No, not an official one, and certainly not one of those highly-paid political payoffs where I’d get to schmooze royalty in Luxemburg or anything, but every time I go out on a bike I’m aware that people are watching me and not just because I’m wearing a dorky Union Jack helmet or have somewhere in the neighborhood of 60+ LEDs festooning my bike. No, it’s because whenever I’m riding my bike I make an impression on other riders and drivers.
We’ve all heard it when we’re talking to friends and neighbors; The positive “You know, I was driving home from work today and even though it was snowing, I saw people out on bikes!!” Or the negative “Ugh, I was getting ready to go through the intersection and this cyclist came out of nowhere and ran right through the red light!!”
From a positive perspective, it’s incredible. Every driver that sees me riding along is going to be (slightly) more likely to be on the lookout for other cyclists. Bicycle-friendly cities like Madison have gotten to this point because there are enough cyclists on the roads that drivers know to look out for us. If every driver sees a dozen cyclists every trip that they take, they will instinctively know that around every corner or bend in the road there could be another cyclist. It’s why I feel comfortable riding my road bike on the Iron Man loop out to Verona even though cars do 55+mph and there’s no shoulder (or yellow line either, for that matter). Dozens of cyclists pedal along that route every single day in the summer, and so cars that travel that route regularly specifically look for us.
It’s also an encouragement for other people to get out and ride, and not just in the nice weather. When people see cyclists out in the snow, rain and cold weather, their first thought is “holy $#!% he’s nuts!!” And then they see a second, and a third, all on their way into work, and on the way home he or she see’s a full bike rack outside The Weary Traveler, or Mickey’s Pub. Slowly but surely it becomes “the new normal”.
We went to a roller-derby match the other night and proceeded to ride bikes our bikes into the parking lot past the LONG line of cars waiting to pay $6 just to park and locked them up right outside the door (with so many bikes that there were 5 bikes chained to a nearby lamp post because the bike rack was full). Leaving was pretty much the same thing, passing the LONG line of cars waiting to leave….
Unfortunately, there is also the negative aspect of always being watched… Drivers note when you don’t follow the law (even as they’re breaking it themselves), which is why I
always usually try to follow it whenever I ride. Maybe seeing me stopped in traffic waiting for a red light can reduce the tension between drivers and cyclists. Maybe seeing me following the same laws as a vehicle can start to convince people that we are vehicles with a legal right to the road. Maybe seeing me lit up like a Christmas tree (including proper front-facing headlight and rear blinky) and riding in the road as opposed to on the sidewalk will prevent the near-heart-attack that comes from almost running over an unlit pedestrian/cyclist when it’s pitch black out. I have found that the brighter lit I am, and the more predictably I ride, the more friendly other cars are. They give me more space, allow me to proceed even if they have the right-of-way, and so on.
I even try to move my bike over to the left side of the lane when I’m going straight and the car behind me wants to make a right-turn-on-red, which often gets me a smile and a “thank you”.
So remember, whenever you ride, people are watching. Let’s do what we can to alleviate tensions and get more people out on bikes! And yes, this does include pretending not to be suffering or miserable when it’s hot/cold/wet/snowy/windy/etc.