It seems that bicycles are viewed as being somewhat hazardous, hence the helmets and safety precautions. I would imagine there are quite a few folks who take the vulnerability to heart and avoid the activity altogether. It is not the bike to be afraid of…. it is them you should be afraid of.
We all wear our helmets, in habit, with little conscious awareness at this point. It’s like putting on socks with your shoes. Often enough, we are wandering around our campsite, or town with our helmets still attached, looking like soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. With luck, one of us will remind the other that he looks ridiculous walking into the grocery store with his helmet. Without luck, one of us will laugh at the other for leaving the helmet on.
My first observation that elicits a rise of fear. Beer cans littering the highways. First viewed about 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle, indicating that we were closer to civilization noted by the apparent carelessness of the sight. These roads we’ve travelled have largely been out in the middle of nowhere. At best, the collection of beer cans could be the result of some inconsiderate construction workers detailing the roads. At worst, and what my imagination largely attributes this to, they are being thrown out of a big rig or RV as it recklessly speeds through the countryside.
Coupled with an absent bike lane, you experience moments where your life is on the line. A thin white strip separating the wilderness from the strip of asphalt and gravel that melts over the land. This white stripe offers a bit of safety, if not merely the illusion of such. A line of demarkation, something familar and recognizable to the vehicles; something for them to avoid. This is reinforced by fear of losing their own lives as their vehicle could lose control and crash.
On your left side of this line is often enough a tremendous machine powering its way at a speed fast enough to kill you a hundred times. They are programmed to understand that if they cross over that line their safety is not guaranteed. On your right is often enough a steep bank, which vehicles hope to avoid so they can preserve their heartbeat at a healthy pace.
My observations of their behavior has been reinforced by their inability toeven cross the center divider. On a road that offers its services to half a dozen cars per 100 miles, it seems legitimate that if they were to pass a cyclist, that they might take advantage of the huge lane that is apparently without traffic for the next few miles. But alas, this might give the cyclist ample room to ride comfortable on the highways and they face a risk of another vehicle spontaneously appearing in front of them on the long flat stretch.
So.. many of the drivers stay in between both lines and naturally maintain their speed a couple dozen kilometers per hour above the speed limit as if they are operating a video game.
Somewhere in between those two commanding lines, is the cyclist, infinitely more vulnerable to the precarious elements pressuring from the sides. A slight swerve to the left during one of these perilous situations would leave the cyclist wishing the helmet came with life insurance, because it would surely not help. A slight swerve to the right, could send you into the heavy gravel, where you could lose control and quickly come crashing down, appreciating the helmet, and cursing the driver. Hoping nothing was broken, especially if you are hundred or so miles from any help.
The fear of the beer cans, has been that those precious lines that delicately balance the safety of the cyclist on the road could potentially bend the line enough to add a bicycle hood ornament to the vehicle. I don’t think that I would make a good hood ornament. I’m definitely not shiny enough or symbolic enough.
MY SECOND FEAR, has come from my observations of the many signs along the street.
Having not grown up in the countryside with the liberty to shoot guns and drink beer on a daily basis, I have not come to terms with the countryside antics of blasting away signs. I have yet to see a sign that has not been considered a legitimate and useful target. Whether it is a mile marker, service sign, or wooden caribou I have seen every variety transformed into swiss cheese.
This fear..or revelation or what have you ocurred to me after leaving the town of Chicken where I noticed a fond fascination of firearms. As I became interested in my distance for the day, I noticed that every mile marker was conveniently shredded by bullets of every caliber and variety. Bird shot, cannon shot, rifle shot, etc. There were a mere handful of them that could still be read along the 60 or so miles I paid attention.
The thoroughness was remarkable. It was as if there was an unpsoken vengeance against these signs. A war against the diamond shaped metal objects which obviously must have wronged somebody to deserve this kind of retaliation.
I consider myself a pacifist in this war and do not operate my bicycle with an armed rifle at the ready. Though, I can’t say I haven’t thought about the possibility. In any case, I started to notice which direction these bullets were flying as I winded along a twisted mountain road. I pictured a bunch of good ‘ol boys with rifles in the back of a truck hootin’ and hollerin’ throwin’ their beer cans out the side and taking aim.
I’m not only an optimist, but a pacifist as well. Now, I’m sure everybody who is operating these weapons is fully qualified to use them safely and responsibly. How else could they enlist in this war against informative metal placards? Despite my optimism, I kept noticing that the signs were right about head level, which often allowed me to look through the bullet holes to see where they would go after they penetrated the sign.
My mind filled with geometric lines tracing along the canyons and mountain roads filling my mind with a web of bullet paths. It was amazing how often we could get caught in this web as we calmly rode our bikes up the mountain. I imagine, these “qualified” gunslingers would surely not shoot at the sign if they saw a car coming from the other side.
However, I remain doubtful that they would see the haggard bicyclist huffing and puffing his way up a hill. When I’m feeling particularly good, I like to balance my positive emotions with this paranoid delusion, if you will. It is probably a very low possibility of danger, maybe about the same risk as getting hit by a stray bullet shot up at New Years. But on these long stretches of road, you gotta keep your mind occupied, gotta worry about something.
I know one thing, If i hear bullets being shot, accompanied by a drunken howl. I’ll stay far from the road, and will probably still wear my helmet for good measure.