Bike Issue: Can’t we all just get along?!?

Rider vs. driver: the duel that is … and doesn’t have to be

Photo By Tina Flynn

Che Garcia is the type of bicycle advocate drivers hate and cyclists wish would walk. The 21-year-old Chico State senior does more than just shirk the law by trading a helmet for an iPod full of punk rock. As a de facto organizer of the monthly Critical Mass, Garcia sees to it the rules are properly stretched, and broken.

“It’s a social gathering for cyclists and people like it for different reasons,” Garcia explained. “The drivers hate it, but they’re our roads, too, so fuck ’em….

“Some bikers have etiquette, some don’t,” he said with a laugh. “Drivers are the same way. We’re all people. But when I go ride in Chico, I feel like I’m suiting up for a war.”

The relationship between motorists and cyclists is a delicate house of cards. Look closely at the foundation, and where there ought to be footings of respect and humility, we often find entitlement and pride. Sharing space and time is difficult for everyone, but few everyday encounters leave such an impression in the wallet, upon the mind and across the body, than misunderstanding that cyclist or ignoring the driver.

While practicing safety and respect on the road is a lifestyle choice for most, Pete Hollingsworth and Karen Goodwin have made responsible commuting a voluntary career.

To support the Butte County Bicycle Coalition’s BikeChico! Week, the couple (founding members of the coalition) have been offering their time as bicycle-safety instructors, training college students to be leaders in smart cycling. Riding their talk, they commute the streets of Chico with knowledge honed through 30 years of learning to get along with automobiles.

“It can be challenging,” Goodwin said. “Mangrove is not a street I would send anyone down. I want four feet between myself and a car, and most places that’s not possible.”

With roads designed for heavy traffic and laws designed to keep vehicles safe from vehicles, little is left for a cyclist. “Often it’s just safer to be in the lane,” she explained. “If the lane is not wide enough to fit both a bike and a car, you must take the lane.”

And it is here that the car/bicycle relationship begins to break down. When the laws written for motorists become unreasonable for a cyclist, a personal interpretation of the rules begins. It is here the animosity begins—and where responsibility eventually meets rebellion.

“If it were the other way around, drivers would go nuts,” said Garcia, rolling up his pant leg. “I like seeing someone [on a bike] take the lane. It’s yours, take that lane.

“It’s the same with intersections…. I’ll stall, but I never put my foot down. And if there are no cars, I roll it.”

Crossing Cypress and Pine streets, Hollingsworth performs the by-the-book routine of looking left, right and left again (remember: these are one-way streets) before proceeding with the group. “For a cyclist,” he explained, “stopping completely at each stop is like a driver shutting off their engine at every stop sign. If you consider all the energy and momentum a takes from a cyclist to act like a car, it’s pretty funny.”

It could be rolling though signs or speeding 10 miles over the limit—when interpretation turns to assumption, and making assumptions becomes routine, routine gets risky.

Steve Dennis knows both sides of risk and assumptions. Both Dennis and his wife were brushed from behind by a truck while trying to cross the Skyway’s double lane on their tandem bike. After recovering from multiple injuries, the couple’s relationship with bicycles and speed is forever changed.

“We are not taught that we can take our foot off the gas; slowing down to enhance safety is not in our psyche,” Dennis said. “Drivers get the feeling, ‘I own this road, I own this speed and I own this space, so why should my right be abridged by anyone?’ ”

Dennis, once a recreational cyclist with a five-days-a-week routine, now chooses to race where cyclists are visible and respected as a pack.

“People get into cars and they get in a hurry,” he said. “I used to hurry, but now I now have a voice in my head that says, ‘Bullshit, you’re not in a hurry.’

“People rode around on horseback for thousands of years. I don’t need to endanger someone because I feel anxious.”

In the end, sharing a roadway requires responsibility—abiding by the rule of law while communicating in gestures with strangers with strange emotions.

Sometimes, people just get along with a smile.

Bridgett Murphy is reaching her 50s. She lives in Concow, drives into Chico and rides her Specialized mountain bike through town to avoid local traffic.

With her silver and black hair tucked beneath her helmet, she described a favorite memory of cycling with traffic:

“I was at the intersection of 20th and Forest. I was waiting at a bicycle sensor, and a young fella in a truck pulls up beside me. His music was real loud, and we waited there at the light. I just looked at him and smiled, saying to myself: ‘I think you can do this, too.’ ”