How did it come to this? Why is there a doctor whose already attacked me with a giant horse-syringe full of local anesthetic cutting a quarter-sized chunk out of my left elbow right now?”
Lying on the ground with my bike tossed just off the street. The only thing crossing my mind at the moment is whether or not there’s still any Percocet in that forgotten bottle in the cupboard at home. I know there’s Tylenol 3. I know there’s Vicodin. This one’s gonna take Percocet.
It feels like I’ve been flattened by a road grader….
Sitting up after the second wave of light-headedness passes, I check the damage. Getting off the street with my wheels before the scowling jerk in that giant, two-story Chevy Excretion ran over me gives me pause, but it is only now that I’ve grown the balls needed to inventory the carnage, which stands at:
• 1 large chunk out of my left elbow. (gushing)
• 1 nice rip in my left pinky finger. (gushing)
• 1 square yard of ground beef spiced with road gravel where the skin of my left calf used to reside. (oozing)
• 1 bruise the size of a grapefruit neatly centered around my belly button. (purple, black)
• 1 eight inch tear in my blood splattered Patagonia R.5. ($79)
• 1 broken bottom bracket on my commuter (warranty)
• 0 broken bones (I hope).
Fifteen cars pass me. Not one stops. I am not surprised by this.
Five bikes pass. Every one of them stops to see if they can help me out. I am not surprised by this either.
— Whoa dude, you’re fucked up. You need me to call for help?
— I don’t think so. [Eyeballing his Surly] Sweet ride.
— Thanks. You need use of my cell?
— Naw. Got one.
— Man, that’s gonna leave a mark. Okay then. Use that cell. Gotta get to work or my boss will kick my ass. Later.
He peels off as a muscular woman top-covered in hi-vis yellow slows and then pops off her black Specialized road bike with two loud clicks. She looks at the arm with obvious concern, assessing the situation then digs the First Aid kit out of the bike trunk strapped to my beached Marin. The blood is squirting out of my elbow, pulsing with each heartbeat. It’s getting weird again and I lay my head back down in the grass.
— Are you okay? Can you hold up your arm?
Mmmm….yessss. I think I can do this. I push my elbow up in the air and she peels my messy shirt back, let’s out a soft gasp, slaps a cotton pad over the hole then wraps with gauze, circling my arm two, three, four times. I lose count, but I hear the tape rip. I feel something sticky in my armpit.
— You need to go to the doctor…hey…are you with me here? Can you talk?
Free floating there for a minute. I see twinkling lights. Leaves fluttering. Stars. A space/ time continuum: perhaps mental explorations precipitated by something I might have ingested back in college….
— You don’t talk to me I’m calling for an ambulance. You hear me? [Pause] HEY!
— No. I mean, yes. I mean…No, please. Don’t. Do that. It’s okay now. Just a little woozy. Not good. With blood. ‘Specially mine. I’ll call. My wife. She’ll get. Me.
— Call now. [Pause again] I’m not leaving until you call.
— Umm, right. Okay. Right. Thank. You. Thanks so…
She nods, but keeps steely brown eyes locked on mine.
I grab my cell and dial my wife.
How did it come to this? Why is there a doctor who’s already attacked me with a giant horse-syringe full of local anesthetic cutting a quarter-sized chunk out of my left elbow right now?
Where is my Percocet?
Here’s the deal: I knew what I was getting into with this bike commuting gig. I’d heard all the horror stories. Saw the scars. Saw coworkers coming into the office covered in mud and sucking wind, complaining. Dripping wet but still grinning nonetheless. Maybe it was nothing more than a certain gleam in their eye that told me all I needed to know:
In spite of it all it is worth it.
Despite the inclement weather, despite homicidal, rage-marinated drivers commandeering vehicles that could shuttle an entire Peloton of commuters in one of their cavernous wheel wells; despite bike paths littered with garbage and broken glass, spiked seed pods, wet leaves, gravel, used rigs and various foul and nefarious substances; in spite of every conceivable odd seemingly stacked against them; these people commuted on bicycles and clearly had something extremely cool figured out.
And I wanted in.
Living in Portland didn’t hurt, seeing as it’s known as possibly the most bicycle friendly town in the nation. Which is frightening to think about, because if this is friendly I’d sure hate to see what a bicycle hostile commuting environment feels like. Sure, ninety percent of the drivers on the road have it figured out here, at least in the city, but the 10 percent that don’t….
My first big commuting wreck came in downtown Portland when the driver of an eighteen wheeler delivering a load of steel rod to a new high rise construction site decided he deserved my lane and pushed me over onto the light-rail tracks. The front wheel dropped very briefly into the track slot and my bike stopped cold. Sent me sailing. Gloriously. Acrobatically launched. Ass over tea-kettle. Leaving a pound of skin on the concrete, every joint in my body felt like someone had poured molten metal into it. And the truck never even had a clue. At least I like to believe the driver didn’t have a clue.
No really, he didn’t have a clue.
That’s just the start of it.
In the relatively short time spent bike commuting I’ve been hit with rocks tossed by grimy juvenile delinquents from an overpass on the Eastbank Esplanade, bonked in the back with a plastic water bottle hurled by some lard-ass redneck son of a bitch driving a Dodge 4X4 [Ram Tough!] with a “Proud American” bumper sticker on the grill and a “W” sticker in the rear cab window, sprayed with a warm Pepsi, coated with spittle by a number of belligerent motorists for impeding their progress while they’re driving in the goddamn bike lane, been tagged by three car doors, been bumped out of my pedals and onto the asphalt by a SUV leaving a strip mall parking lot and, in the ultimate insult, had my ass fiercely slapped in a crowd while navigating a steep ascent after a Portland Beavers baseball game.
All of which is pretty much to be expected. At least from what I hear when commiserating with the tenured commuters who’ve worn grooves in the bike lanes of this town. Bikers with faces of hammered leather that look like they’ve been cured in pickle brine. No, what was a bit harder to get a handle on was the strangely codified tribes that define serious bicycling culture. It didn’t take too long to determine that the folks pedaling the three-ounce bikes with the ballet-dancer-on-Robitussen inspired spandex plumage, riders who traveled mostly in crouching pods of threes and fours were what was known as “roadies.” Grumbling, sweating and seemingly always enveloped by foul moods and in some sort of extreme physical anguish, these were the cyclists most likely to cop a serious attitude with their simpler, blinking-helmeted brethren. Mostly for violations of some type of unwritten code involving cycling etiquette which near as I can figure boils down to one simple mandate: Get the fuck out of our way.
Fortunately the scope of the “roadie’s” bludgeoning ego’s are kept in check by their arch nemesis, a true natural predator known as the mountain biker. Mountain bikers can be easily identified in the wild by the machines they command which most often come flying somewhere out of the underbrush. Fierce, iron-calved riders of small, tank-like beasts with fighting horns on their handlebars and shock absorbers on the front forks that look like machine gun barrels. Unlike the sophisticated, white wine-sipping, road-biking pantywaists whose noble steeds crumple to uselessness, leaving them whimpering like schoolyard sissies when they run over an empty Big Mac container on the sidewalk, mountain bikes are meant for plowing head-first into large granite boulders, plummeting from cliffs, leaping railroad ties and Hyundais, and plowing over Professional wrestlers. Baggy-shorted mountain bikers don’t like a lot of things including cars, bathing, flowers and other natural foliage. But they hold a particularly entertaining type of contempt for snooty guys on $6000 carbon-fibre frames in horrifying skin-tight Team Phonak bib-tights, lime-green teardrop helmets and canary yellow Italian cycling shoes. And who can blame them? They prefer earthtones, malt liquor and body armor. Anything that reminds them of the comforts of mud, drunkeness, annihilation and warfare.
It’s best to let mountain bikers alone.
Oh, and not to forget another sub-sect: small, rare, kind of the bicycling equivalent of the Albino Mole Rat, though not so nearly as appealing. These folks prefer the charms of utterly laughable machines known as “recumbent bikes.” You’ve probably seen them. They look like two-wheeled Barcoloungers, often sealed in what appears to be a giant elongated plastic spaceman helmet. Checking in at eighteen feet long, the strange, grey-goateed professor types ‘piloting’ them are usually pondering rare Wittgenstein texts or Birkenstock catalogues, playing computer chess and drinking vitamin waters or cow-shit flavored beet-green smoothies. No one is really sure where these people came from or why they exist. They’re a huge pain in the ass. Riders of such “bikes” just beg to be ridiculed. Which naturally I do. Ridicule them I mean.
Where exactly bike commuters fit into this matrix remains unclear. True, we suffer more than our share of indignities at the hands of hostile drivers, impertinent roadies and psychopathic mud-covered mountain warriors. Also true, there is crossover. People commute on lightly modified road bikes, on mountain bikes with slick tires, and various hillbilly hybrids of both. Both road and mountain bike enthusiasts count themselves among the ranks of daily commuters. Still, most day to day commuters gravitate towards a set of wheels where practical function takes precedence over any semblance of fashion. Commuter bikes are utilitarian, two-wheeled machines built like bulldozers of reinforced aluminum or steel frames, sporting fenders, large rims with fat slicks, racks, lights mounted front and back. Bells. Horns. Reflectors. Modern designs have synthesized the appropriate features of both the road and mountain bike and come up with some pretty impressive models most people know as city bikes. Big wheels, front shocks, user friendly handlebars. But it’s clear that the major cycling outfitters haven’t quite figured out how to market to such a disparate group of two-wheeling enthusiasts whose primary concern is transportation as opposed to ultra-fitness, competition and recreation. They’ve got the Roadies covered ($$$$$). They’ve got the Mountain Folk covered ($$$). For all I know there’s probably a even a rare outpost from Vermont that caters to those tweedy recumbent knobs too.
But as for the the soot-covered, grunting, sweaty commuters?
We’re the niche group that cycling has seemingly kicked into the cheap seats. Which now that I think about it is just fine.
Still the funny thing, which my second gory bike crash illuminated so clearly, was that when the chips are down bikers of all breeds tend to band together in spite of differences in our self-propelled steeds of choice. And while the devastating ego-shot that the pierced RiotGirrl on the tricked out one-speed Schwinn Sting Ray may deliver as she passes you climbing a 30 degree incline leaving you eating dust with a cheerful “keep humping, fattie,” the fact remains: at least she acknowledges you. It’s the nod. The wave. The universal salute that says “not only do you exist, but you’re one of us”. Part of the team. And that’s what’s so cool about bike commuting, when you get right down to it. That connection you get to your fellow riders, your environment and thus your world that you miss out on while sequestered in your mold-injected Legacy, 4Runner, or Taurus everyday. The fifteen cars didn’t pass me that morning (as I lie bleeding, pondering Percocet) because they didn’t care. They passed me because they didn’t have a clue. What goes on outside their carefully structured auto-centric universe doesn’t really exist. Their phones were ringing. The radio was too loud. There was too much traffic and too little time…
They were fucking clueless…
The car culture insulates us in ways that I never imagined before I started cycling to work. And I’ve come to realize that that culture is both horrifying and patently unhealthy for a lot of reasons. Just looking at the pinched faces in the windshields as they pass tells you just about all you need to know.
Now I breathe more. Now I notice more. Now I live more.
So yeah, I guess I’m sort of proud to identify as a bike commuter. That sweaty twinkle in the eye that caught me in the first place? Now I get it. I’ve got a twinkle of my own now. Maybe you can see it. The scars to prove my pedigree are there for all to see. And yes, everyone of them has been worth the ride. I feel better these days. Admittedly I look like Tweedle Dee when sporting padded lycra britches but I don’t care. I’ve still got a beer gut but when I drum on it the beats are tighter. The notes are higher. The music sweeter.
What it is.
The roads are filled with bike people. More and more every day. We’re the ones shaking our heads as you scream your frustrations behind closed windows, fiddling with your remote control cd players, windshield wipers and full-color GPS units. We’re the ones who aren’t spending $2.50 for a gallon of gas. The ones dropping $1.69 to oil our chains instead of $2499 to rebuild our transmissions. We’re the ones you inadvertently try to run over but can’t splatter unless you catch us dreaming. We’re the one’s who beat you to the water cooler while you were swearing as you searched for that elusive parking spot.
We’re happy and it’s just not that hard.
(toons: marc covert)