By Mara Abbott,
US Olympian – Cycling
CTS Contributing Editor
We’ve got a lot of muscle and plenty of power, but cyclists still don’t sit too high on the road-user food chain. If we want more respect – and the extra safety that can come along with it – we need to recognize we, as individuals and a community, play a role in earning (and forfeiting) that respect.
One of the most beautiful climbs near my hometown of Boulder, Colorado is Fourmile Canyon. It’s also one of the routes damaged in the 2013 floods that decimated the roads and communities of Boulder’s foothills. This summer, after five years of discussion, negotiation, and financial red tape, construction is beginning on a permanent fix for Fourmile. Boulder County put a weekday, daytime ban on recreational cyclists (Canyon residents commuting by bike are excepted), explaining the restrictions are for safety due to expected high heavy truck traffic.
This has made the cyclists angry. Over the last few weeks, local riders have taken to Twitter, speculating that without a specific end date the ban is likely an underhanded attempt at permanent cyclist restrictions, or that it’s the residents who should be sanctioned for aggressive driving. Some have even tossed around the word “murderers”. I’ve been a two-wheel commuter since I was in a seat on the back of my dad’s bike, pulling the hair on his neck and telling him to go faster. I raced for over a decade, and I don’t actually know a lot of people who don’t own a bicycle – or four. I am very far on the side of cyclists when safety is concerned – but I have to say that if I lived up Fourmile Canyon and I read those comments, I sure wouldn’t want that on the road I drive home every night.
For many of us endurance athletes, spending a Sunday cruising the canyons is the most familiar thing in the world. Yet for many other road users, we are an entirely foreign specimen. It isn’t their lifestyle. The way we behave on the bike, the comments we make to one another in line at the coffee shop, and our public social media posts thus shape “what cyclists do”. For people who don’t know a lot of bike riders, our actions as individuals hold a whole lot of impression-building power.
There is no excuse for distracted and dangerous driving. There are laws to protect us, and all motorists should follow them. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone will – but we can do our best to make them want to.
As a racer, pre-riding the Philadelphia Cycling Classic course in 2016, many of the teams were headed out at the same time, so our squad merged with a few others. We were roughly twenty riders, but I was the only American. Cycling through Philly means hitting an inordinate number of stoplights that are timed properly for cars, not bikes, so my compatriots lost patience and began running the signals.
It wasn’t terribly dangerous – they always checked to be sure the coast was clear – but with a deepening feeling of doom, I couldn’t help imagining what the drivers stopped at the lights were thinking. A good chunk of their city would be shut down and traffic snarled for our race the next day, and that felt like plenty enough goodwill to request of anyone on a warm weekend in June.
However, my teammates’ frame of reference was different than mine. Cycling is more highly regarded, more common, and more accepted in Europe. It isn’t necessarily safer. In 2016, the share of fatal bicycle-car traffic collisions was four times higher there than in the United States, even though Europeans generally have a wider social latitude for what is acceptable cyclist behavior. For the drivers in Philly, however, I feared we were giving the drivers around us a very negative impression from their relatively small sample size: this was the way that cyclists – even the best cyclists in the world – acted.
Unfortunately my desire to follow all of the rules, all of the time was not my most favored characteristic as a teammate, and in any case, I was severely outnumbered. Rather than face team management’s wrath for skipping out solo on the team’s course recon, I became a co-conspirator. I followed them through the lights, I bought in, and I’m still not proud of it. We are the ambassadors of our sport, and the further we travel on our bikes, the greater our reach.
Should we fight for bike safety legislation? Absolutely. Should we report dangerous drivers and leverage new tools like on-bike cameras to increase safety? Of course. Should we work to educate drivers and teach them what we need as cyclists to be safe on the roads? Yes, yes, yes. But as we work toward those goals, it is crazy to imagine others will be willing to extend respect to us that we are unwilling to offer to them.
The idea we have to behave well to enhance our own safety may seem unfair, but I think it’s reality. Also, consider that after a few hours riding, we have the ability to step out of our chamois – and that isn’t the case for other minority or vulnerable groups.
As in racing: I could not control who showed up to the race, or who was strong. I could not always control whether I got a flat tire or was taken down in a big crash. The only thing that was mine was my reaction. Recalibrating and pressing forward never assured victory – but quitting and getting in the team car assured defeat. On the road, I don’t know the story of the person behind that wheel any more than they know mine. Compassion isn’t always easy, but it’s always an option. We get to choose our responses, and that is an incredibly important choice.