Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pattern Recognition

Yesterday I biked home sans wagon and sans Contraption Captain.  This left the field open for my favorite commuting activity:  racing against unaware bicyclists.  I crossed El Camino and was smoked by a fast roadie on a pretty bike.  I gave chase and figured out that he was the better bicyclist, faster and stronger, but with the cooperation of a few traffic lights I found I could keep up.  I liked the way he operated.  He stopped for red lights and waited.  When he wanted to pass a slower bicyclist he signaled to the cars and went around the bicyclist with enough room, once it was safe.  He had the strong confident behaviors of someone who doesn't need to cheat to win.

Then came the incident.  As I told the Contraption Captain later, as incidents go it was a minor one.  Neither of us (the bicyclists) were hit and even if we had been hit it probably would have not been particularly bad.  Scrapes and bruises.  A fracture if someone got really unlucky.  The roadies and I were riding up the bike lane with heavy congested stalled traffic to our left.  We approached an intersection with a green light but the cars were backed through the intersection and were not progressing.  The roadie slowed somewhat and continued.  A car that wanted to make a right turn further up started to pull his car part way into the bike lane (an act of desperation, he would not be able to continue on, not enough room) and the roadie slowed more.  The car stopped and seemed to see the roadie but when the roadie tried to get by the car pulled forward again and looked briefly as if he would hit the roadie who slammed on the brakes.  I gave a short sharp scream of warning and the car stopped.  The roadie continued and then I continued.  Just life in the bike lane.

The two of us hit the steep part of the hill next (he is first, I am second) and I badly wanted to make the green light and keep up.  I worked really hard and this is the end of my day and the end of my ride so the burst of speed I produced was hard won.  I cleared the light and continued on up the hill feeling great about myself, about bicyclists, about the evening ahead.  Tired and sweaty I put my bike away and went upstairs, changing rapidly from Champion of The Intersection at Alpine Road to middle-aged mother who needs to make dinner.

Fast forward and a mom-friend of mine shows up to pick up her kid.  She is sorry she was late, she was stuck in traffic with her friend.  Actually they saw me go by on my bicycle.  I glow a little with pride.  I think that I look great on my bicycle.  It is one of my few vanities.  I am hoping she saw me charge Sand Hill Rd.  She's a marathon runner and athletic in her own right and maybe she'll appreciate the speed I got when I went through the intersection.  She says "Yeah my friend said you were nearly killed."  I blink.  Was I nearly killed?  Then I remember the above incident with the car.  "Oh" I say, "there was a thing with the bicyclist in front of me.  Maybe that's what he means."  She nods.  "My friend says it was a really close."  She has the look of someone whose opinions have been confirmed with data.

This was depressing to me.  It's depressing because after she said this I had to consider, "was it close?  Was I nearly killed?  Is there something I don't remember even?"  I was reminded of my High School chemistry teacher.  He said that people see what they expect to see and gave an example of a guy who said that only crazy people hung out in Harvard Square in Cambridge.  He went to Harvard Square and saw a bunch of crazy people run up the street wearing only underpants.  Except what he actually saw was a road race, and a group of runners going by wearing race kit.

My friend expects bicycling to be dangerous.  She often tells me about the drivers she sees engaging in road rage or doing their hair or not paying attention.  So when she sees me bicycling she expects to see a near death experience and that's what she gets.  What do I expect?  The majority of cars are effectively a herd of cattle traveling to their destinations.  Some of the ornery ones diverge from the group and so the entire herd bears close watching but steady state is...just life traveling on a road that I share with a lot of other people.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting points chaffed. Yesterday I rode to work. After stopping at the post office I travel an alley for a couple of blocks before popping back onto the main street. Along this alley way is a church parking lot. I spotted an SUV about to exit the lot and pull into the alley. Anticipating the car would not see me I slowed to a crawl and sure enough the SUV nosed half way out into the alley before I saw the telltale lurch as brakes were suddenly applied.

    Now I recognized this potential hazardous situation from half a block away and made allowances for it. But I can easily see how an onlooker (especially one in a car with obscured vision) would say OMG that bicyclist just about got run over! Happens all the time.

    Over time an experienced rider's situational awareness becomes finely tuned. This and the excellent view afforded one from atop a bike are the keys to survival. (As you know i'm sure.)

    Your herd of cattle analogy is right on.