Ambassadors of the Bike
By Curt Thompson
I ride to work once in a while with a good friend of mine, Elena, whose office is a couple buildings down from me. Although our morning commute does involve riding, it is much more a chance for her and I to talk, swap stories, ponder life, and generally shoot the bull than it is about actually getting somewhere. It’s a bit of early morning therapy, prepping us for the weirdness we know the day will hold. It was on one of these rides in to work that she shared this story with me.
After riding into work one day Elena decided to catch a bus back home. So, helmet in hand and backpack full of cycling clothing, Elena hops on the bus. The bus quickly fills with college students heading the same direction, and a young girl of about twenty sits down in the empty seat next to her.
The two girls sit and have a pleasant conversation about pleasant things, and enjoy the pleasant company that is often hard to come by on public transportation. The girl then asks Elena why she has her helmet with her, thus starting the conversation about cycling and cyclists. Elena explains to her that she had ridden into work and was taking the bus home so she could make it to an appointment. Without thinking, the young girl responds with, “Oh I hate it when I am trying to get somewhere and I get stuck behind one of those biker people. Why don’t they ride on the sidewalk? I usually just honk until they move over so I can pass.”
Letting her sharp tongue precede her thought, Elena says, “This is where our friendship ends dear.”
The girl winces and stares at her, mouth about a quarter open, eyebrows raised. Elena notices her discomfort, and quickly starts talking, keeping the girl from dwelling too long on the previous statement, and avoiding the possible ugly scene of an over-sensitive girl weeping on the bus.
Over the next twenty-five minutes, Elena explains to the girl what it is actually like to be cycling, and to suddenly be gripped with fear as someone honks furiously behind you. She explains the fact that cyclists have the same rights as cars on public roads, and that there are certain roads cyclists avoid, and certain ones they frequent. Elena also touches on the fact that people ride bikes for many different reasons; for health, for transportation, and for sport. None of these reasons though should seem offensive to drivers, and that being courteous to traffic in general is a much better and less stressful way to go. She even tells the girl that some cyclists, like drivers, can be aggressive and just plain rude, and that she shouldn’t judge them all by the actions of just one.
When the young girl signaled to get off the bus, Elena told her she was glad they could still be friends. The girl agreed, and hopefully, she got off the bus with a new patience for cyclists, and more than anything, a new view of the culture that can frustrate her, but that she did not understand before.
Over the years of cycling, I have seen some very ugly behavior, by both drivers and cyclists. And unfortunately, because a cyclist is out in the open, dressed so visibly in bright greens and yellows, poor behavior by us seems to attract more attention than someone in a car. We should all be ambassadors to our sport, and unfortunately this means that sometimes we will have to just suck it up and be the bigger person to avoid a rather public and heated conflict. I believe that in the long run drivers will end up respecting us more because of it.
More than anything though, we should jump at those opportunities to talk to people while we are not on the bike to educate them and make them more aware of what commuting to work by bike is like. We may actually get more people out on bikes with a better attitude from ourselves.