Strength and Weakness

I feel like doing a little preaching.  If you aren’t in the mood, you’ve been warned.

My sermon will concern itself with the evils of scorching.  Que?  When bicycles first appeared in our communities over 125 years ago, they were some of the fastest things on the road.  As they became more common, good folks everywhere were up in arms over the dangers presented by “scorchers.”

Quaint historical oddity with zero relevance to contemporary civilization?  I think not.  Bicycles are no longer the fastest things on the road and the word scorcher has fallen out of use (as applied to fast pedalers), but people still worry about scorchers.  Every time a law to protect bicyclists in enacted, commenters jump at the chance to complain about about scofflaw bicyclists.  By in large, I think they are right to complain.  Bicycles can injure and kill.  Predictable road manners promote safe road sharing.  Following traffic laws is a great way to be predictable (when traffic laws were uniformly followed by all road users).

Are you a scorcher?  Shame on you!  You are making it easier for folks to be hating on all bicyclists (not to generalize, but you have to admit haters are famous generalizers).  I’ve had enough hate, thank you very much.  Let’s stop giving them ammo!  Repent!

I’ll start by giving scorchin’ sinners the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe they ride fast because it makes them feel safe.  When pedaling on city streets, even cars going the speed limit seem to be going dangerously fast.  They are.  Maybe scorchers feel that keeping up with traffic is safer than being passed.  If you pedal fast enough to keep up with traffic, though, you are simply trading risks, and statistics suggest you’ve made a bad trade.  While pedaling in a city, you should worry more about stopping than being passed.  Bicycles are very rarely sideswiped or rear ended by cars.  Sure it can happen–it did to a friend of mine–but there are statistically greater dangers.  If you get hit, odds are it will be either a left hook (oncoming vehicle makes a left turn into your path) or a right hook (passing vehicle makes a right turn into your path).  In the face of a left or right hook, going fast is more often than not a liability.  Stopping is very often your only hope.  Pedaling slower to begin with will increase the chance you’ll be able to avoid the statistically greater risk.  Worried about getting passed more?  Get a helmet mirror!  It helps!

Some scorching churchgoers may not be persuaded by statistics or fear of injury.  If you can ride safely without worrying about getting injured or injuring others, I offer a heartfelt amen! to you.  I have enjoyed this feeling at times.  More when I was younger and never for long.  Now I often think about the dangers I face (and present) even before I get on a bicycle.  I have even skipped rides when I decided the errand was not sufficiently important to justify the risk.  You might think this is sad, but for now my fear is of a quantity and quality that I count it as my friend.  It’s a healthy fear which allows pedaling joy to coexist.

Maybe you have little or no fear, though, and you think it is your right to go as fast as you can make your bicycle go (up to the posted speed limit).  Because the traffic bible says so.  Maybe you are late for work, training for a race or just enjoy hauling ass.  Bad ideas all.  Read your scriptures more carefully.  Fully understood, the speed limit is the lesser of (a) the posted limit and (b) the speed that is safe under the conditions.  Conditions to be considered are traffic, weather, visibility, road conditions, the condition of your vehicle and the presence of pedestrians, animals or other vulnerable road users.  Who cares about speed limits, though?  Almost unheard of for a bicyclist to get a speeding ticket, so why worry?  Tough to be so nonchalent in a courtroom when facing criminal charges or a civil suit.  If you hit someone while pedaling, you want to be able to show both that you were going under the posted limit and under the speed that was safe under the circumstances.  The only way you can assure that outcome in the courtroom is to pedal slower than the posted speed limit and the speed that is safe under the circumstances every time you pedal.  You never know when the pedestrian is going to step off the curb.

Still feel like scorching?  I understand.  Let it be known I was the worst of the worst as a kid.  I used to terrorize pedestrians along the lakeside multi-use trail in Chicago.  Never hurt anyone, but that was pure luck.  In NYC, I did once use as a crash pillow an investment banker (had the suit, anyway).  He must have been a football lineman in his college days–he was huge!  I went over my bars and crumpled into his chest.  He didn’t fall over.  He didn’t even budge an inch!  He walked away without a word and I collected myself and pedaled away.  I’ve all but given it up, but once in awhile it does feel good to go a little faster than normal.  For me in the city that means maybe 15 mph on the flat, a little more downhill.  Never enough to raise an eyebrow, but still maybe too fast if the planets line up wrong.

What to do?  The thought that keeps me in check more effectively than any other is my desire to be a good neighbor.  To survive and thrive in a city, I need to be concerned about myself and others every time I go outside.  Every interaction matters.  I can either have a positive impact on my community or a negative one.  I get to decide.  Too abstract?  Picture yourself on the front page of your local paper following an accident you caused.  That’s enough to get me pedaling backward on my coaster brake hub.

One more amen!, please, as my need to preach (and confess) has been purged.  I’d be pumped if you read through this and learned not a thing (because you knew it all already).  I’d also be pumped if a few scorchers read it and gave it some thought.  If you still think a city is a good place to bicycle at high speeds, just let me know before you head out for a ride.  I will gladly stay inside and listen to my hifi.  I’ll try harder to pedal safer, too.



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