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Rage 1587

I have developed a perception of death. Death happens if and when I can’t ride my bikes anymore. And not the other way around. Day in day out, every single day, I sometimes wonder how on earth I can stay motivated to ride so persistently; especially when the experience, sometimes, is less than pleasant. It’s not as though I have nothing else to do, despite what our neighbours might think and say (and say they do, apparently). So, when is the riding experience less than pleasant? When the hills are really, really tough?  No, for reasons I don’t understand, I love riding up hills. Is it when it rains and howls a headwind gale on a near zero fridge/freezer day? No, there’s technical gear for that and, really, the sheer ludicrousness of riding in such conditions gives a kind of perverse pleasure. 

When then, does the cycling experience turn bad? When some car driving troll tries to run me off the road, or worse. 

All cyclists know about this one. It happens frequently. 

Maintaining a long term cycling habit implies some kind of coping routine through which to recover from every incident of this kind, presuming, of course, that we survive the latest assault. 

Think about it. How many other endeavours involve the necessity to recover from potentially fatal encounters with the deep, deep darkside of abject, and usually unmitigated human aggression? Add to that the fact that cycling is an endeavour that we do voluntarily, and with enthusiasm, and passion. How many other pleasures could sustain such a persistent onslaught of outrageous hatred directed, almost always, at us without any kind of reasoned cause? This hatred is extraordinarily unbalanced. While we might hate at least some car drivers and more than a few car drivers might hate us, it is the expression of this hatred that is the problem here. I have no liking for any car driver unless that car driver proves him or herself worthy of my respect (usually by not trying to run me over). I react like most other people when some troll vomits abuse from the lounge chair comforts of his (almost aways, his) car window, or cuts me off, or, like yesterday, actually chased me down and baled me up in the middle of a shopping mall suggesting that I should depart this earth in a most timely way. If not at his hand, then by some other person’s righteous hand. While I might have repetitive strain injury in the middle finger of my right hand, do I attempt to run car drivers off the road with my bike? Do I slam on my brakes in order to promulgate a painful collision? Do I ride around, through and over cars expecting them to get out of my way when they have the right of way? I can prove that I don’t do any of these things. I am still alive. At least for today.

If this were any other endeavour, I’d probably have given up by now. Assuming sado-masochism is not on the cards, why bother to keep on attracting a seemingly never ending barrage of abuse from the dark side of the human race? Wouldn’t it be cleverer to cosy up to water colour painting or wood turning instead? I don’t know the answer to this. I do not enjoy encounters of this kind. I try to wash the fallout from my mind within seconds of each event. But you’d have to be a pretty accomplished buddhist monk to pull off that rather extreme perfection of equanimity. It is always a struggle not to allow each encounter to accumulate into an ever deepening pool of destructive resentment. Which rather implies that the positives from cycling must be pretty profound to push back the impact of anti-cyclist vitriol and supremely unconstrained motorist ignorance. On balance, the equation balances out in cycling’s favour. At least it does for me. But I know of cyclists who can’t keep the equation balanced. They give up. Or stick to mountain biking instead. And yes, I have engaged in cycle commuting in the big angry city. Really, cycle commuting in Sydney is, on balance, a more ‘comprehensible’ endeavour than the kind of rural cycling with which I am engaged these days. Around here, the breeding pool from which car drivers are selected is rather smaller and less discerning, and education is so frequently all done in by the age of five. 

So how do we cope with and overcome the exhibitions of car driver hate? And cope we must if we want to continue to ride on public roads. 

I have no doubt that the best response it to ride predicatably, courteously, righteously and passively with the equanimity of a buddhist master. Do the right thing and never, ever, let them get you down. If you are abused, wave and smile. If someone runs you over, show genuine concern over the panel damage you might have caused to their car. Offer to wash your blood off their bonnet. Bless them and be on your way. Or apologise for inconveniencing them if an ambulance is needed to take you away. 

Clearly, this committed misanthropist is challenged by an approach of that kind. Only this year, a fellow cyclist I know and for whom I have genuine regard (not frequently given by me as many who know me would attest), was killed by a hit and run encounter with a car driver on our local rural roads.

I use my misanthropy to sustain me in my cause. I will not let that minority of car driver trash keep me from the biggest and greatest passion of my life. They will not win. They will not prevail. But I will not let the desolations perpetrated by car-drivers build to a consuming hate that taints the purity of whatever it is that keeps cycling alive for me, year in, year out. 

One insight that helps is that the kind of car driver that I encountered yesterday are a minority. And that their toxicity is fuelled and cooked in the ovens of their cars. When they step out of their vehicles, they turn into just ordinary, unlikable, generally harmless non-entities of the kind it is easy to ignore. 

It helps me to classify car drivers into a kind of toxicity scale. 

At the bottom are those who are, simply, ignorant. These drivers are not aggressive, in any kind of considered way, to cyclists, or even in possession of any definitive attitude towards those who choose to ride bikes on their roads. These drivers are usually just as ignorant of the rights of other car drivers to use what they believe to be their space on the road. This kind cuts everyone off. This kind think nothing of overtaking any other road user and then slamming on the brakes to turn left 20 metres down the road. The problem for us cyclists is that we are particularly invisible to car drivers of this kind. Their car-induced comas generally admit the possibility of giving space to, possibly, a truck; but, never, ever, to a cyclist. This is the behaviour of people who fully absorb the sensations of removal that sitting in a tin box seems to encourage. The world outside of their car becomes a kind of video game where the only real person is him or herself. They probably never spare a thought for the cyclist they have just cut off enroute to turning left. They never see the middle finger raised in the trail of resentment they blissfully leave behind. These drivers are dealt with most effectively through assuming that all car drivers are of that kind. We cyclists need and must assume the very worst if we are to stay alive. I know some cyclists think that taking on such an extreme stance of defensive riding tends to taint the experience of what should otherwise be our blissful rides; but I reckon if we ride as though every car driver has fangs and a predilection to strike, we can soon acclimatise to the realities of the road and the car-induced behavioural perversions that sitting in a climate controlled tin box seems to invoke. 

Next up the scale are those who are both ignorant and intentional in their hurling of abuse. These are the horn honkers, the window down ‘get off the road’ (or worse; much, much, worse) aggro bloatards who are so unaccountably annoyed that anyone should ever get in their way. We should take consolation that this kind also take umbrage to other car drivers as well. The aggravations from this level of the ‘toxic spectrum’ are short lived. When you take them out of their tin boxes, they almost seem normal, if not the kind you’d ever want to invite around to dinner. It is here, and only here, I think, that we cyclists can be successful in playing the ignore them routine. There is, generally, and by my definition at this level of the toxicity scale, a cap on how far this kind will go. Should they choose to get out of their car at the next set of traffic lights or roundabout to confront the cyclist victim of their hate, they have self-selected upwards to the next highest level on the scale.

That next level are pathologically disturbed. These are the people (usually male) who, via a flood of testosterone, will exit their car to raise a fist or deliver the very antithesis of a Shakespearian sonnet in the direction of the cyclist who, at least while ensconced in the delusional protections of their car, seemed  to be an easy target for the exercise of their territorial hate. A hatred that peters out very very quickly when standing man to cyclist outside the protections no longer on offer from their car. This kind are cowards. This is the kind who confronted me the other day. This rather time ravaged bloke with a fascinating lack of front teeth and an astounding inability to string more than five words together before brain fade, burst out of his SUV to confront me in the pedestrian mall where he saw me pull up. The fist I knew of his presence was when he pushed his body right up against me, bloated stomach and gap toothed red-necked rage as physically forced as he might without using his fists,  to articulate his intention to ‘do me here and now’. Whatever a fat enfeebled 60 year old might imagine he could actually inflict on someone, let’s say, who was taller, fitter to many orders of a degree, and, most impressively, I thought, laughing in his face. ‘Do me for what?’ I enquired. ‘You think you own the road’ he suggested. ‘Really?’, I asked.  ‘Who was it that illegally overtook me at the traffic lights and then slammed on his brakes to turn right into some pastry shop?’ Yes, I gave his car a good slap to wake him up. Which was dumb because the then took off after me and swerved across the road in an attempt to knock me off my bike. I disappeared between two cars and he then took up the police car chase of his dreams to take a victory of confrontation in that mall. Or so he thought up until about a minute had elapsed from leaving the securities of his SUV. I rather ungraciously proffered some suggestions about his likely long-term residency in a low rent caravan park and accompanying lack of front teeth before he rather gave up the game only to reappear, half an hour later, in a last ditch attempt at a road block with his ample body and opened car door back at those traffic lights where we first met. I upset him again by ignoring him totally. With a practiced straight ahead focus on what I was asserting to be my uninterrupted ride. On reflection, I was also at my worst by way of response. I could see that this guy was rather past the stage of actually giving grievous bodily harm without the backup of his car. But I neglected to consider how he might have subsequently used that car to take me out. And, really, I was rather concerned that he might elect to kick my bike and take out some spokes as an alternative to his struggling inarticulate verbal abuse. I had my number one most treasured bike by my side; my Bianchi Oltre. That gave me pause for concern, then and through to now. 

And what if that tragic, enraged simpleton had turned out to be on the next level up my toxicity scale? What if as well as being ignorant, profoundly uneducated, and hyper aggressive, he’d also been willing to actually use his fists. Or worse, actually go the next step and run me over with his car without fear of consequence? Then, I would be in some other place. 

Fortunately, I have rarely encountered that kind who inhabit the enraged murder-end of the scale. They certainly exist. Cyclists are killed off by that kind every year. There is no defence from pathologically toxic characters of that kind. I have only ever met one of these, and my escape was lucky rather than the outcome of some kind of considered strategy. I survived  because he was driving a truck and I managed to escape between two cars as he attempted to throw me off the Urunga bridge, into the river below. Literally. My crime was to simply be on the road, in a 50km/hour urban zone. There was no verbal intercourse on my part. I was simply doing a Cavendish sprint to avoid this truck driver who had most intentionally tried to run me off the road to the point where he almost hit a tree with his b-double truck. What a man! And what a man he wasn’t when he exited his vehicle to confront me on the bridge. Stubby shorts, thongs, fluro singlet, lots and lots of body hair, five foot six, and 11 months pregnant with fat. And a terry towelling hat.  Only the residual image was funny. I have never seen such vitriolic burning hate  before. 

So, yes, I have seen them all and survived, at least until today. I am not going to give up because I love to ride and riding is my thing. 

I can only recommend a simple strategy here. We can never really know where an aggravated car driver fits on the toxicity scale until we have made his unpleasant acquaintance and that is an encounter we should go out of our way to avoid. So, the strategy I use and recommend (as best I can given my imperfections with dealing with humans of this kind) is to treat all car drivers as, at best, ignorant and dangerous until their actions prove otherwise. Never, assume we will be given the right of way. Always stick to the road rules to avoid confrontations where we can be officially judged in the wrong, and learn to forget as fast as we can. Why give toxic losers rent free space in our minds? These types should never be privileged above the pleasures we take from riding our bikes. They are not worth the space of our attention other than for the duration avoiding them requires. 

One other recommendation is to consider one observation I’ve made trough over thirty years of riding on the road. The vast majority of car drivers are simply incapable of recognising the different ‘tribes’ to which we cyclists belong. Most car drivers cannot separate a difference in likely behaviour between casual cyclists and serious shaved legged, lycra wearing roadies. Or any class of cyclist between. To these drivers, all cyclists are simply pedestrians on wheels. We all ride at 5km per hour and are, like roadkill or truck spill, something to overtake or otherwise pass without forethought or consideration. Nearly every bad encounter I have ever had with car drivers was the result of their profound ignorance of my capacity to more than keep pace with cars at least around town. I cannot count the number of times I have been overtaken by car drivers while I was, at least, at the legal posted speed limit. The desperation these drivers exhibit to overtake what their simian brain perceives as an almost stationary road obstacle is often something to behold. And is frequently astoundingly dangerous to both me and other road users. And guess who gets the blame when the overtaking car driver almost collects an oncoming car via his or her profound misjudgment? It’s at this point that that frequent accusation of me being ‘insane’ originates. When forced to reflect on a near miss, any car driver I ‘question’ post-encounter almost always shifts blame to their perception of my insanity to ride in such an unexpectedly rash way. Whereas, my perception is of myself as a road user obeying the road rules and travelling at pace with the prevailing traffic. Most car drivers simply cannot conceive of a cyclist who can keep up with their car driving brethren, or indeed, that a cyclist could possibly be a legitimate vehicle for travel on those roads. Most people do not like their perceptions to be shocked in such an unseemly way.  Most people don’t like to countenance the merest possibility that perceptions alternative to their own might even exist.The proof of concept of this behavioural theory is that these self same car drivers also treat truck drivers the exact same way. I have discussed this at length with a few truck drivers I know. These car drivers with an ‘overtake at all costs’ mentality are the bane of truck drivers as well. 

The message here is that even if you do look like a GC level pro-cyclist and you are riding a bike worth more than just about any car on the road, you will be grouped with those twice a year, shopping bag-on-the-handlebars, street-clothed, wobble cyclists who really can’t travel at more than 20km per hour. 

As a related piece of advice, I have this controversy to add: never, ever, ride on the edge of the road. That is absolutely asking for death by being run over. Most car drivers are, let us say, somewhat less talented at the art of driving than the designers of those cars might have intended. When you ride on the edge of the road, you will find yourself being overtaken as a matter of course and with even less consideration than you would receive when riding in the middle of your lane. When you encounter that overtaking car, you will be encountering the non-driver side. The possibilities for your survival depend entirely on how well that driver judges where, exactly, the off side of his car might be in relation to you. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t ever want to be giving the average car driver the benefit of the doubt in relation to his or her driving skills. Not when the loser in such a judgement call will always be the cyclist. If you ride on the edge of the road you are only reinforcing the drivers’ perception that you are an obstacle on the road to be by-passed. And you will be putting your life in the hands of that driver’s driving skills. Why would anyone do that? It makes absolutely no sense. Ride in the middle of your lane unless you are riding up a really steep hill that is wide enough to accommodate three vehicles abreast (you, the overtaking car and the inevitable car coming the other way – which will force the overtaking driver to crowd you off the road even more). But even then I stick to the middle of the lane. 

I cannot reinforce the last point more other than to say that casual cyclists who persist on riding on the edge of their lane are not just putting their own lives on the line. They are endangering all cyclists through reinforcing car driver attitudes and behaviours that are at least as deadly as a deranged nutter blasting away with a shotgun in a shopping mall. If every cyclist rode in the middle of their lane, car drivers would soon get the message. Cyclists require an at least basic degree of thought to overtake. Even if in so doing those car drivers feel the need to vent some rage. Just watch out for the nutters who live further up the toxic driver scale. If they pass and seek to confront, pass them by and don’t interact. Hopefully you will survive. 

Having said all that, to avoid the accumulation of driver-rage induced misanthropic sludge in my mind, I recommend taking regularly to the mountain bike (in the dirt, where mountain bikes exclusively belong), or to the freedoms of riding remote rural dirt roads on a cyclocross bike. Drivers out there are, almost always, of a vastly more benign kind. A ride on a remote rural road or cross country where cars can’t go is the recharge I need to stay on the road. Sometimes, that recharge takes some time. All roadies should invest in a mountain bike! And a GoPro video camera for their handlebars. For evidence in court. 

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Darth vader face

Riding up to a roundabout with the due caution of potential death, disfigurement and, worse, damage to one’s bike, I noticed the peculiar sound of a screeching yobbo projectile vomiting every four letter word that his 24kb brain could muster.  I don’t know what, exactly, he was saying despite his efforts to elevate his thoughts via sticking his ugly foam drooling face out the window of his penis-statement-making SUV, because I was listening to a vastly more entertaining podcast instead. But, I got the gist as he started to honk his horn while wildly conducting a flabby arm and one finger routine through which to choreograph his vocal wit. I was, you see, in his way. For once, I simply ignored the tirade, but I do confess I did slow down even more so that others could more completely savour this scene. Particularly the policeman standing beside his car just over the road. Outside his police station.Watching and shaking his head. Oh well, I guess that kind of behaviour is no longer a crime. I rode on, the troll drove off – seething and fuming over the 0.000006 second delay.

It’s irrelevant that my speed is usually at least matching the pace of the traffic in this car bloated town. Or that, indeed, we cyclists usually negotiate roundabouts with greater precision than the crash derby set ever achieve with their 2 tonne SUV’s. It’s irrelevant (if not horrendously disconcerting to) these NeanderCarls  that we actually have the legal right to be on the road, or that we are saving fuel for them to use, and gassing them less, and taking up less space. No matter.  To their 24kb minds the complexities of the world reduce to: bike bad, truck good. Big important, small not.

I’ve been reading Tom Vanderbilt’s interesting book ‘Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us). While not exactly a revelation of extraordinary insight, the book is a handy synthesis of notions scanned via what must have been years of library trawling (or, more likely, a few intense Google sessions). There’s an anecdote for all occasions. And I was in search of insight to explain my recent roundabout incident, not to mention my other pet cyclist-car driver peeves:

  • why do car drivers always try to overtake serious cyclists when riding downhill; especially when we are at least keeping up with the cars in front
  • why do car drivers always try to overtake cyclists (of any kind) when a car is coming from the opposite direction
  • why do car drivers hate coming up behind cyclists at traffic lights, roundabouts and every other place where we are more than matching everyone else’s speed
  • why the seething hatred some drivers are so keen to display
  • why do car drivers never, ever, give way to cyclists with the right of way
  • how is it possible for drivers to be blind to a cyclist wearing, say, a full fluoro-green Green Edge cycling kit while being completely tuned to cars colour-matched to the road, or to a grey rain challenged sky.

It seems that eye-to-eye communication is a key. Apparently, humans have evolved to resolve the complexities of communication through the proxy of a good old eye-to-eye stare. Think of The Look made famous by Lance Armstrong: a momentary eye-to-eye contact through which to establish who is predator and who is prey. Smash the enemy with a piercing glance. Prick their confidence with a single Look. Better than words, or a neon sign. A simple connection from eye to eye can make your message incredibly clear. Yes, connections from eye-to eye will certify all kinds of messages when you are out on the road. And that is one big problem when it comes to cars, or more precisely, for their drivers shrouded by a wall of sun-tinted glass and opaque tin. Cars filter our capacity for eye contact like a desert sand storm or a veil of hail. How do you make your connection when you can’t see to person to whom your thoughts are aimed? It’s like trying to make eye contact with Darth Vader. Under that disguise, who knew the man within is a feeble damaged mess propped up by an electronic array? Who new that the horn blasting troll giving you a hard time is really a flab-bellied, retirement-aged history teacher letting loose the frustrations of a lifetime of being beaten up by his wife…

With the disconnect of being unable to see eye-to-eye, motorists tend to behave differently than they would when their gaze is more exposed. Humans deprived of eye-to-eye contact tend to interact with less restraint than they would when standing face to face. How many people do you know who would scream abuse over such minor matters as a contested right of way when standing face to face as they might when under the shroud of anonymity afforded by their cars? Eye-to-eye contact tends to keep us civilised. We are adapted to transmit petabytes of evolutionarily accumulated social nuance and context via the electric shock of eye-to-eye contact. Take that away and we revert to social-context disarmed anarchy. Just as can be observed in internet chat rooms and the like. Or anonymous hate messages graffitied on public walls. It’s all to do with firing off our base primitive dysfunctional urges via the safety of being out of range. Of retaliation. Or recognition.

This all goes some way to explaining the behaviour we see on the roads. And bad behaviour is certainly not just targeted at cyclists. It’s all about the otherwise meek and mild awakening their beasts within once inside their cars. Everyone becomes a target of a road-raged tin-shielded troll.

So what happens when a car-shielded road troll encounters the blazingly lighthouse-like beacon of a cyclist’s unshrouded eyes? It’s at this point that Tim Vanderbilt’s book runs out of steam.

Car drivers can be breathtakingly anonymous. Cyclists (and middle-aged open topped sports car drivers) are at the opposite extreme. Not withstanding deep-tinted cycling glasses, helmets or tweed driving caps. It’s as though we cyclists are making an extreme statement of un-anonyminity. Perhaps we are like peacocks with tails to display. When we ride a bike, we are as stripped of a place to hide as a swimmer clad in nothing but speedos on the beach. We become a magnet in search of eye-to-eye communication. The anthesis of hiding under a shield of tin. Provocatively exposed to the communicative possibilities of face directed at face. Could this be construed by the 24kb NeanderCarl brain as something of a threat? Could be we construed as a confrontation; a I-dare-you-to-say-that-to-my-face assault to those who prefer to fire their tirades from the safety of a two tonne automotive shield?

When you think about it, most car driver road rage is executed much more by way of a drive-by assault than as a man-to-man* engagement on the front line. Yes, sometimes road rage unravels to the physicality of fisticuffs, and only then when a cyclist is silly enough to take the extraordinarily unexpected turn to fight back. But that’s much rarer than abuse delivered via a car horn along with a finger out the window. Road ragers would rather hit you with their car than they would with their fists. They are cowards by definition. But irrespectively, if you de-shrouded these people from their cars and put them eye to eye with those to whom their abuse is aimed, I’d bet their behaviour would be cooled quicker than the engines they’d be forced to leave aside.

If you doubt the power of eye-to-eye contact to defuse a road raged scene, try this experiment. I have tried it many times. It has worked every time. If you can, pull up beside the troll giving you a hard time (maybe when you are both stopped at a set of lights). Turn you head and give him* the eye. Don’t say a word. Just give him* The Look. Think of Lance Armstrong. Watch the abuse fizzle out. Watch the turkey embarrass himself* out of rage as quick as a punctured tyre. Watch him* flounder in defeat and plant his* foot to escape. This works particularly well if you are commandingly fit and lean; a menace of cycle fitness is ever more intimidating the more you can establish The Look.

Naturally, there will be exceptions to my theory. Perhaps giving The Look will ignite explosive decompression when the road rager’s brain power runs out. It’s probably best to simply ride away from any beer branded red neck ute with penis extension antenna masts whipping fifty feet  up into the wind. Let Darwin do his work instead.


*Road rage is definitely not constrained to men! Some of the worst offenders are women. Cars do something to over-liberate the conventions of femininity as much as they do to emasculate the conventions of masculinity; road ragers become sexless beasts one and all.

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