By now, nearly every cyclist in America has heard about Tuesday’s horrific incident in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in which a 50-year-old man in a pickup truck, driving erratically, struck and killed five cyclists, injuring four more. And chances are, nearly every one of them had a moment of PTSD recalling their own near-death experiences at the hand of some drunk, angry, or simply clueless motorist. I know I did.
It was a mileage ride. I had a nice little streak going, 12 straight weeks of 100-plus miles. I wanted to keep the streak going, and I wasn’t going to let a little rain stop me. So I kitted up to do an easy 10 miles in a light mist. I’d get it done, put it in the books and check off a 13th week.
About five miles in, I was hugging the right-hand shoulder of a two-lane country road, when I saw it: a giant black Chevy Suburban, doing way over the posted speed limit of 25 mph, coming straight at me, not just in my lane but on my shoulder. Screaming, I veered to the right, up onto a grassy embankment — fatefully, thankfully, luckily — free of curbs, mailboxes or pedestrians. My lungs heaving with fear and my pulse pounding in my ears, I slowed to a halt.
I looked back down the road and saw the Chevy veering back into the proper lane.
In a second, fueled by a potent if not prudent cocktail of adrenaline and anger, I took off after the truck. Mark Cavendish couldn’t have kept up with me as I kept one eye on the car and one on the slick yellow lines that defined my lane. After just a couple of minutes, the Suburban pulled into the crushed stone driveway of a beautifully restored farm house I had ridden past at least 500 times on my regular route from my house to the hills of central New Jersey. I pulled up behind him, my pulse soaring.
The driver got out of the car and weaved a couple of steps. He was drunk. It was 2 p.m. on a Saturday. This guy’s liquid lunch had almost killed me, left my wife a widow at 36, and my three kids orphans before they were four.
He slammed the car door. His jaw dropped when he saw me.
“You almost killed me,” I seethed, fists cocked. I could smell the booze as I closed the distance to him, my cleats slipping on the wet stones.
He was about my age. Paunchy, with a mop of rangy hair. He held a legal portfolio in one hand, and raised it in front of himself like a shield.
His response has stayed with me over a decade: “Buddy, if I had hit you, my life would be over.”
I looked at his ride, which weighs more than two tons. And I looked at mine, which weighs about 22 pounds.
“No,” I spat. “My life would be over. Nothing would happen to you. You nearly killed me, you asshole.”
And that’s the sad truth. He would have killed me, and very little, if anything, would have happened to him. Because if you want to kill someone in America and have a decent chance of getting away with it, scot-free, all you need to do is climb behind the wheel of a car and hit a cyclist. There’s a good chance you won’t even face a fine, let alone jail time. Most states recognize a cyclist’s right to be on the road, but few do anything to protect riders from vehicles, assuming that a cyclist is aware of the risks of sharing the road with semis. Get hit by a car making a right-hand turn? That’s the chance you take. Tell that to the 700 or so cyclists who are killed every year by cars in the United States.
There are more than 210 million drivers in the United States, three times more than the 67 million people who have ridden a bike in the last 12 months. We live in a country defined by cars and roads. This isn’t Belgium or Holland or even France, where cyclists are given their own lanes, protected from traffic by luxurious berms. I’ve ridden on mountain roads in France and Italy where drivers waited patiently for a place to pass our group of cyclists taking up space on the road. I’ve had full cans of Natty Light pitched at me from speeding cars while I rode alone down a rural road in upstate New York, way over on the shoulder, minding my own business. I have no idea what it is about bikes that inspire such anger in some drivers. Perhaps I’m slowing them down on their way to their anger-management sessions.
But I do know that I ride far more defensively now than I ever have, and I avoid roads now that I once freewheeled. I obsessively obey traffic laws, not wanting to give a driver an excuse to let loose on me, to say nothing of protecting my own ass and being a good citizen. And I assume that every driver out there is a drunken lunatic trying to text and change the radio station at the same time.
After all, if I manage to avoid them, maybe I can, you know, make sure their lives don’t end.