers. However, I finally decided that a bright, windproof layer might be a good investment in safety for an often solo cycler. I tried on a few jackets at the local shops and settled for the Pearl Izumi Vagabond. It was by far the quietest of the plastic cocoons I tried. It was shield-your-eyes yellow, which is the only color approved by dreary drizzle expert and internet friend Kent P. over in western Washington. And, it was made in Macau, which I think means I can still sleep at night.

Sweating, on the shoulder of a busy highway is probably not the time to learn how the sleeves of my new high tech windshirt detach. Four zippers, four velcro patches, and an embarrassing number of minutes later, I have a vest! I roll up and tuck away the sleeves, think "Wow, those would be easy to lose," and head off again toward my shrouded destination.

Tucking and grinning down a steep hill, I descend to one of my favorite stretches of road down along the Clark Fork River. Here, as it should be, the road has to narrow and tiptoe between the rock bluff on the left and the river on the right. The constant scent of the river compensates for the narrow shoulder, and I break my rhythm to breathe deep a moment before pedaling on.

A few miles more down the frontage road, and I hang a left past the sprawling Stimson Lumber mill. Not so noticeable in a car, but from a bike the sheer scale of the place is humblingly apparent. Even at this hour, steam still pours out of one of the stacks and the steady hum of machinery echoes around the yard. Mesmerized by the ghostly scene, I almost forget the railroad tracks, and I have a scary moment going too fast over the wet rails. No slips, though, and I spin along past the row of mill houses. Hardwood trees in a tight canopy line the street and conceal the mill. They're out of place here in western Montana, but in some ways in just the right place as they drip with rain and irony. We share a laugh, I think.

As the canopy opens, the roiling Blackfoot River appears below the road as both wind into the canyon. The rain and wind are back now, each wave of the storm waiting its turn to blow upcanyon. I enjoy the cooling effect for a few miles and then stop to zip on the sleeves of my windshirt. I spin on, gradually climbing between rock and river. The rain picks up, but the wind is still generally behind me and helps cancel the slope of the road.

The river, perhaps fifty or a hundred feet below me, seems to move past in slow motion. I can concentrate on a current swirl and follow its sinewy path downstream. Going slowly is much more than not going fast. The rock walls of the canyon have currents of their own, or at least memories of them. Undulating seams of rock, now level, now folded, rising and falling like the photograph of a moving river. I ponder how long ago this or that unusual layer was deposited, when it was pressed down, when it was heaved up. Transferred memories of those events make me wonder at the present tumult in this canyon. The rocks must chuckle at little rainstorms.

I join the rocks in a laugh, too. Sometimes I think we feel the same way tucked into our homes or cars or offices, oblivious to or uninterested in anything but extremes of weather. On a bicycle, senses are reawakened, the smallest of breezes felt, and even a little canyon rainstorm becomes an adventure. A cycler is quickly reminded how fragile he is, how dependent he has become on protections from nature. But, the heightening of senses is addictive. It easily overcomes any discomfort, especially in memory, and leads to cyclers riding off into dark canyons for an evening fix.

Miles slip away as I ponder all of this. Eyes back to the road for a narrow bridge, a cluster of cars passes. Their passing in this narrow canyon can only be described as violent. My shoulders tense as each wave of noise creeps up the canyon wall behind me and overtakes. Perhaps part of our dulled senses is adaptation to the noise of our machinery. Or, maybe those are just musings borne from tired legs.

Just beyond the bridge, a lone car closes in from the opposite direction. As it gets close, a hand waves out the window and a voice shouts something positive. Encouragement? Solidarity? Mistaken identity? Whatever, the human interaction is somehow encouraging, and my legs find new purpose up the long hill ahead.

The canyon is a remote place. Up here, the thought that an hour and a half on a bicycle could get one to a modern city seems laughable. The fact that I know it's true doesn't make it more real. Houses here seem braced for something in the old style. Nothing sits exposed. The few buildings are as humble as the rocks are proud. It's a place that whispers of short springs and autumns and long winters. Summer seems a memory even now in mid-September. I haven't seen any services in twelve or fourteen miles. The rain picks up and the wind whips behind me. I pick a point at the top of the next hill, climb there, and pull off to munch a hard bagel and listen to the wind.

Immediately to my right is a fenced compound that apparently raises wolves. The thought of them fits a day like this, but I'm secretly glad not to be here at night. Those howls in this canyon could scare a cycler right off his saddle. The bicycle lets me visit this world, but it doesn't let me belong here. Those wheels always want to keep moving, however slowly, toward the place I fit, a place I may never find but that I'm always happy to look for.

Now they're rolling back towards home, and warmth, and food. But, heading into wind, and rain, and creeping darkness. I spin slowly towards home. On the bicycle, I alternate between trying to cheat the wind and sit up into the brunt of it. It's a balance many of us modern outdoorsmen seek to strike with nature. We want to enjoy nature headlong, on its terms, every day a new story to tell. But, who among us hasn't felt the smug satisfaction of subduing nature, just for a minute, and meeting nature on our terms with plastic windshirts cutting through the overmatched air. If I were to look down just now, I would see my old cyclecomputer telling me that either way I'm going too slow to beat the darkness. The little bit of wired technology itself has only the power to tell me that I'm always on nature's terms.

The absurdity of a tiny cycler pushing alone against a canyon full of wind cartoonishly fills my mind. I pedal hard in a 52-inch gear to maintain nine or ten miles per hour downhill. The rain is getting colder and stinging my face. About then I notice my latest handiwork out in front of the handlebars. Perhaps as penance for my indulgent new outerwear, I had whittled a thick, dry stick into an elevated light mount before the ride. I left it roughly finished, the scalloped wood giving my hands something to feel and my eye something to wander across. Every bike needs a little warmth like this. Grant P. at Rivendell calls it "organicalizing." This carved stick in the woods would be nothing. Among the steel, aluminum, molded rubber and plastic of a bicycle, though, the piece of wood is unabashedly beautiful. Maybe that's how one should view this canyon. Is it more beautiful because its beauty has survived the roads and houses? Would the river's sound be lost without the contrast of whirring machines? I don't know, but I'm happy to be riding here.

I saw no other bicycles on this popular road today. Usually a few sleek riders whiz by, but this was a day for cyclers. This is, after all, what we train for.