Bike Touring and Riding Defensively

Picture of riding from the driver's seat

It was a lovely, crisp and sunny, winter day and I thought I would get out on the bike. Hoping to get some inspiration for a blog post it came in an unexpected way:

 

There are two occupants in the grey Honda Element and as they drive past me the passenger shrieks some sort of primal scream. I don’t think it is meant as encouragement to me. I don’t think I did anything to irritate these people, but maybe I did. Maybe I forced them to slow down or maybe they thought I was taking up too much of the road. Maybe they don’t like the way I look. Maybe their brains are scrambled from too much TV. Contravening my own guidelines, I take one hand off the handlebars and give them the universal sign indicating I think they are number one. Up ahead, impeding upon their forward progress is a stop sign, and seeing them slow down I increase my pedaling cadence in the hopes of overtaking them in order to assess the source of their obvious displeasure with me riding my bicycle. Briefly I wonder what I would do if I overtake them. Will I need some protection? What about the frame pump? Oh yes, I think, I have a can of pepper spray in my bag. Emboldened by that realization, a couple miles later, when they overtake me again, and the passenger issues forth with another similar greeting, I respond in kind and suggest they stop in order to discuss our grievances in a civilized manner. They don’t stop. By that time I have the pepper spray strapped to my hand and if they do stop and the conversation is less than civilized, at least we will have some entertainment. This is a scenario I have played over in my head ever since Juan Butler knocked me the fuck out after a similar altercation a few years ago. Since the pepper spray would only temporarily disable my assailant(s) I would need to grab the car keys and take them with me….otherwise I would be like a sitting duck on the bike once the driver recovered.

Pepper spray at the ready

Pepper spray strapped to the wrist

The pepper spray attached to the wrist….easier to ride this way and still prepared.

I have ridden my bike through two dozen of these United States. So far I would have to say that Texas is my favorite place to tour on a bicycle. The shoulders are broad and the drivers are courteous. Many people stop to see if you are OK or if you need anything or just to shoot the breeze, and sometimes to offer a place to stay. Me and Gary P. Nunn are down with Texas;
the friendliest people and the prettiest women you’ll ever see“.

I would have to say that the state I’ve called home for the last two and a half decades is my least favorite place to ride a bike. In fairness to Idaho I’ve spent many more hours on the road here than any other state but over the years, having motorists yell at me has been the least of my worries. I have had plastic liter bottles and water balloons hurled at me from moving vehicles. And it was here, in Boise, that the aforementioned individual stopped his car and physically assaulted me. The only other occurrence that comes close was in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee when a car drove up behind me so stealthily I didn’t even hear it and the passenger tapped me on the butt as they slowly drove past. I think Clem was just trying to be friendly though so I can’t even get mad about that.

Now, far be it from me to agitate the already turbid waters of motorist/cyclist relationships. I do not advocate for any sort of reaction or retaliation for alleged wrongs of either party. I don’t place any blame nor do I hold out much hope for advocacy to change behaviors. I just want to ride the bike. I always ride defensively and I go out of my way to avoid confrontations with automobile drivers. But I will not let some confused, angry and ignorant people keep me from doing what I enjoy. Ignoring the fact that there are simple minded, people who are frightened, stressed out, hurried, bored and over-stimulated all at the same time, while behind the wheel of a car, is not wise either.

I also want to make it clear that, in my experience, drivers are much more courteous to riders in normal-ish clothing and with racks and bags on the bike than to riders dressed in racing strip. I have NEVER been harassed by motorists when touring, in fact the opposite is true- people are generally curious and very friendly…..or else they just ignore you because they think you are a little bit crazy.

The tactical flashlight as a means of self defense was meant as sort of a joke but if our goal is “Empowering the Bicycle Traveler” I feel I would be derelict not to address the very small chance of needing to defend oneself. I bought my pepper spray at the local Cop Shop and it is set to shoot a stream of spray. Pepper spray is legal in all 50 states but I don’t claim to know all the details of the legality of its use. I assume that in a legitimate self defense situation a person would be justified in using it. I also assume that simply riding up to a stopped car and spraying the person who just yelled at you would probably not be cool.

I don’t understand why we are so mean to each other. We get to drive our cars and go out on our bikes but we are still not satisfied. We feel the urge to fight with each other and mark our territory. Human nature I guess. Unfortunate, but I think one needs to be realistic.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Pondero February 16, 2013, 6:41 am

    I’ve had most of the negative things you’ve described occur to me in Texas, but as I recall, most were in Houston suburban areas. One was in downtown Corpus Christi. Up here in rural north Texas, I’ve had a couple of minor encounters, but 99% have been positive. I get a lot of friendly waves.

    Reply
  • Marc Whitehead March 14, 2013, 7:57 am

    I really like the strap that you use to attach your pepper spray to your wrist. I’ve always found it awkward to hold my pepper spray and ride in anticipation of approaching dogs, etc. I’m putting a strap on my spray, but still hoping I don’t have to use it. Thanks!

    Reply
  • david reuteler March 17, 2013, 8:09 pm

    jim.. you live in idaho, hide the pepper spray. if they see it they’ll know you’re not packing.

    Reply
  • Bike Hermit March 18, 2013, 7:25 am

    Good point David.

    Reply

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