Life in the Middle: Sharing the Road is Like Swimming with Sharks

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I try not to ride bikes alone, for the same reason I try not to surf alone. Sharks. It’s a numbers game. If I’m surfing alone at a break where there happens to be a hungry, man-eating shark, then there’s a good chance I’m gonna be his dinner. But if there are seven people in that lineup for that shark to choose from, we spread out the odds of getting attacked among us. Same thing with riding bikes, especially road bikes. Riding with a group of other dudes reduces the chances of me getting hit by some redneck who’s overly aggressive toward road cyclists because he’s confused by the emotions he feels when he sees men in Lycra. The Neanderthal has six other bikers to take his aggression out on. Safety in numbers.

It’s a dangerous world out there, particularly on two wheels. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, almost a thousand people are killed in bike accidents each year. And around 48,000 are sent to the hospital. That’s not to say all of those accidents are the result of aggressive drivers. Sometimes drivers are just texting. Or eating McDonalds. Or drunk. And yeah, cyclists make mistakes and do stupid things too.

You could argue that if road cycling is so dangerous, maybe you shouldn’t do it. I had a friend who told me she thought riding bikes on roads should be illegal because it was too much of an inconvenience for her to slow down and move over when she passed a cyclist. I had a hard time not slapping her.

First of all, screw the aggressive and careless drivers out there. Riding bikes along winding country roads or through a bustling city is awesome. I’d argue that there’s no better way to get from point A to point B. I’m not gonna let some multi-tasking gymnastics mom in a hurry to get to Starbucks take that away from me. Also, statistics only tell part of the story. Sure, too many people die every year from cycling accidents, but when you think about the sheer number of cyclists out there, you’re probably more likely to die choking on a kale salad than riding a bike. If anything, the statistics are a call for more bikers to hit the road; the more cyclists on the streets, the safer those streets become for cyclists.

But there’s another factor at play here that takes us back to surfing, and the potential of tangling with a man-eating shark. There’s something moving about being on the edge of the ocean, swimming in a waterscape where so many large, potentially dangerous animals linger below the surface. It’s one of the few times in a person’s life when it becomes blatantly obvious that you are not always at the top of the food chain. It’s a humbling realization that suddenly makes you feel small and vulnerable, but at the same time, connected to something bigger. Surfing with sharks is “awesome” in the most literal sense of the word.

Cycling produces the same sense of awe. When I’m riding my road bike in a street full of cars going 50 miles per hour, I am no longer at the top of the food chain. And like a small, vulnerable animal trying to sneak a drink at an African watering hole, I become hyper-aware. I try to compartmentalize sounds and listen for tires. I watch for traffic patterns three blocks up the road, trying to guess the next move of the string of cars in front of me. I assume drivers are not looking out for me. Actually, I assume they’re gunning for me, and I try to always have an exit strategy in every intersection, every potential confrontation.

The rules of shark encounters carry over to two wheels, too; When you’re biking, it’s important to always make eye contact with drivers, never show fear, and if one of them gets aggressive, punch him in the nose. I’m kidding (not really). Never hit a driver (unless he deserves it).

There’s something very large, and very fast out there that could drastically alter the course of your life. It’s scary as hell. It’s also exhilarating, and I’d argue, an important part of being human.

It’s easy to forget our true pecking order when we’re sitting in our air conditioned homes, watching reruns of “American Ninja Warrior.” We spend so much time in a safety bubble surrounded by side impact air bags and gluten free bagels, I think we need to seek out these situations where we are suddenly vulnerable.

So I’m not saying be careless. You take the proper safety precautions, you don’t mess around, but I’d argue you need to put yourself in those vulnerable situations every once in a while. On a surfboard with sharks around you. On a bike in Mid-Town Atlanta. Just so you can get an appreciation for life in the middle of the food chain.

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