Put in Some Distance

By Maynard Hershon

Cyclists who share roads with cars suffer abuse from the drivers of those cars. Who knows why? It’s been that way as long as anyone can remember, since WWII certainly, since before SUVs and in-car gadgets, before cell phones and text messaging.

Drivers imagine that the roads belong to them. Trying to understand why they feel that way, how they got that way, won’t help us much. Abuse from drivers is like gravity; it sucks whether you understand it or not.

Driving makes most people feel rushed even when they have plenty of time. They’re in a hurry even when they aren’t looking forward to getting where they’re going. It’s a disease and it’s an epidemic.

Though drivers hurry, traffic seldom does. So drivers sit tense, frustrated behind the wheel, anger barely suppressed, primed, tight-jawed, ready to act out that anger.

Cyclists are different. We feel unjustly persecuted on the road, abused by callous motorists. So we ride tense, anger barely suppressed, tight-jawed, primed, ready for someone, anyone, to offend, so we can act out that anger.

Clearly, cycling in such a wound-tight state does nothing for our health, happiness or fitness. Why are we so tense? On some level we choose to be.

We choose to react to each motorist offense as if it were personal, as if it were directed at us as individuals by someone who knows us. As if the offense were committed on purpose, and we, you or I, were chosen to be its victim.

If we didn’t take each offense personally, would we fly off the handle, screaming and gesturing the way many of us do? We’d never get that upset over motorist stupidity and carelessness directed at somebody else. Would we? When it happens to the other guy, it’s no big thing. Right?

In moments of clarity, we know better than to take motorist abuse personally; we know it’s not personal, but we forget ourselves. We lose that precious distance, that gap between the thing that happens in the instant - the driver cutting us off, maybe - and our reaction to it.

I do better, I know, when I can keep that dash in there, that instant of detachment.

During that instant, I remind myself that, sure enough, still another driver has acted stupidly. No doubt drivers will, after all, occasionally act stupidly. I try to remember that no screaming, gesturing cyclist has cured any driver of acting stupidly. Not yet.

If we each could detach for just an instant, we could defuse those personal explosions in traffic. We could watch the action from a distance, as if we were in a car two freeway lanes away, watching one driver cut off another.

We could shake our heads at driver stupidity; gosh, they really do stupid stuff.

We could remember that we drive too, and we’ve done stupid, careless stuff. That once or twice we’ve scared ourselves, not seeing a cyclist until almost too late. We could remember being surprised by a daring urban cyclist with limited imagination and thinking: that guy’s crazy.

If we could keep a little distance, we could remember that people in cars don’t know us or hate us as individuals. They lump us together: all the same, always in the way, clogging their roads.

If we could keep a little distance, we might remember that we too sometimes lump individuals into categories, pigeonholes, so we can dislike them more conveniently. We can dislike them without the bother of getting to know them.

If we learned to keep a little distance, we could relax on our bikes. Cycling friends would see that we’re no longer so ready to yell at drivers. When they’d ask us what happened to calm us, we’d explain about the distance. Many things might change - if we could keep just a little emotional distance.

Can we change drivers in any way? Not likely. We can change ourselves. We can relax our jaws. We can drain our pools of standing resentment. We can ride looser, physically and emotionally.

We can stop wasting energy resenting people who don’t think or care about us, individuals who share nothing but an unreasoning, angry need to get someplace 15 minutes away in 10 minutes - without focusing on what they’re doing.

Remember, we cyclists came from the same places drivers did, went to the same churches and schools, had many of the same life experiences. At times, you couldn’t have told us apart. Honest.

Our paths split when they chose to continue traveling in dirty, shockingly expensive, lethal steel and glass cages, listening to shock-jocks and traffic reports, breathing the AC, picking their noses, talking to themselves or merely staring out tight-jawed at the world.

While we evolved.

Maynard has been writing about cycling for the Bicycle Paper (and the Rivendell Reader) almost forever. He says he’ll keep doing it as long as he can get away with it. “I do it for the money,” the Denver-dweller says, but we think there must be something about cycling that interests him.

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