"Get a bicycle," advised Mark Twain. "You will not regret it, if you live."
When people hear I ride my bike on A1A, our narrow coastal road here in Florida, they share with me, with more regularity than I like, their stories of family members or friends who were badly injured -- or worse. I used to get annoyed, having heard enough of these stories, but now I try to listen attentively, nod and silently pledge to keep my guard up.
And I keep riding. The pleasure of the fresh air and exercise, the beautiful ocean, the squawking of parrots passing overhead (when not drowned out by the cars whooshing by) are all irresistible to me. I've ridden more than 10,000 miles in the last five years along this scenic road and through luck and vigilance, have managed to avoid getting smacked.
But then I raised the stakes: I got my wife and my adult sons into riding the same road. Now, it's a family affair.
Because I espouse a well-read life -- a life of action fueled by reading -- I felt it was my duty to seek out books that could help all of us stay alive on our bikes. With the help of our reference librarians at the Delray Beach Public Library, I found a singular book that is so good I want to share it with everyone who rides -- or who would like to. It's called "The Art of Cycling: A Guide to Bicycling in 21st century America" by Robert Hurst, published in 2007. (It was originally published in 2004 as "The Art of Urban Cycling: Lessons from the Street.")
What a How-to Book Can Be
While there are thousands of books on bicycling, this is the best book I've come across for offering lots of hard-earned, practical advice for staying alive. Happily, Hurst is a skilled writer with a passion for history, so he weaves a tale that gives historical and even philosophical perspective in a manner I found totally engaging.
A former bike messenger, Hurst interviewed many expert cyclists and accomplished what a great how-to book should: he distilled years of experience into a readable, understandable book that can help those with less experience gain tremendously -- without having to make all the mistakes themselves.
Readers learn what to be most wary of in city traffic, where to position yourself (not always to the right), how to do hand signals (not what you learned in driver's ed), the surprising benefits of glancing back, the danger lurking behind gaps in traffic. These and many other practical tips might save you from painful first-hand experience, but what's even more valuable in my estimation is the transcendent philosophy the author conveys so effectively.
Forget About Blaming Bad Drivers
Once a friend of mine who doesn't ride but drives frequently on A1A vented to me about cyclists. "Sure, I'll share the road," he said, "but why do they think they can ride two abreast and block traffic? They need to obey the traffic laws. Then I'll share the road." I pointed out to my friend that it is actually legal to ride two abreast when passing and other times when you're not blocking traffic. This only served to set him off about the large, aggressive groups (pelotons, French for pack) that sometimes block an entire lane, and run red lights. I realized I wasn't going to change his mind. And my friend is a very smart and thoughtful fellow.
Wherever the Road Finds You
In truth, there are scofflaw cyclists with inconsiderate attitudes, and they can give cyclists a bad reputation, just as there are bad motorists who reinforce every cyclist's fears. The real issue isn't the outliers, but the quite human tendencies of people using different modes of transportation. Perspective depends on where you stand -- or sit.
When I lived in Manhattan, I went almost a year without driving a car. (Like most young New Yorkers, I couldn't afford to keep one in the city.) For this year, barely a day went by when I didn't get angry at some rude driver who cut me off in a sidewalk, or threatened to. Then in the summer, I rented a car to drive up to New England but first had to drive out of the city. I couldn't believe how inconsiderate the pedestrians were! Didn't they realize how frustrating it is to drive in New York? Motorists can't even turn right on red!
This laughable change in perspective, it seems to me, is what it's all about between bike riders and drivers. When you drive, bike riders are inherently annoying. They are too slow and bothersome when already there is too much car traffic to contend with. And when you ride, car drivers are inherently dangerous, too close, too fast, and too many.
Post all the signs you want about sharing the road, but the reality is that roads were designed for cars. Moreover, roads almost universally were designed for fewer cars than now race and jockey for space on them.
To expect motorists and cyclists to share the road is like expecting a case of beer and a cupcake to share the cooler.
Hurst totally understands perspective and the reality of biking on roads designed for cars. His years of experience and deep thought on the matter have resulted in a heightened state of awareness, and he offers a well-reasoned sermon that all congregants in the church of biking are well advised to hear.
Staying in the Lane Called Vigilance
Forget about blame, says Hurst. "Blame is what happens when it's already too late," he writes. "The successful urban cyclist counts on nothing but chaos and stupidity."
He offers some tough love from the street of hard knocks:
"From now on -- if some bastard breaks every law in the book and runs you over in the process, it will be your fault and nobody else's. That is the meaning of true freedom. That is how we will keep such disasters from happening in the first place."
There is nothing for it but vigilance.
"The vigilant cyclist expects serious ineptitude from strangers in traffic, and therefore is not surprised or angry when it has to be endured."
"The vigilant cyclist is not a trusting cyclist, but makes up for this lack of trust with a load of patience."
A perspective of vigilance can, Hurst says, be oddly relaxing rather than tiresome, since it requires light but constant attention and thus ideally takes you away from other thoughts and cares. The more you ride the better you can become at vigilance, but riding will never be a time to totally relax, never a place to daydream.
Learn Counter-Intuitive Physical Lessons by Reading
I take special delight in how-to books that can help us do physical things better, especially to learn the counter-intuitive aspects that seem to be part of doing many sports well.
Do you know that in order to turn left on your bike you have to first push the handlebars gently to the right? That's another thing I learned in this gem of a book. (If you don't believe it, try it next time you ride.)
Our family happened to be in Hawaii last year driving toward Kona when we passed Lance Armstrong. After all of us doing double takes, we got safely ahead and pulled over to watch his motorcade race by and take some photos.
Lance was trailing (drafting) a guy on a motor scooter, occasionally pulling out to maintain the high speed on his own in a technique I later learned is called motor pacing. He was followed by his support van. The van also served to protect him from passing cars. This wheeled trio of vehicles traveled in what looked like a giant bike lane, a full car width wide, on that beautiful Hawaiian highway.
It's too bad more of us can't ride under such safe conditions. If we wish to ride, we must deal with the reality of a hard universe designed for a different species.
The good news? What we put inside our heads can sometimes keep us safer than what we strap on the outside.
If you have found another book that can help us cyclists stay alive, I'd love to hear.
Follow Steve Leveen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SteveLeveen