By Tim Hayes
For as long as we’ve lived in this neighborhood and its extended environs, we’ve seen him.
Sweating in the summer, huffing in the winter, but always there. Like the tides, regular, predictable, a steady presence in an otherwise turbulent and chaotic world. Running. Down the steep quarter-mile roadway to the closest main thoroughfare, then back up again. Running. On the upper flats, another mile, all the way out to a far split in the road, then a mile back again. Running.
He obviously enjoyed it, or at least enjoyed the benefits of it. Yet as you would pass him, scooting by in air-conditioned comfort at 45 mph, he always seemed to have that special look that distance runners carry – the odd combined expression of utter exhaustion, complete self-loathing, smug superiority, and conscious numbness.
Having never run longer than two blocks to catch a bus – and many, many years ago, as a silly youth – I have no idea whether those qualities actually float through a runner’s mind, but it always looked that way to me.
Anyway, a few days ago, a text arrived from one of my kids, telling us that this longtime staple of the area had been killed that morning, riding his bicycle to work. And the shock and surprise hit me harder than I might have anticipated. It came as no surprise that such a health devotee rode his bike to work, but to hear that he died while doing it certainly did.
From news reports, it happened in the pre-dawn hours, along that main thoroughfare referenced above. Despite reflectors on his bicycle, a motorist clipped him while trying to pass, and as the cyclist crashed to the pavement, another driver behind the first, never having time to react before realizing what had happened, struck him again. The poor fellow was gone instantly.
A few days later, one of those “ghost bikes” – a bicycle painted white – had been placed at the scene, commemorating the tragedy.
And here’s where I start to get a little torn.
Riding a bike has always been great fun. Here in Pittsburgh, the mayor takes a lot of grief for instituting special bike lanes all over the city, but they never bothered me. Hey, if you enjoy cycling, more power to you. Some of the people I love most in the world have been diehard bike riders for years.
But – and you knew there was a “but” coming, right? – I also believe in common sense and avoiding completely avoidable risks to life and limb. Risks like believing in the wisdom, alertness, and courtesy of every single person behind the wheel of a 2,000-pound speeding hulk of steel, rubber, and glass to give you enough space to pedal around without being sent either into next week or to your maker. There, I’ve said it.
A good friend from our street loves to get on his bike and tool around every evening, weather permitting. But he sticks to local streets, where the traffic is not zooming by at breakneck speed. He gets his exercise in, while not tempting fate.
I heard somewhere along the way that in Pennsylvania, the law requires drivers to allow at least four feet of leeway to cyclists when passing them on the road. Correct me here, but doesn’t that place the driver well into the opposing lane? So, dear General Assembly, you would rather see more head-on collisions? None of this makes sense to me.
Just today, driving around running errands, I counted at least six cars in the oncoming lane swerving near or across the double-yellow line toward me. There wasn’t a bike in sight. The drivers simply had become distracted by their cell phones while at the wheel. And bike enthusiasts think people who can’t even stay in their lanes under normal, uncluttered roadway circumstances will eagerly, judiciously, whole-heartedly make every effort to protect their rights and safety?
I can show you a sad, whitewashed ghost bike that proves otherwise.
Riding a bike is great fun. But when it’s a 20-pound bicycle against a rolling motor vehicle, it doesn’t even begin to pose a fair fight. Cyclists, please stick to the bike lanes, back roads, and park trails. Drivers, slow down and be careful motoring around anybody on a bike.
It’s a tenuous relationship, at best. A tragic one, at worst.
Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes