Commentary: When to trust cycling

Fred Dreier muses on how quickly we can lose trust in the safety of cycling, but how its intrinsic value is worth the risk.

I snapped the above photo on a chilly October evening in 2011 at the corner of Chambers and West Street in lower Manhattan.

The livery cab had been headed southbound on West Street before making a hasty right-hand turn into the path of the Westside bikeway. I was riding northbound on the path. The stoplight ahead flashed green, and the little pedestrian walk signal beamed with light. I trusted the safety signals and rode into the intersection. In an instant, the cab darted in front of me, and my wheel slammed into the hood. I somersaulted over the hood, up onto the windshield, and then down to the asphalt. I stood up and snapped the photo. A crowd of rush-hour pedestrians gathered around. Sirens pierced the air, and after a few minutes, an ambulance arrived to whisk me away to the emergency room.

I was lucky. The bruises on my back and legs kept me on the couch for days, a nasty cut on my hand took forever to heal, but that was the extent of my injuries. As the weeks went on, however, I realized that the deepest wound was to my sense of trust in the societal system that, up until that point, had prevented cars from crashing into me during my bike rides. I was riding on a bike path, after all. My little pedestrian walking man was illuminated. The system said I should have been safe, and instead this cab had turned me into a rag doll. Call me naïve. Whatever trust I had was gone.

In the ensuing months, my bike rides became agonizing slogs of paranoia. Every time I crossed through an intersection my brain played that uncomfortable guessing game. Are the cars really going to stop? On every lap around Central Park, I waited for a car to dart out of nowhere and take me out. When I heard the sound of an approaching engine, my mind raced. Will the truck pass me by, or hit me?

Eventually, I stowed my bike in my apartment, fished out my running shoes, and started (ugh) jogging. If I couldn’t trust the system, was riding my bike worth the risk?

THAT SAME STRETCH OF BIKE PATH at Chambers and West will forever be known as the site of Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Manhattan, which claimed the lives of Darren Drake, Anne-Laure Decadt, Nicholas Cleves, Hernán Diego Mendoza, Alejandro Damián Pagnucco, Diego Enrique Angelini, Hernán Ferruchi, and Ariel Erlij. The reverberations from their tragic deaths will stretch far beyond Chambers and West, far beyond lower Manhattan. That’s the very purpose of terrorism — to destroy our trust in the systems that keep us safe. We are all meant to feel as though a speeding truck has hit us all.

There have been several great essays written this week about why we cyclists are immune to the impact of this terrorist act. After all, we’re accustomed to death and tragedy. Every few days our social media feeds beam news of another car-related cycling death into our lives. Yet every day, we climb back aboard our bicycles and pedal onwards. We are as resilient as we are vulnerable.

I agree with this sentiment, yet I also sympathize with riders who have become so overwhelmed by the daily dose of tragedy that they have hung up their bicycles. I know what it’s like to lose trust in the system, and Tuesday’s attack reminded me of the trust that all of us follow when we pedal a bicycle. After my crash, I retreated. If Tuesday’s attacks have shaken your trust, you should not feel like some outcast or weakling among the tribe. If the weekly reports of cycling deaths have you worried, it’s okay.

You are well within your right to lose confidence in the safety systems of stoplights and bike paths. So much of being a cyclist is based on trust. Every time we carve through a turn, we trust that our tires, wheels, and bike frame will prevent us from tumbling off the road. And yes, we trust that bike paths and rural roads and trails are the “safe” zones, where we can relax and ride without fearing the hum of approaching cars.

Each time we read about a death, another safe space is tainted or flat-out ruined. Organized group rides are safe spaces, right? Last year’s horrific hit-and-run in Michigan claimed the lives of Debra Ann Bradley, Melissa Fevig-Hughes, Fred Anton, Larry Paulik, and Suzanne Sippel. Are gran fondos safe spaces? Last month Aaron Paff, 21, allegedly steered his Dodge Ram into a group of riders on purpose during California’s Jensie Gran Fondo, sending four of them to the hospital. Residential streets are safe, right? The list of tragedies involving residential cycling deaths is simply too long to list.

These stories should make us scared, and they should make us angry. They should motivate us to contribute to bicycle advocacy groups and to pester our local lawmakers to enact laws against distracted driving. They should convince us to demand better lights, helmets, and protective gear from our industry. And they should inspire us to honor those who never rode back home.

Read about what to do if you’re hit by a car while riding >>

IT TOOK ME SEVERAL WEEKS to be able to go on a ride without freaking out. I started with late-night laps around Central Park and progressed to slow spins along Palisades, where there is limited car traffic. Within a few months, I was back banging bars in the Saturday morning Century Road Club of America races and zipping along through traffic to and from my office.

What brought me back to cycling was not my trust in the system but rather my renewed trust in the value that cycling brought to my life. I know this sounds, well, totally lame. I wrote down all of the qualities that cycling brought to my life, and the various ways a bicycle ride enriched my day. (Hint: I had more for cycling than for running.) Those were things I could trust.

I lost that list long ago. So I’ll leave you with an updated version.

I trust that my bike ride today will help me…
Figure out the feature story that is due next week
Clean that technical section of singletrack (or pucker and walk it)
Get over that Dodgers loss
Cure my hangover
Win the town sprint
Eat that second slice of pecan pie and not care
Forget that argument about the dumb thing
Listen to the latest episode of “Embedded”
Find out where that mystery road goes
Even out my pedal stroke
Daydream about the future
Catch up with an old friend
Not look at my phone for a few hours and be totally fine with it
Win back that Strava KOM
Feel like I could drop everyone on that climb
Make someone else suffer
Be more than just pack fodder
Descend like Nibali
Climb like Nairo
Master my Froome impersonation
Understand my latest failure
Cheer my latest success
Remember to call Mom
Forget the stress
Feel alive