This is a companion piece — I don’t think of it as a followup or a sequel — to Confronting the Cars. When I wrote the first take, I thought the idea of talking to motorists was important. Now I think it’s elemental — to maintaining or even nurturing our humanity. Yeah, that’s a whole lot of ambition, and it might be nonsense, but maybe you had to be there. And maybe I can sort of get you there with this one.
All the stiffest climbs of the day were behind us—at least until we turned around—and the seven of us were on the winding, rolling, smooth two-lane with the gradual drop that, on a good day, for thirty minutes or so feels like a sled ride. We were two-up, with the last rider sitting in the most sheltered spot, between the last two paired rear wheels, the place we call the cradle. I was thinking about how an uneven number in the pack means the combination reshuffles every time you finish a pull and go to the back and the solo rider slots in with one of you: the conversations change up, the new pairings can lead to two calm and steady riders at the front or two half-wheelers or a learning (or teaching) opportunity if an old lion sets up next to a cub. Sometimes two people who don’t talk much wind up next to each other and go on in amiable silence until they rotate back and swap. And the draft changes as bigger or smaller riders end up in front of you, and—
A white wagon pulled up alongside us, in the other lane on a double-yellow section, and the driver, a woman about my age, leaned across and, through the open passenger window, yelled, “Single file! Single file!”
We were a good, steady group that day, men and women who are regular commuters, who have ridden all over the world, who were racers of various experience and ability and frequency. We held our lines and our speed and we pedaled on. I lifted a hand, palm down, and gave the sign for easy, easy, okay, okay.
“Single file!” she screamed again. Behind us, a car honked. Honked again. She yelled at us again, more words, intelligible only as fury. The car behind honked. The wagon jerked away to the left, farther over the yellow line. The driver accelerated and passed us, then so did the car behind.
We said the usual things you say to yourselves after one of those encounters, some of us wondering at the nature of people, some of us voicing relief, some unbottling the rebuke that we have more or less learned it is better not to loose in the moment if we can avoid it.
The wagon had stopped—hard—just ahead of us. The car that had been following braked so hard it nosed down. There was a squeal. There was that adrenalized moment when you are going for your brakes and also looking for a way around and past, and in that moment the car jammed the gas and started to cut around the wagon, then hesitated as the driver must have noticed that we were right there, that close. The shoulder was blocked to us. We would have time to brake to a complete stop, I deduced in one of those instantaneous analyses your brain grants you. Our main peril was crossing up our own wheels or handlebars in panic, and that a car that might be coming behind would plow into us as we fell. We shouted, all of us, I think, in an instinctive cry that was part fear and part anger. The wagon turned left, across the road, and up into a gravel driveway cut into a tunnel of trees. The car shot away.
Just like that we were alone on the road. And safe again. There was a silence when we all took a breath and let it out. That is when I looked back over my left shoulder, tipped my left hand out and shook it to let everyone know I was coming out of the pack, then looped around and went to the driveway and began pedaling up it after the car.
As soon as I was a few feet into the drive, I could see that it would continue on a long way. The wagon was pretty far ahead of me, about to crest a little rise and drop out of sight, and beyond that was nothing but a dimness cast by the thick canopy. There was no house visible in the distance, nor one neighbor out here, nothing but forest. The brake lights of the wagon ignited and shone red. The wagon stopped completely, and the door flung open, and I wondered what I’d gotten into this time.
For about eight years now, I’ve been doing my best to, when it seems possible, catch up to drivers who’ve shouted something at me or endangered me—then be as courteous as I can to them. In Emmaus, I know which stoplight patterns and street layouts give me a chance. Outside our town, a surprising number of people will assail us then, only seconds later, stop at a restaurant or a park, or turn into a neighborhood where I stand a good shot of spotting the car in a driveway. When I pull up to someone’s window, or roll up to them as they’re walking away from their cars, they are bracing for a confrontation. I raise my hand in a wave, smile, try to introduce myself and say something like, “Hey, I’m glad I caught you. I’m not here to shout at you or anything, and if it seemed like we were in your way back there I’m sorry you felt like that. But…”
I have caught up to teens with their moms in the car, and a mom in a minivan with a gaggle of kids in back. There was a guy breathing with an oxygen cannula who refused to shake my hand or even look at me. There was a twenty-something in a wife-beater who tried to sic his Rottweiler on me through the window then, after we talked, offered to buy me a beer next time he saw me at the local pizza joint. There was a visibly frightened elderly woman who’d been hoping to make the safety of a VFW bar before we could catch her. There was the guy who stood holding a fast-food lunch as his curious and amused co-workers walked by us after I followed him all the way into his office. Just a few weeks ago, a van laid on the horn behind us as we waited at a stoplight to make a left, then, as the driver passed he yelled, “Off the street,” before heading up what I knew was a no-outlet road. I pedaled up and found him at the community field at the very top, holding his granddaughter, watching a grandson play baseball. I’ve nearly been punched many times, had a few actual swings taken at me, was once or twice close to getting dragged by or under a vehicle.
Some day, for sure, I’m going to get hurt doing this. But I trust that somehow it will have all been worth the inevitable retribution, this tiny insurrection of connection I am waging against rage, against not having to know those we threaten, against not thinking of consequence, of not realizing that we, those strange people on bicycles, might also be parents, dog owners, baseball fans, neighbors, mortals no farther from death, really, than a man who must carry a tank to breathe.
Mostly, at first, after as much of my loosely rehearsed introduction as I can manage before being interrupted, I listen. I let them vent. I agree with them when they’re right—cyclists can be annoying. We can seem like we’re in the way. I tell them I know how they feel, that I’m a driver as well as a cyclist and that sometimes when I’m in a car the things people on bicycles do make me nuts. When I can, when I get a chance, I point out misconceptions: that we are allowed to ride on the road, that we are allowed to ride two abreast. If they argue, I offer to show them the state vehicle code that covers bicycle laws, which I have bookmarked on my phone.I don’t get drawn into debating the details of who did what, of our actions or theirs—that’s proven to be only incendiary; instead, I’ll say something like, “I’m sorry you didn’t see us signal.” A few times, I’ve offered to call the police to help sort everything out, but no driver has ever taken me up on that opportunity, no matter how adamant they are they’re right.
Mostly, I think, I don’t change much, I don’t accomplish much. I go into it figuring, at the least, it’s a little like when I was back in school and would go ahead and get in a fistfight even though all through the years I only ever won maybe two scuffles: You make yourself a hassle to even bother with, not worth the trouble. Maybe the driver will reconsider before harassing the next cyclist, aware that they just might have to deal with one of us instead of simply gassing out of there free and clear.
I listen. I wait for a chance to tell them, hey, I belong to the VFW over in Emmaus, I think my daughter goes to school with theirs, you know what I hate that light, too, it’s hard to see who’s coming. Toward the end, I always try to get in something like, “Look, the most important thing is that I don’t want you to drive away and take any of this out on the next rider you see. There aren’t any small accidents with a car and a bike. If you hit me, both of our lives change: I’m gonna be dead. But you’re going to jail.” I say, “It’s dangerous for me if you’re mad. And for you, too. It’s not worth it.” And I thank them. No matter what, I thank them for listening, however little they’ve heard.
The driver of the wagon was stalking toward me, with big, wild eyes. I unclicked and put a foot down and held my hand up and put on a smile and said, “Thanks for stopping, I’m not here to argue or anything, I just wanted to say sorry if you felt we were in your way and—”
She yelled as she came toward me, screaming that we should have been riding in single file, that what we were doing was dangerous. I listened, and she kept walking toward me, and stopped a few feet away, and we looked at each for a few seconds. She had short, light hair and, I could see now, eyes that were big simply from structure and not anger, and despite her age the pupils were crisp and brightly colored. She was a little out of breath.
“Listen,” I said, “I don’t want to hold you up or bother you too much but you should know that the law is that we can ride two abreast.”
“Even on this road?” she said. She raised her arm and pointed out toward it. She was fit. I guessed that she was a runner.
I nodded, and I said, “Do you run or ride?”
She said, “I . . . yes. It’s so dangerous. You should ride single file anyway. Especially on this road.”
“You know,” I said, “when you pulled around us and gunned ahead and stopped really fast? That was the most dangerous thing that happened to us today.”
She didn’t say anything. Her eyes, those big, crisp eyes, they went a little blurry.
“There could have been a bad wreck,” I said.
And she started starting to cry—there were tears that never made it onto her cheeks. She put a hand to the middle of her chest, then to her mouth then back down, and she said, “Can I have a hug?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“I need a hug,” she said. “Will you hug me?”
I still didn’t know what to say. I said, “I’m sweaty.”
She didn’t care. She crossed the few steps of space between us and reached out and I reached out without thinking much, and we put our arms around each other and we hugged. I could feel her breathing against me. It was that long of an embrace. I could feel her fingers on my spine, my back ribs. It was as if she was making sure I was real, or alive.
She stepped away and pulled her arms away but kind of held my hands in hers for a moment before breaking contact, then said, “I had a friend, a dear friend, who was killed on this road. Riding. Hit on the bridge.”
When I got back to the group—they’d soft-pedaled for a while, then waited for me at the next turn—at first all I said was that I was glad I’d chased her. I said that it had gone well. After a bit I told some of the story. I never really got it all out. I don’t think I ever will—what cars can do to us, what bikes can do for us, what we can do to and for each other.
Originally published in The Selection, June 14, 2013