Driving around town the other day, I found myself in a bad mood.
I was running an errand that all but demanded four-wheeled transport, but the conditions — there was about 14 feet of snow on the ground, and it was cold and blustery, and I was still in the throes of a kick-to-the-head upper-respiratory infection that I’m finally starting to think I’m over — would have kept me off my bike anyway.
I spied a guy on a bike. Good for him, I thought.
I drew closer, and my admiration turned to … morbid fascination.
The dude was rockin’ a scarf.
Now, I like a warm neck as much as the next guy. I’ve worn all manner of garments and apparatuses to keep warm during cold-weather commutes — lobster-claw mitts and balaclavas and ear warmers and insulated geegaws and doohickies — and while not all have necessarily been bike-specific, all have been bike-appropriate.
I’ll admit I’m a bit predisposed against guys wearing scarves. I reckoned if men are going to wear neck insulation, they should go ascot or go home, and if I man is considering wearing an ascot … well, no man should wear an ascot unless he’s a proper Brit.
But, whatevs. That’s in non-bike life.
On the bike, a scarf is just about the most ridiculous — not to mention dangerous — garment available, with the possible exception of skinny jeans on hipster men. But, again, that latter bit is personal bias.
Maybe I’ve seen “Faces of Death” or “Pet Sematary 2” one time too many (which, come to think of it, would be once, combined), but all I could see was that scarf flapping in the chilly bluster, flapping, flapping, licking at the back tire like a snake’s tongue, flapping, licking … then wrapping, wrapping itself around the stylish (but warm-necked!) scarfee’s rear wheel. He tumbles backward off the saddle, his airway constricted, fingers scrabbling at his throat, eyes bulging with fear … and I can look no more.
OK, that all happened in my head.
In real life, the dude crossed Clinton Parkway without incident, said scarf flapping — not licking — in the breeze.
I turned around as quickly as I could, but Sir Scarfsalot was nowhere to be seen. I didn’t want to be a know-it-all, but I thought I should warn him of the inherent dangers of be-scarfed cycling.
Or at the very least, I’d let him in on the wonders of … the turtleneck.
In my free time, I like to read whatever scientific treatises I can get my hands on — the longer, more jargony the better.
(OK, in the interest of honesty, I should confess that statement was absolutely false).
Flipping through my most recent copy of Journal of Neuroscience (another lie), I was drawn to a particularly interesting study by the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University. Normally I’m not terribly intrigued by neuroscience because, after all, it’s not exactly brain science (OK, yeah, it’s exactly that), but this particular study tripped my trigger.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and a bunch of other polysyllabic words, researchers looked at brain activity in 13 healthy volunteers as they listened to 74 sounds. The volunt-ears ranked each sound from most annoying to most pleasant.
Thus, the scientists were able to — drum roll, please — determine the 10 most annoying sounds.
Should anybody like to go the source, I’d be glad to loan out my copy of the Journal of Neuroscience (yeah, another lie), but WebMD dumbed it down for the masses, though it did preserve such cool words as amygdala and auditory cortex. It also provided clickable mp3s of the top-five most-annoying sounds.
They are: 1. Knife on bottle. 2. Fork on a glass. 3. Chalk on a blackboard. 4. Ruler on a bottle. And 5. Nails on a blackboard.
Personally, I can think of a bunch more sounds that make those five seem like heaven’s house band — like the sound of crunching coming from the gaping maw of a cubicle-mate, with whom I’d politely broach the subject, but then that wouldn’t be nearly passive-aggressive enough to suit me, now would it?
In the interest of science, however, I clicked on all five with the volume cranked, and both my kids (and my wife’s cat) confirmed that all five noises were, in fact, annoying.
My son is by far the most annoying Hartsock in the house (yup, another falsehood), and he seemed least perturbed.
My daughter doubled over and held her head in her hands. “Fork on a glass” was particularly distressing to her, though, it should be noted, she can listen to One Direction on a loop with no ill effects, so she’s not exactly a control group.
The cat didn’t last past “knife on a bottle” before lodging his objections by biting my daughter and running away. He never was one to do his part to advance science.
I found “nails on a blackboard” to be especially hair-raising, though I did generate a universal heebie-jeebie (and a withering stare from across the table) when I recreated “fork on a glass” with “fork on dinner plate” at dinner.
Down below “female scream” and “disc grinder” — but ahead of “baby crying” and “electric drill” — on the top-10 list was this gem: “Squealing brakes on a bicycle.”
That’s a good (bad) one, but it’s not the most annoying bike noise, at least to my addled amygdala.
I can’t stand the sound of a rusty, dry chain.
A few years ago, I noticed wherever, whenever I rode, cats would come out from their little hidey holes and make straight for me. It was especially creepy in the dead of night.
I couldn’t figure it out, until I finally noticed the chain on my fixed-gear bike had become a little dry. The sound was barely audible to me, but to Mr. and Mrs. Whiskers, it must have sounded like a giant can opener, so they’d come runnin’, expecting some sort of canned fish treat.
But that’s nothing compared to the awful grinding of dry, rusty chain on dry, rusty cog, over and over.
I’ve often fantasized about riding with a tube of lube, pulling alongside the offending chain-grinders and leaning over to apply oil on the fly.
But it probably wouldn’t be received in the spirit in which it was intended.
Even that sound, however, pales to what I consider to be the most annoying on-bike noise: screeching car tires, from behind.
Fortunately, I hear that sound about as infrequently as the neuroscientists’ top five.
That’s about to change, though, as soon as I figure out how to make them my new ringtones.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a married man in attaining a certain age must be in want of a new, sleeker, sexier something-or-other in his life.
Usually, such mid-life crises result in said semi-old dude’s trading up either his wife or his car.
As I careen headlong into middle-lifery, I’m acutely self-aware of such common urges to “upgrade” and vow not to succumb to them.
And, in all honestly, it shouldn’t be difficult to skirt (see what I did there?) either pitfall because I have no desire to replace my already sleek and sexy spouse (and, yes, she is a regular reader of my blog; why do you ask?), and I have so little emotional attachment to my car I can’t imagine any four-wheeled vehicle could compensate for whatever manhood I’m sure to lose over the next couple of years.
Curiously, though, I’ve seen a bit of anti-mid-life crisis creeping into my bike life. While the stereotypical crisis involves yearning for sexy and sleek, my bike urges suddenly lean toward portly and practical.
Several years ago, after I had been cycling semi-seriously for a while, I had a hankering for a new bike. I roamed the aisle at my favorite downtown bike shop and was promptly greeted by a worker. I explained I had a mountain bike, but that I spent almost all my time on the road. Though I had put on narrow, slick tires and tweaked about everything I could to turn it into a road machine, it was still a burly off-road beast at heart.
The worker chuckled a sympathetic chuckle and said what I was going through was understandable.
He said there’s a normal order for cycling purchases. He said it’s common for someone to start with, say, a mountain bike, then, after a few hundred or thousand miles, to want to get into the roadie scene. After a few more miles, cyclists get a little more purpose-driven: perhaps a cross bike or commuter or vintage steel steed follows. Before long, the car’s on the driveway, and the garage still isn’t big enough to contain the herd.
I haven’t had a hankering for a new ride in a long time, but I have found myself longingly eying two of the most ungainly steeds every to be shod with two wheels: cargo bikes and fat bikes.
Sometimes I’ll catch myself day dreaming about rolling along astride a longtail cargo bike, bags and parcels and boxes of groceries lashed to her sturdy, chromoly frame, birds chirping, the wind in my hair …
Or I’ll picture myself mounted on a fat bike, she with her huge, low-pressure tires, me wearing a balaclava that can’t begin to hide an ear-to-ear smile. Together we float, float over the foot of snow that covers the path ahead …
And my reverie will be interrupted by the need to drive to the store or to scrap another bike commute because Winter Storm Whatshisface dumped on us yet again.
But a man can still dream, right?
I was driving home from Kansas City the other day, with the cruise control set for a nice-and-legal 69 mph, when my venerable ride began to act a bit — please pardon the technical jargon here — wonky.
My car surged a bit, then slowed. Then, much to my surprise, my speedometer plummeted from 69 to 0 in a split-second. Though my momentum had begun to slow, I was still eating miles at a pace considerably faster than the goose egg my speedo displayed. Not the quickest SUV in the fleet, I finally figured out what had happened. My speedometer (sorry, more jargon) broke.
So I tucked in behind a car I had just passed and finished my drive home at an unknown rate of speed.
It has been nearly a week now, and though I haven’t driven much, I have motored a bit around town, somehow, miraculously, making it to my destination despite never having gone any faster than 0 mph. My odometer hasn’t budged, either. You could say I’m going nowhere fast. Or everywhere slow.
Until I can get it into the shop to make the repairs later this week, I’m rather enjoying my time as a speedless wonder. Though I suppose I could extrapolate my speed based on gearing and engine RPM, I simply make a point not to be the fastest driver on the road. It’s all relative.
The most amusing aspect of my speedlessness is the effect it has on my kids.
I think my daughter, a by-the-book type, is genuinely uncomfortable riding around at mysterious velocities, which is just fine with me. She’s a teenager, after all; it’s her sole mission in life to be uncomfortable.
My son, however, is a bit more of a free spirit, and I think he sees it as a grand adventure.
The other day, we were driving downtown, and he kept bringing up my speed-nometer.
“So, if you got pulled over right now,” he asked, “you’d be in big trouble, right?”
I explained that, no, I might be fined for faulty equipment and ticketed for speeding, but it wasn’t exactly cause for a blindfold and cigarette.
He wouldn’t let it drop, so I launched into a screed about laws and lawlessness.
I explained that though speeding is absolute — 26 mph in a 25 is speeding, period — punishment is somewhat subjective. I explained it’s only speeding if you get caught, and even then is at the discretion of the representative of the law.
I asked him, What if you were on a deserted road, rushing to the hospital for the birth of your first child, and you’re pulled over after having gone a mere 1 mph over the limit? That’s not the same as doing 65 in a school zone at dismissal time.
Taking his silence as mark of his interest, I plowed forward.
I suggested it is that gray area that determines the nature of a society. With apologies to St. Augustine and all those other smart guys, sometimes the justice of a law is only determined by its application.
Hearing what I assumed to be a snore of rapt attention, I continued on.
I told him it’s kind of like the reasoning some cyclists use to justify running red lights or rolling stop signs. Though all vehicles are legally bound to stop, some cyclists think it’s OK to roll on through because their mode of transportation is morally superior. Or because the intent of such laws is not to bring vehicles to a complete standstill but to instill a sense of order for the protection of all, and cyclists can maintain that order while ignoring the laws.
I explained to my son that, as much as I can understand those sentiments, I always stop, not out of morality but practicality. As much as I might want to stick it to The Man by rolling his stop signs, I don’t want to end up as a hood ornament because I did. And I honestly believe if I want to have all the rights of a road user, I have to adhere to all the laws of one.
Now that I’m not bound by some absolute number on my dashboard, I’m not going to go all Speed Racer. I do think some speed limits are a bit arbitrary, but I follow them. And as long as my speedometer is on the fritz, I’m likely to drive even slower than normal to make sure I’m not butting up against the limit — not out of fear of punishment, but because I’m a good law-abider. While I appreciate the right — the need, even — to rebel against unjust laws, I don’t think 25 on the street in front of my house is unjust.
I could all but hear his eyes rolling, or perhaps rolling back in his head, but I think I saw a little glint, too, and I realized too late my mistake.
Rather than instill in my son a sense of righteousness and justice and a quick lesson in civil disobedience, I instead gave him a blueprint for excuses not to clean his room.
Oh, well, I guess our next trip in the car will have to include a little lesson in various forms of government, particularly dictatorships.
A couple of my friends have approached me recently, asking what I make of “this Lance mess.”
I usually reply with, “Well, Arthur’s a sap, but I don’t care how cute Gwen is, you can’t back-stab your bestie like that.”
Yeah, I don’t have a lot of friends.
And while my reply might seem to carry a hint of smart-aleckery, in truth I mean it as a poignant, thoughtful social commentary that lying, cheating Lances go back at least as far as Arthurian times.
In truth, however, I’m worried about the fallout from this century’s Lance malfeasance.
I’m speaking, of course, about former cyclist Lance Armstrong, who appeared on a talk show recently — I believe it was Maury, or perhaps Judge Judy — and admitted to cheating on his taxes, or somesuch. I didn’t really see it, nor did I have any interest in it.
I have about as much interest in professional bike racing as I have skill in it, which is to say, slightly less than none. I recall one year I tuned into several stages of the Tour de France and was rather impressed with the pretty scenery and lovely fans and that funny fat guy who dresses up like a pitchfork-wielding devil and chases cyclists up nearly vertical ascents, but you can only see so many shots of cows in sunflower fields and funny fat guys in devil suits before you feel compelled to surf on over to Maury and his latest episode of, “I’m my baby’s daddy and grandfather. And uncle. And sister.”
Throw in the fact that you have to go back to something like 1492 before you can find a Tour champion who hasn’t had to vacate his championship because of some performance enhancement of some sort, and, well, it becomes wearisome.
Which brings us to the Lance Effect.
Back when Armstrong was pumping his body full of illegal, dangerous drugs to get an unfair advantage over all the other illegally doped-up cyclists in the pro ranks — sorry; I mean, back when he was winning his seven Tour titles — interest in cycling surged nationally. Something like .00000125 percent of the population had heard of him, and at least half that many people admitted to having seen a bike at one point in their lives. This huge surge was referred to as the Lance Effect.
Now that his name has been dragged through the heaps of discarded needles and stadiums have been stripping that name — or that of his cancer-fighting charity, Livestrong — off their marquees and folks have been burning their yellow Livestrong bracelets, and cycling again is being relegated to the fringe (just kidding; it’s never been anywhere but), there’s a new Lance Effect that worries me.
I’m referring, of course, to the insipid way noncyclists — usually upset motorists, or folks hanging out on their front porches — liked to bellow catchy phrases like, “Way to go Lance!” or “Pedal faster, Lance!” or, my personal favorite, “Get out of the #&%ing road, Lance!” at cyclists who bear no resemblance to his Lanceness.
My fear is, what clever sobriquet will take Lance’s place in the noncyclist bellower’s vernacular?
I’d have to guess the second-most-famous American cyclist after Sir Dopesalot would have to be … Pee-wee Herman, who pedaled his way though a movie in search of his beloved stolen bike. Then he got busted in real life for, ahem, indiscretions with himself in an adult theater, and the charm of the childlike actor lost its luster.
But that movie was eons ago, and I’m afraid there’s a whole generation of bike bellowers who have no idea who Pee-wee was.
I guess those who feel the need to address us will have to resort to the tried and true. After Lance, the most popular nicknames for cyclists include various and sundry bodily orifices, several variations — the gerund, and a laundry list of prefixes and suffixes — of the root word for what happens when a man and a woman love each other very, very much, and, for some reason, questions about sexual preferences.
Or maybe they’ll fall back to the first — and, now that Youknowwho has been wiped off the rolls, last — American winner of the Tour.
Maybe next time out I can look forward to hearing, “Get out of the $*%ing road, Greg.”
A bit of winter weather kept me off the bike for a week or so. Instead I lounged around on the sofa eating bonbons and pondering the imponderable.
At some point in said pondering, I puzzled my puzzler over The Weather Channel’s decision to begin naming “noteworthy” winter storms.
It was, I believe, Draco that (who?) dumped on us our first measurable snowfall in over a year, back on Dec. 20ish. The dusting we got just before winter break was unnamed.
Euclid tore up the South around Christmas, spinning up tornadoes.
Freyr — a Norse god associated with fair weather — was powdering the East as recently as Sunday.
Up next: Gandolf. (“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!”) (And, yes, I'm aware Gandalf with an A is a Hobbit's best friend, but since this is purely an exercise in phonic fun, I, Ondrew, declare them one in the same.)
The Weather Channel — which should not be confused with a real scientific agency so much as “Entertainment Tonight” with isobars and dry-bulb hygrometers — assures it has begun naming winter storms for all sorts of good reasons.
“Naming a storm raises awareness. Attaching a name makes it much easier to follow a weather system’s progress. A storm with a name takes on a personality all its own, which adds to awareness. In today’s social media world, a name makes it much easier to reference in communication. A named storm is easier to remember and refer to in the future.”
In other words, when Jim Cantore is standing out amid some thunder-snowpocalypse and The Twitter is all abuzz about #winterstormnemo, guess who gets mentioned as much as the storm itself? Yep, The Weather Channel.
It’s like corporate sponsorship, only cheaper.
Remember that when Winter Storm Triton Brought To You By TWC is howling around your door.
I guess I don’t have a problem with it. Truth is, it’s good marketing. Folks love talking about the weather (when it’s bad), and giving every “noteworthy” storm its own hashtag makes conversing about said storms with your thumbs that much easier. And, invariably, somebody is going to ask, “What the heck is a ‘Xerxes,’ or, ‘Since when did they start naming snow storms?’ And, of course, somebody will inform it was the Weather Channel’s idea, starting this year, and … voila: instant pub.
My only beef is the names.
I guess Brutus and Draco and Gandolf (The White, no doubt) and Jove, Saturn and Zeus are awesome enough to send folks into a batten-down-the-hatches-lay-in-the-stores-and-curl-up-with-the-dogs panic (and, coincidentally, drive up the TV ratings), but I’m not in the least bit afraid of Helen, Khan (Kirk totally put him in his place), Luna, Nemo, Q, Ukko, Walda or Yogi.
All of the aforementioned names, by the way, are on TWC’s list of sobriquets for this storm season.
The more that I think about it, however, the more opposed I become to the anthropomorphization of weather systems.
In addition to the ease with which we can dismiss certain names — I can’t help but wonder if Superstorm Sandy had been, say, Superstorm Gozer the Gozerian, maybe folks would have taken it (her?) more seriously — it can give some names a bad, well, name.
Maybe I’m taking it a bit too personally. After all, Andrew was one of the costliest (but not deadliest) hurricanes in the history of weather, and I feel I’m still lumped in with that meteorological bad boy more than two decades later.
I did collect a bunch of headlines — “Andrew bears down on coast” and “Residents flee ahead of Andrew” and “Andrew wreaks havoc” and “Dewey defeats Truman” — until I deemed it a bit morbidly narcissistic.
Maybe that’s why The Weather Channel went with all of the monikers from ancient Greece or Norse or Disney movie mythology.
I can’t imagine there are too many Iagos or Orkos walking the earth just counting the days until their winter-storm namesake makes buses plunge and cripples cities and wraps entire communities in its icy grip just so they can tack some tacky headline on their cubicle wall.
City street crews have been in my ’hood lately, sealing the countless cracks that mar our fair roads, and I have to admit to a little thrill of anxiety whenever they’re around.
I’ve road-geeked out a bit watching them.
As best I can tell, first the fine fix-it folks blast those blasted cracks with high-pressure hoses to clear out the pebbles, glass, organics and, in a few cases, small children and large dogs that have collected. Then they follow up with a super-cool blowtorch, I’m guessing to light the way so they can make sure none of their co-workers accidentally fell into the fell fissure. Then they follow up with a molten lava flow of — pardon the scientific jargon here — black goo that seals the deal, keeping water out and preventing additional water damage until they can return sometime next century to give the road the resurfacing it really needs, by which time, of course, our cars will hover on a cushion of air and roads will be superfluous.
I’m guessing the whole endeavor is more about saving money than suspensions.
Of all the roads I regularly ride on during my commutes by bike, mine seems among the worst, just like it’s always the last one to be cleared of snow (remember that stuff? Yeah, me either). The unmistakable ka-WHOMP, ka-WHOMP of car tires thwacking the cracking pavement rings out every time a car drives by.
On a bike, I find the Grand Canyon-esque “cracks” are a real pain. Literally. Take your eye or mind off the road ahead, and before long you’re guaranteed a real shot to the, um, undercarriage.
The sealing helps a little, but not much. Essentially, it acts kind of like rubber, a pavement prophylactic that provides a bit of cushion, but only a bit. The crack’s still there.
Awhile back, I decided to start a project. I planned to try to find the alphabet spelled out in the creative sealant jobs around town. At first, I was going to try to find the letters in order, but decided before long to find — and photograph — them as I found them. I recall finding E and S and J and L and O and P. I found a smiley face so distinct it had to be intentional. I found various other designs, and then I found my senses. My whole idea was to compile one compilation of road-sealant photo thumbnails, like a poster I saw a few years ago a photographer made by taking pictures of letter patterns on the wings of butterflies. It really was quite pretty. And I finally had to ask myself, Why on earth would anyone want to look at a picture of dried, black goop on dull, grey pavement?
I abandoned that project.
Now, about that anxiety.
I’m sure the sealant is a good thing, but as a cyclist I tend to tread over the street stopgap lightly.
Immediately after the high-pressure-hose portion of the process, the road is filthy. All that crud has to go somewhere, so it collects on the road for an unwitting cyclist to ride through.
I’ve felt the heat of that torch as I’ve ridden by.
But most worrisome of all is the prospect of the sticky, black goo.
I’m always afraid I’ll ride through a fresh batch and coat my tires with it. As I roll, I envision the gummy crud attracting all the left-over gunk on the road, thus my tires gain junk and circumference as I go until they eventually become unable to turn and I ground to a halt.
Or, worse yet, I picture myself riding into a freshly-glopped gap and disappearing, never to be seen again, like a sabre-toothed tiger into a Midwestern La Brea tar pit. Perhaps some future generation will stumble upon my remarkably preserved remains, still perched atop my bike, hose off the goo and puzzle over what a strange being I must have been.
I’ll admit to more than my share of irrational fears off the bike, but I like to think all of my from-the-saddle scares are warranted.
Of course, it could be argued that such rationalization is precisely what makes a fear irrational, but I fear I digress.
Among my most gripping two-wheeled terrors: getting sucked into the vacuum created by the rush of a passing semi; drunk drivers; texters/drivers; oil slicks overlooking rocky, razor-wire protected obsidian precipices (precipi?); clowns in little clown cars.
Lately, though, I’ve been cold-sweating a whole new irrational fear as I pedal merrily along: spheres.
Let me explain.
A couple of weeks back, I was riding home, and a vehicle veered a bit, forcing me toward a curb. Lining said curb were a dozen or so hedge apples. You know, those gnarly, green, goopy softball-sized orbs of evil that fall from osage orange (hedge) trees? I didn’t actually contact an ’apple. In fact, I wasn’t even all that close. But as I pedalled away, a hedge apple lodged in my mind’s eye, and I envisioned myself colliding with one of those awful globes of gloppy gunk.
As I saw it in my worst road nightmare, my skinny tire would meet up with an apple, start to climb, then — SLAM! — down I’d go in a violent heap.
See, round on round isn’t a good pairing. I’m no geometrist (or geometreer, for that matter), but there’s something about the meeting of two unstable surfaces that gives me an unshakable heebie-jeebie.
Hedge apples aren’t the only sinister spheres.
Walnuts can do a real number on a moving bike, though they do make a satisfying pop when they’re crushed under the wheel of a car.
Also along my regular commute is a house rife with sweet-gum trees. These gems produce oodles of sweet-gum balls that aren’t nearly as innocuous as they sound. They resemble old naval mines — round, spiky balls — and, as any sweet-gum-tree owner can attest, they outnumber sweet-gum leaves by about 1,500-to-1. Fortunately, they’re not particularly stout, or they’d be little tree-ninja deathtrap caltrops, dropping cyclists like black ice.
I’ve never pedaled in the tropics, but I imagine a coconut could be absolutely beastly.
I’m also terrified of encountering an in-the-wild, unavoidable smattering of marbles or ball bearings in my path. Because, you know, those darned things are everywhere you look.
I did encounter an odd orb just the other day.
Not far from my home, I looked to the gutter to see, in all its yellow, striped glory, a croquet ball. At first, I thought it might be a bocce ball, but as I drew near I saw the terrifyingly telltale concentric grooves.
I gave that bad ball a wide berth, and as I pedaled away I kept my head on a swivel, frantically searching for croquet’s close summer-fun cousin — which might be the well-meaning cyclist’s worst nightmare: lawn darts.
They’re not spheres, but those things can really do some damage.
I was riding home for dinner the other evening, still struggling with the reality that it now gets dark just a couple minutes after noon, and approached the reviled roundabout not far from my house.
As I approached the traffic-calming device from hell, I was surprised to see, to my right, an 18ish-wheeler on the roll.
This is a quiet residential neighborhood, far from any commercial properties, so the semi seemed more than halfway out of place, but there has been a bit of construction in the area, so I guess it made some sense.
Anyway, I made it to the roundabout with the big truck still a couple of blocks away, so there was no conflict, but I didn’t wonder just how he’d manage to navigate the blasted thing.
As I pondered — and it takes great concentration on my part to ponder and pedal simultaneously — I gazed truck-ward and thought it was steaming ahead rather quickly. Coupled with the darkness, an aggressive silhouette and what seemed to be an excessive amount of running lights, the semi suddenly seemed sinister.
Just like that, my steel-trap of a mind churned and groaned and wheezed under an uncharacteristic workload, and I had an epiphany. Suddenly, I found myself living out “Duel,” a dandy television movie almost as old as me.
I stumbled upon “Duel” several years ago, late at night, as I recall. The premise of “Dual (The Driving Force is Fear)” is that a business man traveling through the California desert encounters a slow-moving big rig. The man — actor Dennis Weaver, and his glorious mustache — passes the truck, apparently infuriating the psychotic truck driver and setting off 90 minutes of awesome in which the two play cat-and-mouse at highway speeds. It’s actually quite good and quite suspenseful.
A decade or so later, I learned “Duel” was the movie-length directorial debut of a fella by the name of Steven Spielberg, who was something like 5 at the time (1971), used a tiny budget of $27.50 and shot the whole thing in 13 days. (In the interest of accuracy, I’ll admit here IMDb informs me Spielberg was actually 24 at the time and the budget actually $450,000, but the 13-days thing … true).
So with that connection made in my sick brain, I picked up the pace while glancing furtively over my shoulder to keep an eye on the deathmobile that, somehow, had successfully navigated the roundabout and WAS COMING RIGHT FOR ME!
I pedaled faster; Truck O’ Death kept coming.
I took a quick left; the rig — as in the movie, I never actually saw the driver — went left, too.
Hoping to offset my pedestrian pace with superior maneuverability, I zig-zagged and was relieved to see said sinister semi continue on … but a block later, I saw the wily psycho had simply taken a parallel course and was seemingly matching my pace.
The preternatural Peterbilt stood between me and my house, so I sped up, quickly jumped on the brakes, then cut a sharp right, passing just behind it as I sprinted for the safety of home.
I rolled to a stop in my garage and listened for what I was sure to come: the unmistakable growl of a diesel engine, maybe the eerie howl of an air horn, perhaps the destructive pavement-pounding force of Jake Brakes, but all I heard was the accelerated beating of my heart.
I know he’s still out there.
So if anyone knows of a nearby cliff where I can stage my final, climactic scene, please let me know.
I read with dread the other day the news that the city was contemplating putting in another infernal traffic-calming device.
Commissioners were considering a roundabout at the intersection of Ninth and New Hampshire streets, despite the fact roundabouts seem to be almost universally despised by anyone who has ever encountered one anywhere. Give or take.
First, a disclaimer. I understand how roundabouts are supposed to work. And I understand how to navigate one. It’s not hard, really. Yield to traffic already in the roundabout. That’s it.
Trouble is, not everybody knows or chooses to follow that simple rule, so making it through a roundabout can be dicey.
And that’s when all the people involved are squirreled away in metal cages.
When folks try to get through roundabouts on two wheels or even — gasp! — on foot, things get a little more treacherous.
All things being equal, there seem to be some drivers who are loath to yield to a person on a bike. I’ve been bullied by motor-vehicle operators before. Outweighed by a couple thousand pounds (man and equipment combined, rest assured), I usually yield to such folks. I don’t especially like it, but I do rather enjoy breathing.
Then again, I frequently encounter drivers who go to the other extreme and, despite being in the roundabout already, insist on motioning me ahead of them. Sometimes I protest. Sometimes I don’t. No matter how well-intentioned they might be, these folks nevertheless foul the flow of traffic — contrary to the purpose of the roundabout. As the traffic backs up, I can feel the eyes burning into me and can’t help but feel every driver so inconvenienced must assume the cyclist is to blame.
In my mind, though, the worst roundabout ruffians are the nimrods who, in the interest of shaving a full three-tenths of a second off their commute, will cut the corner on a roundabout. Rather than go all the way around a roundabout to make what would amount to a left turn, if the way appears clear, they’ll go left immediately, driving, if only for a moment, the wrong way in the roundabout.
If the way indeed is clear, no worries.
But if there is, say, a guy on a bike legally navigating the roundabout, he’s bound to become a hood ornament.
And this isn’t purely hypothetical.
There’s a traffic circle, with a lovely view-impeding garden at is center, near my home I ride through just about every day. There’s not a lot of traffic. I’d guess I’ve encountered another vehicle in the circle maybe 50 times over the years. Twice in that span I’ve had to take emergency evasive action to avoid a wrong-way roundabouter. And I’m not talking a gentle squeeze of the brakes; both times it was more like a panicked dive to the curb as I tried to avoid a grille all up in my grill.
If my guesstimate is correct, I’ve had a potentially dangerous encounter at that intersection 4 percent of the time I’ve encountered another vehicle there. Those aren’t good odds.
I read a couple of reports that claim car-cycle accidents can be two to three times more common in roundabouts than at other controlled intersections. But the good news is that traffic tends to be slower.
The takeaway: Cyclists are more likely to get hit, but the collision won't hurt quite as much.
I take that as slight consolation.