The new road rage

    Riding your bike in a friendly, communal town like this, it’s common to feel a bond with other bicyclists. You’re in it together! Bikers are the little guys struggling for their share of the road in a world unfairly biased towards gas-powered vehicles. You feel a certain benevolence in the knowledge that you’re doing what’s right for the environment, sacrificing convenience and comfort for the sake of the greater good, and at the same time doing your body a favor by exercising. And it’s perfectly natural that you would then feel a bond of affection with others who are doing the same. Unfortunately, the truth isn’t always so rosy. Speaking from personal experience, I know there are times when that affectionate bond can fail and you can feel the same hostility towards other bicyclists that you would normally reserve for cars.

    Just the other day, biking home from campus across the Hawthorne Bridge, I was annoyed by other bicyclists at least three times. One guy behind me called out “on your left," meaning he wanted me to move aside so he could pass me. I looked to my right, and the path was completely open on that side. Why not just pass me on the right rather than startling me and making me move out of his way? That’s what I would have done. Then when I got across the bridge and was riding on the narrow strip marked for bikes on Hawthorne, with parked cars on my right and several lanes of moving traffic on my left, I was continually passed by other bicyclists who needed to assert their greater speed and strength, and nearly run me off the path in the process. The bike path is really only wide enough for one bicyclist to move along comfortably. When you’re on the narrow, safe strip allotted to bicyclists in the midst of a dangerous sea of cars, trucks and buses – any of which could crush you at any moment – it’s an added stress to have to worry about being blindsided by other bicyclists. What it boils down to is that bicyclists can feel road rage just as much as drivers, and not just for cars, but for their own kind as well.

    The reason for this is that all bicyclists are not created equal. Many people here, in the bike mecca that is Portland, use bikes strictly as a means of transportation, and don’t see it as a race or an opportunity to push themselves to the limits of their endurance the way the “professional" bikers do. You know what I mean by professional bikers. They’re the ones who wear those awful, brightly colored Lycra and spandex suits. God, I hate those suits. What’s even more aggravating, though, is the attitude that goes along with the suits: that they’re the real bicyclists and the rest of us should move aside on their approach. The disturbing thing about cars is the way they bring out and magnify some of the worst qualities in people: the aggression and arrogance that come with power, and the need to always be in a hurry. And then there are these spandex-clad cretins who are doing the same thing on bikes. Here’s my contribution to Mayor Potter’s “Visioning" program for Portland’s future: from now on, have two bike lanes on all the major roadways – one for “Lycra" and one for “leisure."

OK, if I haven’t gotten the bicycling community to hate me yet, here’s another confession: at times while riding in a car I’ve felt hostility towards bikers. I don’t drive, don’t even know how, which makes it even stranger, I suppose, that I would take on the driver’s antipathy as a passenger. But it’s true. When I’ve been in a friend’s car and there’s a bicyclist in front of us taking up the lane, and he won’t move over to let us pass, I’ve gotten pissed off, then marveled at my capacity to be just as intolerant and irrational as anyone else. I’ve experienced it while riding the bus as well, especially during Critical Mass, the mob of bicyclists that ride over the Hawthorne Bridge every Friday afternoon in the peak of rush hour to mark the presence of Portland bicyclists. Seeing their smiling faces and knowing that I was going to be late for my evening class because of them, I felt myself sharing in the resigned fury of the bus driver, who cursed at them from behind the wheel. Then afterwards, the shame set in, that I had gone over to the other side and joined in attacking a community of which I was also a part.

    What these experiences tell me is that it’s all relative. The bus driver is irked by cars driving in the “bus only" zone; cars are annoyed by other cars as well as by slow-moving bicyclists and pesky pedestrians at the crosswalk; bicyclists in turn by oblivious pedestrians and by other bicyclists. Perhaps no one is immune to road rage. When you’re packed together in a tight thoroughfare with masses of your fellow humans, with everyone moving at their own pace and everyone intent on getting where they’re going, it’s inevitable that tempers will flare and people will hate one another. Or is it?

    Well, what you can do, as a bicyclist, is refuse to play. Take your honey-sweet time. Enjoy your ride across the bridge in the morning, with the river below you and a panoramic view of the downtown skyline. Don’t feel like you have to go as fast as you possibly can in order to keep up with everyone else. The luxury of bike riding is that you get to set your own pace. Let go of the rat race and relax; and remember, no matter how slow you go on your bike, you’ll still get where you’re going much quicker than those unfortunate pedestrians!