Crashing waves are better than crashing bikes…
Yesterday, I got hit by a car. It was something that I was always aware might happen again, but not in that day-to-day visceral fear that I dealt with for a while after my first accident. I’m mostly thankful that I’m the one writing this, rather than having someone else write it about me. I’m generally okay. No trip in an ambulance. No phone call from the police to Jill. No major surgery. I am very sore today. And I have some wicked road rash. But I don’t think anything is broken (though I will go today to see about x-rays on my hip, where I landed the hardest). And yet I don’t really know how much further away I was from dying than I was on Mar 23, 2010. One foot? One inch? What if I’d had more of a headwind? What if there had been a tailwind? What if…? I suppose I’ll never know, and I’ll just have to be thankful for that. Though it scares me.
As I sat trying to make sense of what happened – short version: guy was lost and decided to pull over to try to become un-lost and pulled over into me, sending me into a low asphalt curb which launched me over my handlebars and into the dirt – I saw many mentions on Twitter of something going on with the Stetina family, one of the “first families” of American cycling. Peter Stetina is currently one of the best and brightest American cyclists, taking after his father Dale Stetina. Dale was involved in a wreck on Saturday while riding the famous Lefthand Canyon in Boulder when he swerved to avoid a car.
Lefthand Canyon is an extremely popular route for cyclists, but it also has a bit of a reputation from what I gather for being a bit dangerous. I was riding a similar road, PCH (the Pacific Coast Highway), which is one of the most popular routes around here for cyclists, and definitely one of the most dangerous. I haven’t ridden on the coast since April, when I rode there with a big group for the SRAM RED 22 launch. Before then, I couldn’t even remember when. I got in my “big” accident coming back from PCH (albeit on one of the sections I did – and still do – consider “safe”), and I still get nervous riding around there. But it’s been close to 100F every day this week, and it gets hotter the further inland you go – the way I normally ride, because there are no beaches, or tourists; it’s mostly just citrus farms. But it’s a long way until Kona, and I wasn’t sure that cooking myself day after day was a good idea. And, at the very least, I do like riding by the ocean, especially when it’s hot out.
The sun was overhead, so no fear of glare. It was still early – it wasn’t even noon yet, on a Sunday (albeit a long-weekend Sunday). I had my flashing lights on helmet. And I could always turn around if it got really busy. At first I thought I’d turn around before PCH, just riding down to Pt. Mugu base. But it was one of the days where it was just perfect. Perfect for everyone, which I guess is a sad sign that maybe it’s not perfect for cyclists. The traffic at the beaches wasn’t crazy, though. No close calls with car doors or people making crazy U-turns or anything that made me think it was time to head back home. At least, none until the one that actually happened.
Working against me, I ride alone. Groups are always easier to see, even if it’s just two people. And I ride fast, which is not a statement about my own awesomeness but rather a reminder that I cover a lot of ground quickly – more quickly than most cars, even if they do see me, expect from a cyclist. And I like to ride in the aerobars (though I ride my road bike a lot), which both makes me smaller and also takes my hands away from the brakes. And, more than anything else, I’m a cyclist. Fundamentally, we’re just harder to see. Motorcyclists have the adage, “straight pipes save lives,” which is why (or at least part of why) you can hear a Harley coming before you can see it. But bikes are quiet. I think that’s part of why we like them. You can hear the world. You can hear yourself think.
Do the steps I take to be visible outweigh the things that make me hidden? It seemed like they’d done okay. Though how do you prove a negative? I hadn’t been hit again. But I also hadn’t been hit until I was even without all the changes I made. I rode a lot of miles with headphones, without flashing lights, and without really thinking that I might come very close to being one of those ghost bikes I give a quiet salute to whenever I see one. But I trusted in the changes I made to keep me safe. It was a lot of how I got back on the road.
But now I’m left wondering. I passed two other triathletes, who noted my flashing lights and said, “those are a really good idea.” That was right before they watched the van hit me. Dale Stetina was riding with a big group. Dale wasn’t on a TT bike in the aerobars. Dale saw the car and swerved to avoid it. I saw the car and did the best I could to avoid it. None of that mattered.
Nothing makes a difference if the driver isn’t paying attention. Or is drunk. Or is angry at cyclists. Or…
So how do I get back on the road now? How do I ride and not be afraid? I don’t know. I can make another rule like my rule about lights or headphones. I can say, “no riding on PCH.” Or, “no PCH on the weekends.” Or, “no TT bike on PCH on the weekends by myself.” But every time we get on a bike, we are taking a risk. I think that being aware of that is the only thing that will keep us safe.
But why ride at all? The two triathletes – Nina & Dana – who were inspired by my lights stopped to help me after I got hit. (This time, the driver also stayed.) I rode with them to their car – at their insistence – so they could make sure I was okay. Nina kept me from doing the typical “denial in shock” thing where I say I’m fine and ride back home. Then Nina waited while Dana drove me and my bike to somewhere where another friend, coming back from his bike ride, could pick me up and take me home. Nina & Dana both knew who I was – most importantly, in my opinion – because of the work I do with World Bicycle Relief. They talked about how much they loved that I do my yearly fundraiser. (Blatant plug – it’s going on right now…)
So I guess that’s why I’ll keep riding. I’m sure it’ll be hard to clip in that first time again. And I’m sure I’ll avoid PCH for a good long while again. And I’m sure my heart will skip a few extra beats every time a car gets a little too close. And I might cry a few more times in the middle of the night when I think about how much I have to lose and how close I came. But I don’t want to live in a bubble. And I don’t want Quentin to live in a bubble. And I don’t want the twins to live in a bubble. And I don’t really think that any of us can live in a bubble. And a bike is about as far from a bubble as you can get. Sometimes it’s too far, and I hope I never forget that comes with a price.
So keep your head up. Your eyes sharp. Watch our for yourself. Watch out for your fellow cyclists. And stay safe out there.
Thanks for listening. Writing and sharing this helped me a lot. I hope maybe it helps some of you too.
And thank you again to Dana & Nina. You two are awesome.
And, lastly, all my best wishes to Dale and the entire Stetina family.